FALL ON ROCK-IMPROPER USE OF HARNESS (TIED INTO GEAR LOOP), INADEQUATE PROTECTION, INADEQUATE BELAY, INEXPERIENCED
Texas, Reimers Ranch County Park, Dead Cat's Wall
On November 18, three adults acting as guides took six teenagers on a church youth group trip to Reimers Ranch, a central Texas limestone sport climbing area popular for its concentration of moderate climbs. The group leader, Kyle Focht, had six years of climbing experience and had taken groups on similar outings in the past. Official guides to the area are somewhat unusual, and youth groups led by an experienced leader are a common sight at the park. The group climbed at a popular beginner’s wall known as Dead Cat’s, a 35-foot cliff that is frequently climbed and typically crowded. Climbing at Reimers Ranch is done in a canyon along the Pedernales River. Trail access is a steep trail through a limestone creek bed. Approaches at the park are quite short, but the trails are steep and varied.
As the day was winding down Emily Jackson (17) led a thirty-five foot 5.10 route called Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty has three bolts and a two-chain anchor system. She was belayed by another group leader, Jason Weaver (26), who had about a year of experience belaying. Jason chose to anchor himself to a tree with webbing as “an extra safety measure.” Emily had been climbing for about one year and had successfully cleaned this particular route several times. Prior to starting this climb, Emily was asked if she felt confident to clean the route. She said that she did and recited the process of cleaning to the group leader.
When Emily reached the top of the route, she prepared to clip directly into the anchors. On her harness were two 60-cm slings of one-inch webbing, one looped through her belay loop, the other clipped to a gear loop with two carabiners. Emily clipped into the chain with the carabiner that was attached to her gear loop rather than the one fixed through the waist of her harness. It is unclear whether Emily didn’t notice the error or if she believed it was safe. After clipping in with the single sling, Emily had her belayer test the weight. It held, and she came off belay and untied from the rope. The gear loop held for much of the cleaning process. When she prepared to retie into the rope, the gear loop broke, and Emily took a ground-fall.
The belayer, uncertain if she was tied back in yet, pulled the rope tight. He attempted to rush forward and guard her fall, but being anchored to the tree was not able to move. Emily landed feet first, bounced backward onto her tailbone, and continued to fall down the hill behind the trail. She came to a stop when she somersaulted into a boulder.
When Focht, Weber, and a woman who said she was a nurse came to her, Emily was unconscious for less than a minute. A member of the nurse’s group went to call 911. Emily was not moved. Focht and Weber checked vitals and spoke to her while they waited. EMS arrived, and Emily was lifted out by helicopter. During the rescue and attending commotion, the rest of the group was supervised and kept calm by the third group leader. Emily’s injuries included a broken right hand, a bruised lung, and scratches. Remarkably there was no head, neck, or back damage. She spent the night in a hospital in Austin.
Group climbing outings are common at parks such as Reimers Ranch, where easy approaches and moderate climbs draw beginners. These outings are often well supervised, fan, and educational. This accident was the result of several factors, mainly inexperience and a lack of knowledge about gear.
First, the climber in this instance did not follow the usual technique for anchoring directly to the wall. Most climbing instructors and manuals advise clipping into both sides of a typical chains and bolts anchor system. Redundancy is a key aspect of a safety system. The climber in this case made only one connection with the anchor.
Secondly, it is unclear what measure of safety was intended by anchoring this belayer to the tree. When a belay station is unstable or a belayer is significantly outweighed by the climber, anchoring while belaying on the ground is useful. In this instance, it may have impeded the belayer’s ability to react to the fall and possibly arrest the secondary fall that caused farther injury.
Both of these factors are matters of training, experience, and style. The climber in this instance had been trained to anchor at only one point.
The most important factor in this accident was knowledge of gear. Not all harnesses are created equal. There are several harnesses on the market whose gear loops are weighted to take a fall. It is not the typical design, however, and it is the climber’s responsibility to be familiar with their harness and rack their gear accordingly. Emily was using a MadRock Venus harness that had been purchased new two months earlier. The Venus’ belay loop is rated to take a 26kn, its haul loop is rated for 24kn. Both of these loops can take typical lead falls for several years before these limits are compromised. The gear loops of the Venus, however, are rated for 5kg, and not intended to hold weight beyond the standard load of gear.
It’s unclear what the intent of the extra sling on Emily’s harness was. For a simple sport climb like this, there would be no need to make a runner or use a sling as an extra long draw. Climbing partners of any experience level ought to check each other’s protection system and point out any extraneous, improperly racked, or conspicuously absent gear. Had Emily removed this extra sling altogether and only clipped into the anchor chains with the sling attached to her belay loop, she would have been secure at the anchor.
Additional Comments: Since 2004, the Central Texas Mountaineers climbing club in Austin has replaced chain-only anchors with sport anchors/ permanent clips on the more popular routes at Reimers Ranch. These sport anchors eliminate the need for a climber to untie and re-thread the rope to clean draws. Hello Kitty, although it is in the more popular part of the park, had not yet had sport anchors installed on it.
Cleaning a route is a common scenario for accidents, often resulting in more severe injuries than happened in this instance. But the wider use of sport-clips could both alleviate and exacerbate the problem. With sport anchors in place, climbers never disconnect from their belayer, and falls such as this will not occur. However, climbers who use only the sport anchor system will not learn proper cleaning technique for chain anchors and will not be comfortable with the procedure should they face it later on. As they advance to harder routes or travel to climb, they will encounter anchor systems that require them to disconnect from the rope and rely on a personal anchor system. Always be aware of what type of fixed gear is present on a route, and use verbal commands whenever possible to guide your partners through new skills and procedures. (Source: Ann Raber, Reimers Ranch Climbing Committee)