FALL ON ROCK, INADEQUATE PROTECTION
Washington, Columbia Hill State Park, Horsethief Butte
On Sunday April 5, Tony Silva (30), a Gresham Oregon Police Detective, his sister-in-law Laura (26), and her husband, Bobby Silva, along with three young children, planned to set a top rope at Horsethief Butte, a sport climbing area popular with beginning to intermediate climbers from nearby Portland, Oregon, and towns in Washington on the Columbia River.
Horsethief Butte is characterized by many user traces and scrambles climbing up 2 5 to 50 feet to large, flat, weathered basalt overlooks. The Park has a “no bolt policy” because of the Native American culturally sensitive nature of this area.
The investigative report and photos show that Tony and Laura were linked together by the system they were constructing. If one fell, the other would be pulled off.
The report stated, “The anchor consisted of two stoppers placed in cracks at the top of the route with three separate loops of grey nylon webbing attached… The middle loop of webbing appeared to be the only loop that had been bearing weight due to all of the knots being weighted… All of the knots in the other two loops (and a third stopper) were non-weighted…” A third stopper was left in place and not attached to the webbing.
Detective Gresham and Laura Silva fell to their deaths from the top of the cliff. The actual fall was not observed.
Experience tells us that stopper placement in the typical shallow, worn, narrow, parallel cracks in the flat top of basaltic columns is very insecure. Placements are certainly one directional.
It is believed that one of the climbers was standing or kneeling at the cliff-edge while the other was searching for a placement just below the cliff-edge. When the fall occurred, the anchor was shock-loaded by both climbers and possibly pulled up and out by the climber above.
The Washington State Patrol Investigative Report concludes: “This fall most likely occurred due to human error in building the anchor.”
Members of the Mazama climbing club from Portland were also sport climbing nearby. Their monthly print and web publications noted the tragic accident and offered this advice to their readers: “When setting a top-rope or rappel anchor on a cliff-top, a rule of thumb is always secure yourself if you are within two meters of the edge.” They suggested that you self-belay by attaching the end of your climbing rope with a locking carabineer to a solid natural or constructed “SERENE” (Secure, Equalized, Redundant, No/Extension) anchor “well back from the cliff”, attaching the climbing rope to your harness with a Prusik or Klemheist friction knot looped through a locking carabineer. Of course, traditional practice dictates you should back up your friction knot by tying a figure eight on a bight of the climbing rope a couple of feet below your Prusik loop and clip it to the locker on your harness. The climber should work on the anchor system in the exposed area with a slack-free self-belay.
The Experience Level was described in the Investigative Report as “low intermediate and high intermediate”. Both were gym climbers, but neither had much experience in setting traditional anchor systems on basalt columns at Horsethief Butte. (Source: Robert Speik, following interviews with witnesses and study of the Investigative Report and photographs from the Washington State Patrol, Investigative Services Bureau)