American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Fall on Rock — Rappel Error (No Knot in End of Rope), Distraction, Haste, Weather, Darkness, New Mexico, Los Alamos, White Rock

  • Accident Reports
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  • Publication Year: 2010

FALL ON ROCK – RAPPEL ERROR (NO KNOT IN END OF ROPE), DISTRACTION, HASTE, WEATHER, DARKNESS

New Mexico, Los Alamos, White Rock

It must have been a nightmare. Seriously, I don’t do that. I know better. Way better. I’ve been climbing for over 12 years without an accident and just plain know better. Only rookies do that. Apparently not so.

When I awoke in my bed on Friday morning (August 28), I was hoping it was a nightmare, but when I looked down at my left foot wrapped in a bandage and covered with an ice pack and felt the discomfort coursing up my leg, I was painfully aware it wasn’t just a nightmare and I had definitely f****d up. It could have been worse though…when a climber rappels off the end of his rope it’s generally a lot worse than a severely sprained ankle (with torn ligaments), a bruised left ass cheek and a scraped left arm. Yes, I had been very lucky.

On Thursday evening I had driven down to Gallows Edge to replace some anchor hardware on four routes there. I had been given some hardware in support of the Anchor Replacement Initiative (ARI) and wanted to replace some of the weird anchor setups there that involved chain links bolted directly onto the bolt stud using washers. It turns out I didn’t need to drill but one new hole because the existing stainless steel bolts looked great. So I just replaced the hardware that was attached to the bolts. Also, while down there, my friends Matthias and Lee had been looking to establish a new route that they had top-roped before.

For all of this work I did what I normally do for working on routes--I setup a single line static rope anchored to some huge blocks. My static line is about 60 feet in length and since I planned to only work on the top of climbs and drill some holes for Matthias and Lee, I didn’t need a longer rope. I did all my work with using a Grigri on the single static line which allowed me to rappel down and stop to work with the Grigri locking up on the rope, as designed, while working. I replaced three anchors and drilled the holes/installed the bolts for Matthias and Lee without issue and things were going great. Our friend James showed up and had been planning to climb but his partner bailed on account of the weather. It had rained once while we were down there and it was looking threatening again as the evening wore on.

Matthias and Lee climbed their new route and got ready to head out. I wanted to replace the hardware on a route called Planet of the Apes because it also had some non-standard chain-on-bolt action going on. It was getting darker, but I still had plenty of light to replace this one anchor. So I moved my rope over to this route, leaving it tied around the huge boulder it had been tied around all night. This boulder, though, was some distance from the route I was now working on. Matthias and Lee headed out, but James stuck around to walk out with me after I replaced the anchor. The anchor replacement went fine, but just as I was finishing up, I dropped a piece of the old chain I had removed. By now it was getting pretty dark, an ominous looking storm was brewing to the south and I was engaged in conversation with James. I told him I was going to zip down to the base of the route to pick up that chain and that he could take down the rope once I was off rappel. I started rapping down and got down at least two thirds of the route, maybe more, when I noticed a curious and quick sensation—the rope whipped through my Grigri.

I yelled up to James that I had just rapped off the end of the rope but was OK. I think I might have even said I was off rappel, obviously, in an attempt to lighten up the situation.

I felt my knees and ankles and stood up without issue. I took a few steps and noticed my right side was completely fine. My left side, however, was not as good. My left ankle felt broken, my left knee was sore, my left ass cheek was super tender and my left arm was scraped up pretty good. I could still walk, though. So I told James I’d limp back up there to get my pack and asked him to pack up some of my gear into his pack. All the while, James was staying levelheaded, positive and extremely helpful. I took advantage of the shock and limped quickly around and up to the top to gather my stuff.

James coiled up the rope, we loaded up our packs and donned our headlamps, as it was fully dark by now. Thanks to James taking most of the gear, my pack was pretty light and I limped/hopped up the trail. In places where it was steep I could use the rocks on the side as support and in places where it was flatter, James offered up his shoulder for me to lean on. We slowly moved up and near the top I asked James to go up a bit and drop his pack so he could take mine. He graciously did this and we limped to the car with good efficiency. It took probably 30 minutes to get out whereas normally I can hike that in 15.

At the car, I took off my harness and drank some water while James went back to retrieve his pack from the canyon edge. He came back to the car insisting he drive me home, but I was feeling completely aware, and since I have an automatic car, a screwed up left foot wasn’t an issue for driving. I insisted he need not drive me home and called Allison to tell her why I was late. I told her James had helped me out and that my plan was to drive straight to the emergency room because I thought I had a broken ankle. She said she’d meet me there.

James has had some medical training in the past and checked my pupils, palpated my upper and lower body to ensure I didn’t do any damage to other parts of my body that weren’t my chief complaints and reluctantly let me drive myself home. James’ help was invaluable.

I arrived at the hospital around 9:00 p.m. and had beat Allison there, so I limped across the parking lot into the ER. It was a short wait and I was visiting with doctor Chadwick in short order. Dr. Chadwick told me a story of breaking his ankle on a volcano hike somewhere where they did not have very good medical care and how it was quite the ordeal. This made me feel better for sure knowing that there is life after an ankle break/sprain. The nurse cleaned out the scrape on my arm and I had x-rays done on my left elbow and left foot. Dr. Chadwick came back with the good news that my ankle was not broken, but that it had likely torn the ligaments, and that obviously I had sprained it big time.

Analysis

I have taught new climbers how to climb/rappel and stress the importance of tying a simple knot in the end of the rope so something like this doesn’t happen, yet I failed to practice what I preach but thankfully got off very lucky. This accident was a result of rushing to get out coupled with being distracted by external forces (and not tying a knot in the end of the rope). If anything, it should serve as an example to others to slow down and pay attention to details even when circumstances are pressing and distracting. (Source From a posting by Jason Halladay on Mountain Project)

(Editor’s Note: The best reports—and analyses—come in the first-person. Web sites like Mountain Project are full of these.)

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