FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION, CARABINER CAME OFF SLING, EXCEEDING ABILITIES
West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park, Beauty Mountain
On August 19, approximately twelve or fifteen feet up on a route called “Brainteasers” (5.10 a), CU (21) placed a medium-sized hex, which was attached to the rope via a standard length sling. About eight to ten feet higher, CU placed a medium sized nut in a thin vertical crack. It too was attached to the rope via a standard length sling. CU struggled about six to seven feet higher and placed a 0.75 cam in an upward flaring vertical crack. No more than one foot above this placement, CU became fatigued and casually yelled, “Falling,” to his belayer, RE (24). RE took in slack expecting to catch a small fall. Instead, CU fell approximately 30 feet and hit the ground, landing on his back.
CU was totally unresponsive for several minutes upon landing and appeared to be in extreme pain. Fearing the worst, RE called 911 and an intensive rescue took place. CU was evacuated from the cliff by stretcher and then airlifted to a hospital in Charleston, WV. He suffered a broken right scapula, several broken ribs, and a bruised lung. He was released from the hospital the next day.
All three placements had failed. The upper piece, the 0.75 cam, was poorly placed (as the crack flared upward). The impact of the fall deformed the cam. An examination of the damage to the cam after the fall showed that the downward lobes of the cam were actually over-cammed and the upper lobes were under-cammed. Because the upper lobes were not contracted, it is clear that the cam rotated out of the crack.
The second placement, the nut, was well placed and never left the crack during the fall. However, the lower carabiner that was attached to the sling (the same sling that was attached to the nut) somehow became disengaged from the rope and thus never caught the fall. The sling remained attached to the nut in the rock after the fall, although it was missing the bottom carabiner, which would normally have been attached to the rope.
An examination of the nut after the fall showed that it had never been fully weighted, as there were no scars or abrasions on it. (The nut was new and painted). Furthermore, the carabiners that attached the nut to the sling and the sling to the rope were wire-gate ‘biners with very stiff gates. Hence, “gate-flutter” was very unlikely. There were also no obvious corners or protrusions in the wall that could have forced the carabiner gate open to make it pop off of the sling. The sling was probably caught in the carabiner gate at the time of the fall and subsequently popped out of the ‘biner once the sling was weighted, causing the rope to become totally disengaged from the sling. This was entirely possible due to the fact the sling was a skinny “dyneema” type.
The first piece of protection, the hex, was poorly placed. It was capable of holding only one-directional force. It popped completely out of the rock during the fall, most likely when the belayer, RE, took in slack.
This route was probably a poor choice for CU. Earlier that day, he had some difficulty top-roping a climb of the same grade. CU had never trad- climbed a route harder than a 5.7 in his life. Furthermore, it had been more than a year since he had last led a climb using traditional protection. His experience with traditional climbing was limited. He has led fewer than 20 traditionally-protected pitches total since he first began climbing. As a result, CU struggled to place (and clip) reliable protection while on the climb.
Additionally, he climbed very little over the past year, so lacked the physical stamina necessary to complete such a climb. RE’s instincts told him that the idea of CU leading Brainteaser was a disaster waiting to happen. RE relayed these thoughts to CU many times before starting the climb.
Nevertheless, CU should not have hit the ground from this fall. His second placement was totally “bomber.” Neither he nor his belayer noticed that the sling was caught in the lower carabiner as he climbed (assuming that this was actually what happened). It was a stroke of bad luck that the lower carabiner became disengaged from the sling, as this seems to be a rare occurrence.
Although it would not have caught his fall even if it had held, his first piece of protection, a hex, was not a good choice. The first piece of protection should always be multi-directional. Had he placed a cam instead of a hex, which was possible, the first piece may have never popped out of the rock.
It is interesting to note that out of eleven people total at the cliff that day, no one had a cellphone! It took more than ten minutes running back to the cars to call for help. If possible, climbers should always bring a cellphone to this crag. It is also important for climbers to know exactly where they are and how to get there, as rescue personnel may not be wholly familiar with the area.
Additional Comment: CU was fortunate that he was young and in excellent physical condition. His back was unusually muscular and may have safeguarded him from more serious injury. CU has since recovered from his injuries and has returned to climbing. (Source: Edited from a report by Rick Evans)