BELAY AND TIE-IN ERROR, FALL ON ROCK, NO HARD HAT
Utah, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Dogwood Crag
On September 26, University of Utah, Remote Rescue Training’s HighAngle Rescue Technician class was practicing rope rescue systems at the Dogwood crag in Big Cottonwood Canyon when a nearby climber, not associated with the class, fell approximately 80 feet to the ground. The class immediately stopped the scenario and switched in to “real” rescue mode. The lead instructor delegated two students to stay at the top of the cliff where cell phone coverage is more reliable and call 911 to initiate the Emergency Medical System. A hasty team with two instructors and two students (all EMT’s) were immediately dispatched to the base of the cliff where the fallen climber landed. Two students went to the road to help direct EMS personnel to the patient more efficiently. The remaining students and instructor packed up all equipment that seemed likely to be helpful, including medical equipment and the stokes litter and went down to the base of the cliff, on standby to assist as needed.
The hasty team arrived at the patient approximately three minutes after the fall. The patient, Jeremy (22), was sitting up with his hands clenched to his chest. The hasty team leader and Remote Rescue Training instructor, Nate Ostis, completed a fall patient assessment. Due to the mechanism of injury, spinal precautions were maintained. EMS arrived on scene approximately ten minutes after the fall. The litter evacuation was non-technical and took approximately two minutes.
We know a few facts about how the fall occurred, gathered from our observations and interviews. Jeremy was top-roping with his rope fed directly through the anchor chains. Rather than tying into the end of the rope with a figure-8 follow through, he had tied a figure-8 on a bight and clipped the bight into his harness with a locking carabiner. When he neared the top of the climb (approximately 80 feet from the ground), he leaned back expecting to be lowered by his belayer to the ground. At that moment his attachment to the knot failed, because for some reason the carabiner gate “hyper-extended” and the bight of the knot came free from the carabiner. Realizing the dire situation he was in, Jeremy reached out and grabbed the only thing he could—the strand of rope between the belayer and the anchor. Initially there was no counter balance on the rope and Jeremy continued to free fall, but after a few feet, the knot at the end of the rope wedged up against the chains, essentially fixing the single strand of rope so that he was able to slow his descent and keep himself upright by gripping the rope. Approximately 15 feet from the ground, he hit and broke through a tree, which further slowed his descent.
The rescue team was unable to contact the fallen climber after turning care over to EMS but news reports said that the climber was released the next day with “minor injuries.”
Tying into the end of the rope has long been the standard practice for this type of situation and would have avoided this accident all together. In situations where clipping into the rope makes more sense, many people would make the case for two locking carabiners at the attachment point. We do not know whether Jeremy was clipped in to the belay loop or the harness itself.
There are a few hypotheses of what may have happened. First, it seems very likely that the carabiner was not locked when Jeremy leaned back on the rope. Second, perhaps the carabiner was not even closed entirely, having been caught on either some fabric of the harness, the rope, or on the locking mechanism itself. Third, after not being closed, the carabiner may have been somehow loaded along the major axis and then, after it was stretched out, loaded along the minor axis. A fourth possibility is that the carabiner may have been pushed open and loaded to the side in such a way that the gate could swing around the side of the nose, allowing it to hyperextend. Other options are certainly possible.
Jeremy was not wearing a helmet. Although many people do not wear helmets when top-roping at single pitch crags such as this, he was extremely lucky to survive an 80-foot fall without sustaining any head injuries.
Passing the belay/lowering rope through the chains is often considered poor etiquette because it puts substantial wear on the chains as person after person lowers off the route. In this situation, had the knot jammed up against a couple of carabiners, it may or may not have held the force that the knot jammed against the small links was able to hold. Strangely, having the rope pass through the chains may have helped save Jeremy’s life. (Source: Andy Rich)