Fall on Rock — Belay Failure (Unsecured Rope, Distraction), California, Yosemite Valley, Churchbowl

Publication Year: 2011.


California, Yosemite Valley, Churchbowl

On Nov. 6, Betsey (20) and I, Mike (19), (pseudonyms) spent the day climbing at Churchbowl with friends. I had climbed in the park several times over the last three years, but that was my first time at Churchbowl. I led several climbs and rigged top ropes for the others to follow, using a 60-meter rope.

About 1600, I went over to do Churchbowl Lieback (one pitch, 5.8). It was an hour or so before dark and I was trying to squeeze in some more routes. I unflaked the rope quickly, and then I called everyone over, without thinking about whether I had tied a knot at the bottom end of the rope. Another group of climbers came over to watch and to wait for their turn.

I led the pitch while Betsey belayed me from the ground. At the top I backed up the slings on the anchor tree, added ’biners for the top rope, and asked Betsey to lower me.

There is a ledge about ten feet above the ground, and when I was about three feet above it, the rope started feeding out faster and I began slipping. I didn’t know what was happening and I yelled to Betsey to stop me, but the end of the rope had run through her belay device, so of course she couldn’t stop me. I noticed rocks on the ground directly below and I may have pushed myself backwards off the wall in the right direction, because somehow I managed to land in the dirt next to the rocks. I hit hard on my butt and then my back, and rolled down the hill. The wind was knocked out of me and I couldn’t even say “I’m OK.”

A friend climbing nearby heard me hit and immediately came over, stabilized my neck, and had me lie on my back. My whole lower back hurt on both sides. Someone called 911 and the ambulance (which was at the clinic only a couple of hundred yards away) was there in minutes. At the clinic the staff checked me over head-to-toe and decided nothing was broken, so they let me go. I had minor sprains and a tiny bit of blood in my urine suggestive of a mild kidney contusion, but everything felt fine within a week. I was lucky to miss the rocks.


Mike: I had read about the route in the past but had forgotten that our guidebook advised belaying from the ledge, not the ground. When I walked over to the route I did not even think about rope length. I’d never been on a climb where the rope was this short, and I think the reason I got used to not always tying knots is from the gym, where you are sure the rope is long enough. Also, most of my trad climbing is multi-pitch, so the second is always tied in. From now on I’ll knot the end or leave it tied to the rope bag. My rope will also have a mid-mark. Finally, I normally do not wear a helmet on short climbs, but I will never not (sic) wear one again.

Betsey: I think a flaw in our climbing relationship is that Mike is more experienced and generally the leader, so he is always the one who initially checks the rigging. He’ll say, “OK, we’re ready to go,” and I’ll do a quick double-check, as he’s trained me to do, and we go. We often tie a knot in the end of the rope, but this time I wasn’t thinking as thoroughly and independently as I should have been, so I didn’t double-check. During the climb the rope was in view, piled on the bag to my right as I faced the wall.

I’m a competent belayer, but I was looking up at Mike and chatting with the other climbers, who were to my left and a little behind me. I became distracted long enough to forget about the end of the rope. (Source: Betsey, Mike, and John Dill, NPS Ranger)

(Editor’s Note: There were many more incidents in Yosemite than appear here. The good news is that there were no serious bouldering mishaps. The bad news is that there was a total of 19 leader fall accidents, 11 cases involving rappelling, belay errors, rockfall, etc. A serious rockfall—200-pound block—struck one climber on Tangerine trip in December, resulting in a two-day rescue operation. Not all of them made it into Table III because not enough details were available. Special thanks to John Dill and Jesse McGahey, Yosemite rangers, for their assiduous work in compiling and following up on incidents, including interviewing climbers involved.)

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