FALL ON ROCK – INADEQUATE BELAY, MISCOMMUNICATION
Wyoming, Lander, Sinks Canyon, Scud Wall
Chelsea Jackson (20) was sport climbing on the Scud Wall in Sinks Canyon on June 21 when this incident occurred. She had recently met her climbing partners, Garrett Newcomer and Christina Locastro, at her new job at Jackson Lake Lodge.
About 3:00 p.m., Jackson cleaned their gear off of the anchor at the top of Banoffee (5.10a). She never asked for the belay to be changed while she was cleaning the anchor. Her belayer, Newcomer, unsuccessfully tried to communicate to her that he was taking her off of belay. When she re-weighted the rope, she fell approximately 50 feet while her belay rope zinged through the top anchor, she bounced off the ground in a seated position, then she rolled down the steep slope below.
Newcomer said that, “We told her she was off belay when she tied into the anchor, but she never responded. I let go of the rope, a few minutes went by, then she screamed and fell right next to us, landing on her hip before she rolled down the hill.” Newcomer said he thinks she never realized she was ever off belay and that he expected her to get off belay while clipped in, and then ask for a new belay before she descended.
Jackson was taken to the hospital and treated for a dislocated hip, bruised lung, and mild whiplash. At the time of her interview a month post-accident, she had returned to work waiting tables and was climbing again.
Jackson later concurred that she never realized she was ever off belay and was shocked when she started falling after unclipping herself from the anchor.
While her injury was quite serious, two similar falls in Sinks Canyon have resulted in much more severe injuries. Possible mitigating factors for Jackson’s fall included: 1) friction from the belay rope zinging through the anchor (two rings spaced about 6 inches apart), and 2) Jackson landing on a very steep slope which redirected her kinetic energy—akin to a ski jumper landing on the outrun.
Lessons learned: This was a “normal accident” (Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, 1984) involving human error and a failed redundant pathway.
The climber (not the belayer) is the one who initiates the belay being taken off, no matter what the belayer expects the climber to do. Also, the belayer should not let go of the rope unless the climber specifically asks to be taken off of belay. These two standards are universal. While it is certainly common for groups of climbers to develop their own routines for how they handle belays for lowering or rappelling off of anchors, these routines need to be communicated clearly. But human error happens, which is why high- risk systems often include redundancy.
Jackson pointed out that she could have thwarted this accident if she had communicated with the belayer before weighting the rope for getting lowered. This type of redundancy in critical communication can prevent a fall like this, no matter what belay routine is being used for cleaning anchors. (Source: John Gookin, SAR Commander, FCSO)