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Fall on Rock, Rappel Error—Rappelling Too Fast, Inexperience, North Carolina, Great Smokey Mountain National Park


North Carolina, Great Smokey Mountain National Park

Around 2:30 p.m. on July 25, Adam Holenberg (23) was rappelling from a cliff above Rainbow Falls in the Cherokee Orchard area when he fell approximately 30 feet, sustaining serious injuries. Holenberg had hiked three miles in to the falls, scrambled to the top, then solo rappelled down the face of the 80-foot-high cliff. He was using a very small (9 mm diameter) rope with an anchor and a figure-eight descending device. Witnesses said that he took very long bounds down the cliff, shock-loading the system, and that he was two-thirds of the way down the cliff when the rope severed and he fell about 30 feet to the boulder field at the bottom of the cliff. Bystanders called via cell phone for assistance.

Rangers arrived on scene by 5:00 p.m. Park medics stabilized Holen- berg and the rescue team conducted a semi-technical rescue operation to remove him from the boulder field and get him down to the trail surface. He was then evacuated by wheeled litter to an ambulance at the trailhead, transferred to a medical helicopter, and flown to the UT Medical Center in Knoxville. Holenberg suffered a fractured femur, fractured vertebra in the lower back, and a fractured wrist.


The investigation revealed that the rope was military surplus Kevlar material and that there was a melted/frayed cut where it crossed over a sharp rock edge during Holenberg’s rappel.

There is no indication that the victim was an experienced or even a novice climber. Each year we report on rappelling incidents such as this in hopes that the word will get out regarding proper technique for rappelling—even for those who only want to engage in this aspect of the sport of climbing. (Sources: Rick Brown, District Ranger, and Jed Williamson)