FALL ON ROCK – BELAY FAILURE, NO STOPPER KNOT, DISTRACTION
California, Yosemite Valley, El Capitan
On October 8, Nicolas Lebaut (29) and Davina Borrow-Jones (32) were climbing at the base of the Southwest Face of El Capitan. Nicolas decided to lead Little John Left, a short, one-pitch, 5.8 route leading up and right to fixed rappel anchors. Davina did not feel like following, so they agreed he would simply lower Nicolas off and Nicolas would clean the pitch on the way down. They checked the height of the climb in their guidebook. It stated 80 feet and they had a 60m rope, which was plenty long enough for Nicolas’s descent.
Nicolas climbed the route, placing protection along the way. Meanwhile, another party, Mike and Rachel, was descending the Heart Ledges rappel route on fixed ropes overhanging Little John Left. The two parties recognized each other and everyone began chatting.
Davina began lowering Nicolas. He had full control of the rope and a good view of Nicolas. Since the climb angles up and right, Nicolas had to pull himself to the left and partially down-climb to stay within reach of his protection as he descended. As he removed the lowest piece, he swung back to the right under the anchor above.
Details are incomplete from this point on, but apparently Davina was caught off guard by the surge of tension from Nicolas’s weight. He had been standing at the start of the climb, so he was dragged to the right because of the angle of pull to the belay anchor above. The talus slopes steeply down to the right here, so as he moved right he also descended, significantly lengthening Nicolas’s lowering distance. He also may have elected to scramble even further down the slope to move out of the other party’s way. As he continued lowering Nicolas, he became distracted by Mike and Rachel’s descent and apparently forgot to keep an eye on his end of the rope. The end must not have been anchored or knotted, because it suddenly passed through Davina’s hand and through his belay device. Nicolas tumbled 20 feet to the talus and was immediately in agony from a back injury.
Rachel called 911. The first medic reached Nicolas about 20 minutes after his fall, followed by the evacuation team. They immobilized him and carried him down to El Capitan Meadow, where he was transferred to an air ambulance and flown to Modesto. At the trauma center he was diagnosed with compression fractures of L1 and L4. He wore a back brace for three months but has fully recovered.
It is almost inevitable that plans will change and distraction will happen, so staying alert is essential. Looking around for common hazards such as sloping ground or a difference between lengths of ascent and descent are part of this.
The belayer should anchor if the stance is unstable. But the most important point is ALWAYS ANCHOR OR KNOT THE BELAY ROPE! Do this even on ridiculously short climbs to maintain the habit and to set a good example. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)