American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
Black Diamond Logo

Fall on Rock, Inadequate Belay — Rope Too Skinny for Belay Device (Grigri), Kentucky, Red River Gorge, Torrent Falls

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2010


Kentucky, Red River Gorge, Torrent Falls

On April 11, Marie Abernathey (early 20s) was leading Dream of a Bee (5.8), a well-bolted sport climb at the Torrent Falls area of Red River Gorge. Abernathey was being belayed by Katherine West (early 20s), a new climber who was using a Petzl Grigri. Above the last bolt and below the anchors, Abernathey fell. West, in an attempt to arrest the fall, squeezed the rope tightly with her non-brake hand (which was on the rope above the belay device). The device failed to lock, which caused Abernathey to fall 60 feet to the ground at near-freefall speed. Just above the ground, Abernathey impacted a three- foot-high boulder, injuring her back. She was stabilized and a climber with medical training treated her with pain medication. After about 30 minutes, the climbers in her party helped Abernathey walk to a cabin about 100 yards down the trail from the crag. West sustained burns to her left hand from attempting to halt the 60-foot fall. Neither required a hospital visit, and both were able to enjoy the Red River Gorge Reunion festivities that night.


After the accident, several climbers from other parties verified that the device was rigged properly and passed several “auto-lock tug tests.” The device itself was fully functional.

Petzl’s user manual for the Grigri states the device is designed for a 10mm to 11mm rope. In this case, the climbers where using a 9.4mm cord. The owner of the rope had used the same rope and belay device numerous times before without incident. Similarly, many climbers either disregard or are unaware of Petzl’s rope diameter recommendation and still manage to climb safely due to proper belay technique, since a Grigri will lock and hold a fall provided that the belayer keeps his or her brake hand in the correct position to arrest the fall.

A proper belay would have prevented this accident, even though the party was using a rope that is skinnier than what is recommended by Petzl. It is important to use proper belay technique, even with an auto-locking belay device. Also, if someone is learning to belay, it is a good idea to have an experienced climber hold the rope below the new belayer’s brake hand. In the event of the belay getting away from the new belayer, the other climber can lock off the rope.

Additionally, using a rope that is within the manufacturers specifications for the belay device may have prevented this accident. The belay device is designed to lock automatically. However, it is possible that even with a thicker rope, the belayer’s hand squeezing the rope above the device may have relieved just enough force from the Grigri cam that the device did not lock automatically.

Bottom line: either a proper belay, a backup/safety observer for the new belayer, or using the correct rope for the belay device would have prevented this accident. (Source: Lucas Gruenther)

This ANAM article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.