FALL ON ROCK–BELAY FAILURE, NO STOPPER KNOT, MISSED CLUES, INATTENTION, NO HARD HAT
California, Yosemite Valley National Park, Church Bowl
On October 12, Adam (31), Jason (57) and his son Colby (20) were climbing one-pitch routes at the Church Bowl climbing area using a 70m (230-foot) rope. Adam consulted the SuperTopo guide for route data and they picked out climbs as they went along.
Adam belayed from the ground as Colby led Church Bowl Lieback (5.8). Colby built the top anchor, then Adam lowered him. As Colby reached the ground, Adam recalls, “I looked down at the belay rope and said, ‘Oh, that’s close! The end’s right there.’ It was hard to tell because of rope stretch, but we had only a few feet left—really close. However, the end was tied to the rope bag, so it wouldn’t have gone through my GriGri.”
After Adam and Jason had each top-roped Lieback and been lowered, they pulled the rope, leaving the anchor in place at the top. Then Colby led Pole Position (5.10), a few feet to the right of Lieback. Instead of climbing to the top of Pole Position, he finished the crux, then set up the top-rope by clipping the rope through a directional bolt on Pole Position and using the original Lieback anchor a few feet to the left. Because of the directional, the top-rope on Pole Position required more rope than Lieback had but less than if Colby had climbed the fall 130 feet of Pole Position.
Adam lowered Colby through the directional. “We had less rope left when Colby reached the ground than on Lieback—just enough to control the GriGri as the next climber started up,” he says. Adam climbed Pole Position next as Jason belayed, then Jason climbed as Colby belayed.
Meanwhile, they had noticed Revival, another 130-foot, 5.10 pitch about 20 feet right of Pole Position. Lunchtime wasn’t far off, so rather than lead Revival, they decided that Jason would move the top-rope over when he climbed Pole Position.
After finishing Pole Position, Jason took the rope and the rigging from the Lieback anchor and scrambled several feet right and about ten feet higher to the top of Revival. He rigged an anchor in a cluster of small trees a few feet back from the edge. At the same time, Adam and Colby moved to the base of Revival—down right and about five feet lower than the base of Pole Position. The climbers at top and bottom did not have a clear view of the terrain at the other end of the pitch. A couple of trees growing out of the cliff blocked them from merely flipping the rope over to Revival, so Adam untied it from the bag and Jason, still on top, pulled it up. He clipped it through the anchor, tied himself to one end, and tossed the other end down on the other side of the trees. Adam flaked it out on the bag, rigged it through his GriGri and got ready to lower Jason.
Just before starting down, Jason remembers, “It had crossed my mind that we might have added to the rope requirement, so I yelled down, ‘Do we have enough rope?’ and Adam said something to the effect of ‘I think so’, or ‘I’m pretty sure.’ Communications were pretty sketchy because of the wind.” [At the time of the interviews, four months later, Adam and Colby did not recall this exchange.]
Adam: “So now I was lowering Jason. My right hand was on the rope, which was all flaked out on the bag, and my left hand was controlling the lever of the GriGri. Colby was standing right behind me. We were joking around, having a great day.
“Jason had descended until he was about 30 feet above us, with his feet approaching a little ledge. I was focusing on him to keep him from tripping over the ledge. Suddenly I felt the ‘zoom’ as the end of the rope went through my hand. I had no chance to control it. As Jason fell, his feet hit the ledge and he flipped upside down, headfirst. He was not wearing a helmet.
“I was not anchored, and when I saw him falling, just on a gut reaction, I ran and dove at him, figuring I had to keep him from hitting the ground as hard as he was going to. I thought maybe I could catch him—one of those adrenalin rushes. We collided in mid-air, shoulder-to-shoulder, I think. He spun in the air, going from head down to sideways. There’s one little spot right beneath the climb that doesn’t have a sharp rock in it, about the size of a person in a fetal position, where you could land and not be crushed by sharp rocks. That’s where he landed, on his side. He knocked me senseless for a second because we hit pretty hard, but he was knocked unconscious.
