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Rappel Failure—Multiple Causes, Washington, Frenchman's Coulee

RAPPEL FAILURE–MULTIPLE CAUSES

Washington, Frenchman's Coulee

Around 2:00 p.m. on March 7, Robert Peruchini (41) and his partner, Ms. Teri Martin (52), climbed the traditional basalt pillar route known as “Pumping the Pigeon” (5.8) on Sunshine Wall at Frenchman’s Coulee, five miles east of Vantage. Peruchini led the climb; Martin seconded and cleaned the gear. They topped out and prepared a rappel from the chains on a pillar-top adjacent to the route. After passing the 10.5-mm, 220-foot-long Edelweiss rope through the fixed anchor chains, both climbers tossed a coil of rope over the side. Peruchini’s strand was on the west side of the rap station and Martin’s coil was tossed to the east side of the anchors. Pernchini tossed his coil first with Martin tossing her coil seconds later. The east (left) strand of rope fell or was blown by the wind into a notch between the anchor pillar and the adjacent pillar and was thus obstructed from fall view.

Peruchini then sat down facing outward with his legs straddling the anchor chains and prepared the rope for his rappel. Martin asked him, “Is it down?” Peruchini answered affirmatively. Peruchini may have seen the west strand of rope (to his right) piled up on the ground and mistook it for both strands and proceeded to rappel on the doubled rope. Unbeknownst to Peruchini, one side of the rope was lengthened, possibly due to the wind catching it, and the other side was shortened to about 12 feet. Peruchini rappelled on both strands for approximately 12 feet and then down off the short strand of the rope but grabbed it after it passed through his Black Diamond Standard ATC belay/rappel device.

Peruchini hung with both hands onto both ends for 30-40 seconds before calling to his partner, “Teri, help me! I’ve rapped off the end of my rope!” Martin, who was standing ten feet back from the cliff’s edge sorting gear, ran up, clipped herself into the anchors with a runner and peered over the edge of the pillar. She saw Peruchini hanging approximately 12 feet below her and told him to try to place his feet on a pillar top that she estimated to be six to 12 inches below his feet. He struggled for approximately 15 seconds and then lost his grip and fell 58 feet before striking a pillar top.

Witnesses reported seeing Peruchini strike the lower pillar feet first. He then cart-wheeled leftward another 20 feet down the boulders to the trail, breaking and losing his Black Diamond Half Dome helmet in the tumble and impacts. Peruchini then bounced and rolled off the narrow trail and dropped another 40 feet off the Lower Sunshine Wall (a.k.a. The Henhouse Wall) and slid 20 feet down the talus slope where he came to a stop.

Citizen first-aiders from the Spokane Mountaineers Club performed CPR for 45 minutes while awaiting paramedics to arrive on scene. Citizen first-aiders and a nurse performed all initial care. Care was handed over to Grant County Fire Department EMTs. Airlift operations were directed by two Tacoma Mountain Rescuers (TMRU) who were climbing nearby. They back-boarded Peruchini and rigged a lower system. They lowered him 100 feet and assisted loading him in the Army MAST basket litter. Patient care was given over to the MAST medic. Peruchini was transported by MAST a quarter mile to the parking lot where Grant County paramedics pronounced him dead and transported him by ambulance to the Grant County Coroner in Moses Lake.

Analysis

On Sunday, March 14, rescue personnel from Central Washington Mountain Rescue performed an investigation and reenactment of the rappel.

Several small but important factors contributed to this accident. Through interviews with the primary witness, Ms. Martin, secondary witnesses, climbing partners, and empirical observations, it was determined the following factors played a role in this accident.

Communication was poor between the climbers due to the wind-noise and proximity to one another.

The easterly wind may have moved the rope into the notch between pillars on the east thus hiding the end from view.

Peruchini was only able to see the west strand of rope safely on the ground. If the east strand of rope was in the notch it was invisible to him beyond eight feet.

The wind may have caused the rope to travel through the anchor chains resulting in one strand becoming substantially shorter than the other.

Peruchini had rock climbed three days in a row after a long layoff and was nursing a rotator cuff injury to his right shoulder. Fatigue may have played a part in his decision-making ability and observation acuity.

Fatigue and shoulder pain may have reduced his physical ability to hang by his hands from the ropes and/or regain a safe hold on the pillar.

(Source: Edited from a very thorough report primarily authored by Andrew P. Jenkins, PhD, WEMT, of the Central Washington Mountain Rescue Investigative Team)