American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rappel Error—Ropes Uneven, Fall on Rock, California, Yosemite National Park, Arch Rock

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2007

RAPPEL ERROR-ROPES UNEVEN, FALL ON ROCK

California, Yosemite National Park, Arch Rock

On June 9, Megan Polk, (27) and Brian O’Day hiked up to Anticipation, a short 5.11b climb at Arch Rock. They climbed the initial 5.9 pitch (about 50 feet) to a small ledge and set up an anchor at the start of the 90-foot 5.11 pitch, a few feet left of the rappel anchors that lead back to the ground.

O’Day led the 5.11 pitch with a 70-meter rope. Polk followed and they rapped back to the start of the pitch. Then O’Day top-roped the pitch, returned to the ledge, and then Polk top-roped it. At the top she clipped to the anchor, untied from the rope, fed it through the rappel anchor, and set up her rappel. As she started down, she noticed over her shoulder what seemed like a lot of rope piled on the ledge below. This raised the possibility that she might not have pulled enough rope through the anchor for both ends to reach the ledge, but it was only a brief thought. She could see the anchor below and feels that perhaps she was fooled by her depth perception as she looked straight down along the wall.

At the bottom of the pitch, O’Day was adjusting their belay anchor in preparation for descending to the ground when he looked up and saw that one end of Polk’s rope was about five feet short of the ledge. He shouted to her, but by that time she was so close that it was too late. She rapped off the short end and fell free, 50 feet down the 5.9-pitch below. The rope trailed behind her as the short end pulled through the her rappel anchor, but she fell virtually unrestrained and slammed into the sloping ground at the base, bounced twice, and skidded to a stop, unconscious.

Luckily the end of the rope caught in hardware at O’Day’s ledge as it fell past him. He was able to reach it and rappel to Polk. By the time he got to her, she had regained consciousness but was in severe pain and went in and out of consciousness over the next 30 minutes. O’Day immediately ran down to the park entrance station at the base of the talus and phoned for help.

Rescuers began arriving within 20 minutes of the call. They stabilized Polk, short-hauled her from the scene with the park helicopter, and transferred her to an air ambulance for the trip to a trauma center in Modesto. Polk was diagnosed with 12 fractured vertebrae, bilateral scapula fractures, several fractured ribs, three pelvic fractures, a lacerated liver, a ruptured renal artery, and blood in her lungs from pulmonary contusions. She has recovered almost completely and is climbing hard again, but she suffers various residual pains and her left kidney no longer functions. She has no memory of the events from starting her rappel to waking up on the ground. (Source: Keith Lober and John Dill, NPS Rangers)

Analysis

Megan Polk had been climbing about four years and had led trad 5.11b routes. Her partner was experienced enough to lead this 5.11b climb. Both were experienced enough to know about proper rappel set-ups.

In an interview, Polk stated that she seldom ties stopper knots in the ends of rappel ropes. In this case, she also chose not to use an autoblock system. Many climbers will forego this because the situation seems so “simple.”

The 70-meter rope was more than long enough. Polk was responsible for verifying that both ends reached the belay, first by asking O’Day, second by checking during the descent. We are also reminded that partners should check each other’s rigging whenever possible. Unfortunately, her memory of what she thought and did (or didn’t do) on the rest of the rappel was wiped out by the blow to her head.

It’s obvious that Polk was extremely lucky, given her injuries and the fact that she was not wearing a helmet. The steep dirt/rock slope may have helped cushion the blow, but one rock in the wrong place could have killed her. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, and Jed Williamson)

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