American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Fall on Rock—Lowering Error, Communication Problem, Utah, Big Cottonwood Canyon

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005


Utah, Big Cottonwood Canyon

On June 16, Doug Grennan (18) and eight friends were top-roping sport climbs in the upper S-Curves area of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Doug was climbing a 5.10 route on the right side of the buttress, most likely Urban Sprawl (10a). When Doug reached the chains, he clipped in and cleaned the draws, as no one else planned to climb the route. He untied, threaded the rope through the chains, and tied back in. At this point he was still on belay, but with lots of slack in the rope. His plan was to have his belayer lower him. Because of an overhang below him, he and the belayer had a hard time seeing or hearing each other. Doug leaned out for a better look and yelled, “Take.”

As he did, his feet slipped and he fell 60 feet to the ground, with the rope running through the belay device. He suffered a fractured sacrum, and bruised heels and sternum. Two friends ran to the road to call for a rescue. SAR team members immobilized Doug in a bean-bag vacuum splint and lowered him five pitches down and across scree fields to the trail. Once at the road, he was transported to the hospital by ground ambulance.


Even with lots of slack in the rope, an attentive belayer should be able to catch a top-rope fall without any difficulty. The problem is that in this situation, where the climber re-rigs at the top of the route, the belayer may stop paying close attention, since a fall is not expected.

The belayer was using an ATC, which is a fairly low-friction belay device. Once the rope starts sliding quickly, there is almost no way to stop the moving rope.

Communication problems between climber and belayer produce an accident in our area every few years. Doug could have minimized the need for communication by rappelling down instead of being lowered. This is also a better choice for preserving the chains at the top of the route. (Tom Moyer, Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue)

(Editor’s Note: There was another Utah rappel/lowering incident reported in which the climber failed to tie his webbing sling properly. The knot came undone when weighted and he fell 30 feet to the ground, sustaining only bruises!)

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