Rappel Error—Incorrect Set Up at Anchor, Haste, Failure to Check System, Deviation from Routine, Distraction

North Carolina, Table Rock Mountain, The North Ridge
Climb Year: 2006. Publication Year: 2007.

Around 2:30 p.m. on May 27th, Donald Gallo (39), Somsanouck Gallo (40), along with a friend, M. E., set out to climb The North Ridge, a 5.5 trad route on Table Rock. The three had arrived the night before and this was the first route of the holiday weekend. The area was busy, since much of the mountain was closed to climbing during the falcons’ nesting season. A second group, with two adults, P.M., E.W., and three children, had earlier set up a top-rope, anchored at the end of The North Ridge’s first pitch, about 130 feet into the climb. A third group arrived, C.T. & K.T., and after speaking to M.E., they decided to climb a nearby route, White Lightning. This third group reported a sense of frustration about how long the second group had been top-roping this trad route.

The decision was made that Donnie, Som, and M.E. could safely lead The North Ridge, while the top-roping continued. Donnie led the first pitch. He then belayed Som up to the ledge. Before M. E. cleaned the route, a man from the second group, P M., climbed to the anchors on his top-rope. M.E. then cleaned the route. There were now four people on the ledge.

It was somewhat cooler and windy on the ledge compared to the base. Som was cold and wanted to get down to get her jacket and warm up. The fixed anchors on the ledge consisted of three pitons with static line, equalized to a master point. Concern was raised as to the safety of rapping down on just these points. P.M. offered to let Donnie, Som, and M. E. rappel off of his top-rope anchor, which was already set up. Everyone agreed. Donnie backed up the three pitons with a cam. While Donnie and P.M. were setting up the rappel off of the pitons, Som and M.E., along with P.M. whose anchor it was, were preparing the rappel from the top-rope anchor. While all of this was happening, the leader from the third group, K.T., had arrived at the ledge and was bringing up his second, C.T. Several people on the ledge mentioned later that there was a lot of talking, “chatting about whatever.” It was very distracting, but no one said anything about it at the time.

What exactly happened next is in dispute. We know that the two ropes were tied together in order to make the long rappel to the ground. Either M.E. handed the ropes, already tied, to P.M. who placed them in the carabin- ers, or P.M. passed one rope through the carabiners to M.E. who removed the rope from the carabiner, tied them together, and then placed them in the carabiners. Either way, the ropes were placed into the carabiners. Donnie tossed the ropes over the edge. They caught on a ledge below. Usually Donnie would have pulled them up and tossed them again, but he figured Som could just toss them over when she got there.

Som put the ropes through her ATC and attached them to her harness with a locking carabiner. She asked that another locking carabiner be placed into the master point. (There was an unused locker hanging nearby). It was placed into the system, next to the other carabiners. Donnie now believes that Som thought there was something not right about the anchor, but wasn’t sure what it was. While she was an experienced climber, she relied on help from more experienced climbers to set-up the ropes and to double-check her.

M.E. checked the carabiners and made sure they were locked. M.E. offered Som an autoblock, but she declined, saying she never used one. Som unclipped her safety line. M.E. stopped her and had her re-clip and test the set-up before rappelling. She re-clipped and weighted the ropes. Everything seemed fine. She unclipped her safety line and began her rappel.

Som descended, first walking backwards and feeding out rope down a long slab. She then bounced on the ropes trying to feed them through the ATC. When she got to the end of the first slab and weighted the rope fully, there was a “pop” sound. Som went over backwards, hit her back on the slab below, slid down the slab and over the edge. The entire rope followed her.

In the chaos that followed, great attempts were made by climbers on the ledge to keep everyone safe and get them down as quickly as possible. Donnie descended first, followed by M.E., P.M., C.T., and after pulling the last of the gear, K.T. descended on the three pitons.

E.W. was on the ground with his kids when the accident occurred. He ran over to Som and held her. She was not breathing and had no pulse. When Donnie arrived, he began CPR, but to no avail. Climbers at the bottom called 911, and nearby Boy Scouts ran to the parking area to meet them. Checks of Som’s equipment revealed no problems. Her harness, rappel device, and ropes were all connected correctly. She was wearing a helmet. Analysis

The rappel rope was set up incorrectly and the mistake was not caught when checking the system prior to rappel. After the two ropes were tied together using an overhand knot with 18-inch tail, they were improperly placed in the anchor system. We believe that both ropes were placed in the carabiners together with the knot and tail on one side of the anchor carabiners and both ropes coming out of the other side. The ropes were therefore never actually connected to the anchor system. Som was very cold and anxious to get down. This was clearly a factor in her ability to properly assess the system set-up.

When the system was checked, the locking carabiners were pinched and then locked. Som weighted the system and it held her. Now if the carabiners are locked and when weighting the rope it holds you, you would think all is well and proceed on rappel. However, Som was standing on a slab and weighed only about 85 pounds. Therefore, only a small amount of weight was actually placed on the system during this crucial check. The checks that were completed were typical checks on a system prior to rappel. Som proceeded on rappel and when her full weight came on the system at the edge of the slab, the knot pulled through the carabiners and released the ropes she was rappelling on.

There were four people involved in the rappel set-up. All were experienced climbers, including Som. There was no single person in charge or second person responsible for checking the work of the first. M.E. thought she was just checking P.M.’s set up since he was there before her, and it was his top-rope anchor. P.M. thought M.E. was setting everything up the way she wanted and didn’t have the chance to check the system before Som began her rappel. Donnie didn’t feel right about the whole anchor situation, but didn’t say anything about. He focused his attention to backing up the pitons and setting up the second rappel. There were two climbers between him and Som. The activity level on the ledge was high. There was a lot of talking about the gear as well as general chatting. This was very distracting and most of the climbers on the ledge believe this to be a very important factor contributing to the accident.

In addition, the safety routine established by Donnie and Som, which was always followed, was not followed on this day. As a rule, a heavier climber always went first and Som rappelled after in case she needed assistance. She went first on this day. As a rule, Donnie always set up the rappel and double-checked the system before anyone went anywhere. On this day, other experienced climbers took that responsibility.

The error made when setting up the ropes was missed when checking the system. A critical visual inspection of the rope attachment should have revealed the misplaced lines. The long tail most likely contributed to the confusion, as it appeared to be set up correctly. In addition, a physical trace test was not performed. Physically touching and tracing the rope through the closed system would allow the climber to notice any part of the rope placement that was not where they wanted it. (Checking the anchor and harness can be done using a similar tracing method.)

Remember that everyone involved was an experienced climber. Mistakes can happen to anyone. Be careful. Check and double check each other thoroughly and retrace the system. Don’t rush. Limit distractions. Take care when altering your set routine. (Source: Jill Machniak-Gallagher.)