Rappel Failure—Accidental Manual Disengagement of Ascent Device, Inadequate Equipment, Climbing Alone, No Hard Hat, Arizona, Phoenix, Saguaro

Publication Year: 2005.


Arizona, Phoenix, Saguaro

On April 29, I (Jeff Gertsch, 26) was out in the middle of the desert at my climbing spot alone, ascending a fixed rope for the purpose of bolting a sport climbing route using a single Wild Country Ropeman. After ascent to the drill site at 20+ feet, I needed to drop down a foot to hammer the bolt, opened the manual disengage on the ascender, and descended fine, locked up the teeth on the ascender again. However, in reaching for the hammer, I did not realize my finger was still slightly in the disengage cord, and by the motion of reaching for the hammer, unloaded the teeth on the Ropeman (difficult to describe—sort of when you reach out to one side your other arm tends to reach the other way for stability), and began to fall—instandy realized what was happening and pulled my hand away, but I believe the teeth were tardy in grabbing the rope since I was using my new ice climbing rope (fairly slick). I awoke in my harness near the ground.

The ascender did catch and thus I had a rapid deceleration injury with some impact on the ground (not a free fall, however). I had a head injury and loss of consciousness, but released the harness and used a cell phone to call my spouse. She called 911 after I tried to stand but could not. Search and rescue was called and I was life-flighted from the scene.

I spent five days in the intensive care unit and ended up with seven vertebral transverse process fractures, a right pneumo/hemothorax, a fractured rib, an acromioclavicular separation grade II, and a head laceration with concussion and loss of consciousness. Lucky!!!


The biggest issue that would have prevented this was the use of a backup ascender, which I normally always do, but (swear to god) one of few times I had ever gotten lazy enough not to throw on another backup ascender, and so I paid for it. Other key issues, however, were not climbing with another person (I was alone on a day off and no friends were around) and not wearing a climbing helmet—especially as I was alone. (Source: Edited from a report written by Jeff Gertsch)