FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE ANCHOR, INADEQUATE COMMUNICATION
California, Yosemite Valley, Ranger Rock
On the morning of September 11, E (25), N (27), and L (26) set out to climb the popular Nutcracker route in Yosemite Valley (5.8, five pitches). All three climbers were comfortable leading traditional routes at this level, and they reached the top of the third pitch without any problems. The party was leading with two 9-mm ropes, belaying each follower separately.
After leading the third pitch, N established a three-piece anchor at a small sloping ledge. (For those who know the route, he chose to take the right-hand variation following the crack, instead of face-climbing to the small tree up and left.) After equalizing his anchor with webbing, N secured himself directly to the webbing’s “power-point” with a locking carabiner on his harness. Though not a true hanging belay, the angle of the wall was steep enough that he likely weighted the anchor at least partially. L then followed the pitch on the first rope and climbed slightly past N to a small ledge above and to his right. She was clipped to the anchor’s power point with a long runner and a locking carabiner, yet she was out of the way and in position to lead the next pitch. Then N belayed E up on the second rope.
When he arrived at the anchor, E positioned himself slightly below and left of N, securing himself to the power point with a locking carabiner on a runner girth-hitched to his harness. At this point all three climbers were clipped into the same power-point, each with a single locking carabiner. After some discussion they decided that E should untie from his rope and pass his end to L; she had the first rope already, but needed the second one in order to lead the next pitch on a pair. N could have untied from his end of the second rope, but it was stacked such that using E’s end would avoid a rope tangle. Before untying himself from the rope, E attached himself to the power point with a second locking carabiner on a second runner girth-hitched to his harness. Both L and N remember watching E clip this second runner to the anchor, and both heard his comment that he wanted a backup “just to be safe.”
Once she was ready to lead the next pitch, L asked N to put her on belay and to unclip her locking carabiner from the anchor. N used his left hand to keep L on belay, while he unclipped what he believed to be her locking carabiner with his right. The next thing both L and N remember is seeing E tumble 250 feet down the rock face to the ground.
As for the cause of this incident, it is apparent that something went wrong in one of the most basic climbing processes. The obvious questions are: Did N accidentally unclip E from the anchor? Even if he did, what happened to E’s second clip-in point? And why did E fall, at that same moment?
Many of us have become unclipped at anchors sometimes accidentally, and sometimes intentionally to “save time” and because it’s “only for a minute.” Regardless of the cause, this accident underscores the importance of backup attachment points, and also the importance of communication when climbing in a team: “Does my partner’s rigging—as well as my own—look OK? Does my partner know I’m unclipping one of my anchor points? Is this the right carabiner? Are we following the same plan?” The more people there are in a system, the more potential there is for confusion.
Accidents like this are more common than one might think. In Yosemite, up to 40 percent of all climbing fatalities over the last 30 years have been due to failures to maintain the integrity of the anchor chain, whether ascending a rope, rappelling or just waiting at the belay. (Source: Lincoln Else, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)
(Ediotor’s Note: The climbers wished not to have their names used.)