“Colby came running over and since Jason wasn’t moving at all, we thought he was dead. In 20-30 seconds he came to, with no memory of what had happened.”
Church Bowl is 200 yards from the Yosemite Clinic. A nearby climber called 911 by cellphone. Jason was surrounded by rangers and the ambulance crew in minutes. Low cloud cover prevented evacuation by medical helicopter, so he was taken by ground ambulance to a hospital in Modesto, three hours away. He had suffered a broken hip, but luckily his head injury was minor and there were no other significant injuries.
As the story unfolded, how many clues did you spot? Did your mind’s eye glance down to see if the rope had been retied to the bag?
They misjudged the length of the climb, did not re-tie a knot in the end of the rope, and did not watch the rope end. They also did not communicate their thoughts effectively. Adam agrees that he was ultimately responsible for the accident: “Nobody is kicking himself over this more than I am. I’ve taught climbing safety to students. How could I not foresee this? It was such a horrible experience for me that I’m willing to talk about it anytime for its educational value.”
We see similar incidents in Yosemite every two or three years and those are just the ones we know about. Furthermore, Jason, Colby, and Adam each have several years of experience at top-roping, lead climbing, and rigging and they all climb at a high standard. As Adam says about himself, “Dumb things happen to experienced climbers.”
The topo: Revival is shown as 130 feet long and ending higher on the cliff than Lieback. Guidebooks are sometimes wrong, but this should have been a warning. Apparently no one studied the guide closely enough to notice. All three climbers belayed at least once. Jason says, “I remember...not
having a lot of rope left [when belaying on Pole Position], which should have been a clue to me, to all of us.”
Adam said, “When I looked at the scene later, it was obvious that we had walked to a lower position [below the Revival belay point], but prior to the accident, we were having a great time and simply didn’t notice. When we said, ‘just move [the rope] over,’ I can’t remember looking or thinking that Jason had moved up. Afterward, when I looked up at the cliff...it was quite obvious that there is an elevation gain in the routes on the right.”
For a top-rope, 15 feet of added pitch-length needs 30 feet more of rope. Check the math: Does your rope have a mid-mark? Is it easy to see? Is the mid-mark off the ground when the climber tops out?
Despite knowing the rope was short on Lieback and Pole Position, they didn’t seem to keep the conversation going. Jason called down to ask about the rope-length for Revival but, perhaps hampered by wind and traffic noise, he did not make sure that Adam knew why the anchor was higher. Colby said, “I knew that [Revival] was longer but I didn’t think it was too long for the rope. And I don’t think anyone talked about it.”
Adam said, “In retrospect, we all have to be willing to communicate and check each other. Little things like, ‘Hey Colby, I’m watching Jason right now, can you keep an eye on the rope end for me?”’
Jason added, “Never take anything for granted. You can’t assume that everyone’s doing his job. I’ll climb with people who will check my knots, etc., and sometimes I’ll think, ‘That’s kind of silly, I’ve done it so many times’, but no, you should check and double-check.”
The topo effect? Adam: “I don’t want to blame it on this, because we should have seen the problem ourselves but I think that when we saw ‘top- rope’ [in the guide], our minds just shifted to, ‘OK, the guide says do top- rope, we’ll do top-rope, and we’ll be fine.’”
All three climbers are very strict about knotting or tying off rappel and lead lines, but there was never a conscious effort to knot the top-rope at Church Bowl. It just happened to be packaged that way. One reason for an end-knot even when the rope clearly reaches the ground is to maintain good habits so you don’t forget or get lazy when a knot really counts—or when you’re having too much fun to notice the clues.
Despite his major mistake with the belay, Adam’s fast response in braking Jason’s fall may have averted a fatality. (Source: Edited slightly from a report by John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)