FALL ON ROCK, FAILURE TO BACKUP ASCENDERS
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Tangerine Trip
On September 8, Jeff Cabral (33) fell to his death while following the fifth pitch of Tangerine Trip (Grade VI, 5.8 A2/C3) on the Southeast Face of El
Capitan. At least four other people have died while cleaning aid pitches on El Cap, and Jeff’s death echoed that of Carol Moyer on this same route in 1983. We will never know exactly what caused Jeff’s fatal fall, but like most other jugging accidents we know that it could have been easily prevented.
On Tuesday the 7th, Jeff and his two partners, Chris Lamme (30) and Nick Tyler (30), fixed the first four pitches of the route and spent the night on the ground. Early Wednesday morning the team jugged to their high point, planning to finish the route in four or five days. While Jeff and Nick hauled their bags up from the base of the wall, Chris began rope-soloing the fifth pitch. This pitch follows a steep crack system up and left above a roof, traverses about fifty feet over its 160-foot length, and overhangs slightly from start to finish. After Chris finished leading, Nick lowered out from the belay and jugged up a free hanging tag line to join him. Jeff then released the haul bag from the belay and began cleaning the pitch while the pair above hauled.
According to Chris and Nick, Jeff was quite frustrated while cleaning the pitch, but given its steep angle, this wasn’t much of a surprise. Anyone who has cleaned a traversing aid pitch knows the process can be tedious and exasperating. Despite his frustration, Jeff moved up the pitch steadily without asking for help or advice from his partners above. When he was about thirty feet from the top anchor, both Chris and Nick heard what sounded like a piece “popping” (unexpectedly pulling out of the crack). Chris was looking down at Jeff at the time (though he couldn’t see Jeff’s gear or ascenders) and saw him swing awkwardly left before starting to fall. Chris watched Jeff “slide” down the rope and “pause,” or jerk, near its end before falling free of the rope and continuing to the ground five hundred feet below.
The majority of their rack fell with Jeff, and after witnessing his fall, Chris and Nick were not confident they could safely retreat down the overhanging route. They spent that night on the wall and were assisted to the ground by Yosemite’s rescue team the following morning.
Somehow both of Jeff’s ascenders came off the rope. He was either not backed up to that rope or his backup method failed. He was using a relatively new set of Petzl ascenders with adjustable daisies and each of his ascenders appeared to be in working order after the accident. When they were found, Jeff’s right ascender was locked open and the left one was closed; that is, the cam was engaged as it would be when fixed on a rope. One locking carabiner (locked) was attached to his belay loop, and a Grigri self-belay device was clipped to the strap connecting his two leg loops. Like his ascenders, this Grigri was in fine working order after Jeff’s fall, and based on a variety of factors it was likely never attached to the line Jeff was ascending.
After the accident, the rope Jeff had been ascending ran from the top anchor down through a number of pieces before hanging free in space. A figure eight on a bight was tied about 25 feet from its lower end as one might tie to “clip in short” while cleaning an aid pitch. This knot was deformed, having clearly taken a strong impact, but it was not deformed as one would expect had it been pulled from the “bight” side. Rather, it appeared Jeff had slid down the rope and hit the knot, thereby tightening it (as well as tightening the clove hitch anchoring that rope above) without pulling on the actual bight.
Before attempting Tangerine Trip Jeff climbed the Prow on Washington Column, routes in Zion, and various other moderate aid lines (though it’s unclear how experienced he was at cleaning traverses). According to his partners, Jeff knew to tie into the lead-line when cleaning an aid pitch. The carabiner on his belay loop along with the figure-eight knot in the rope suggest that he at least intended to back himself up. Something did keep Jeff “attached” to the lead line as he slid down its length (possibly a snarled daisy chain or a carabiner clipped in an unusual arrangement), but whatever this attachment, it was not enough to stop his fall.
Many different scenarios could have caused Jeff’s fall, and exactly how his ascenders came off the line will remain a mystery. Cleaning a traversing aid pitch is an awkward process and it’s easy to accidentally cross weight or tweak ascenders in the balancing act. The slight shock caused by a piece popping might have loaded his system in an unusual way, or Jeff may have intentionally removed one or even both ascenders to lower out or otherwise pass an awkward placement. Regardless, the lesson remains the same: If Jeff had tied or clipped in effectively to the lead line below his ascenders, he would have been caught.
All climbers bend rules occasionally, but backing yourself up while cleaning a traverse is one rule that should hold fast. Tying into the end of the lead line is a good habit (one that might have saved Jeff’s life on this overhanging route), but this “if all else fails” backup leaves room for disaster in a long fall. In 1980 Walter Bertsch fell a full rope-length while jugging on Magic Mushroom and died, despite being caught by his lead-line. The essential precaution is to tie in short as you move up the pitch, especially if the pitch is traversing or awkward. Tie a figure-eight knot on a bight just below you on the lead-line and clip it to a locking carabiner on your harness (as Jeff may have intended). As you ascend, periodically tie a new knot in the rope and clip it to another locker before unclipping the previous one. The more frequently you clip in, the shorter your potential fall.
It’s also possible to back up ascenders with a self-belay device (as Jeff might have intended to do with his Grigri). When used correctly, these tools can provide a convenient and effective backup. Be careful though, as some devices can damage or even cut a climbing rope under the force of a fall. The bottom line: Don’t trust your life to ascenders alone. Before leaving the ground, decide on a backup method, practice it, and stick to it once you’re on the wall. With a little experience, it won’t slow you down, and it might save your life. (Source: Lincoln Else, Yosemite Climbing Ranger)