American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Fall on Rock—Rappel Error—No Backup System, Arkansas, Buffalo National River Wilderness Area, Hawksbill Crag

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008


Arkansas, Buffalo National River Wilderness Area, Hawksbill Crag

On the afternoon of August 25th, a 20-year-old woman was rappelling off a 100-foot bluff near Hawksbill Craig, also known as Whitaker Point, in the Forest Service’s Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area. On the way down the bluff, she apparently struck a tree branch, causing her to let her brake hand go. She did not have a belay system in place and fell approximately 30 feet before landing.

Bystanders and members of her group began to assist with her injuries while another bystander hiked out in order to call for help. The Newton County Sheriff’s Office received the report and asked the park’s SAR team to respond. ALS ambulance, volunteer fire department, and med-evac helicopter personnel arrived first and immediately began hiking toward her location. Due to the steep, rugged and remote terrain, there was no radio communication with the responders hiking to her. NPS and USFS staff began arriving shortly thereafter and a unified command post was set up at the Hawksbill Craig trailhead. By the time NPS and USFS staff hiked to her reported location, she had been stabilized by EMS personnel and carried on a backboard up a break in the bluff line that did not require technical extrication. At the top of the bluff, she was placed in a wheeled litter provided by NPS responders and wheeled approximately three-quarters of a mile to the waiting ambulance. She was then transported to the med-evac helicopter staged in a nearby hayfield and airlifted to Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Her injuries were reported to include two fractured vertebrae and both pelvis and femur fractures. (Source: Lee Buschkowsky, Upper District Range)


A belay or an autoblock system is the standard protocol for protecting rappels. (Source: Jed Williamson)

(Editor’s Note: A website promoting Arkansas offers the following description of climbing: “The Ozarks of North America offer some of the best rock climbing in mid-America and the clean,uncrowded rock offers a lifetime of rock climbing and bouldering fun. Spend a glorious day in the Arkansas Ozarks learning the skills and techniques of the vertical world. Whether you are a beginner or an extreme rock climber,the 70-80foot sandstone climbs are perfect for learning or perfecting your skills..." As the above case illustrates, a better idea would be to learn basic skills before arriving.)

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