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Fall on Rock — Poor Communication

On Tuesday May 17, American Alpine Club (AAC) Executive Director Phil Powers (50) took four of his employees—Keegan Young, Penn Burris, Sarah Wood, and Deanne Buck—climbing at High Wire Crag in Clear Creek Canyon, a popular and accessible sport climbing area near the AAC headquarters in Golden. The group had varying levels and numbers of years of climbing experience. The goal of the day was team building and preparation for a two-day climbing retreat they had planned for early June.

Upon arrival at the crag, Powers led Cracker Jack (5.8) with Wood belaying him from the ground. He attached two quickdraws to the anchor chains, ran the rope through quickdraws, and was lowered to the ground. Next, Wood climbed Cracker Jack on top rope with Powers belaying. Wood removed the intermediate quickdraws as she climbed the route. She left the quickdraws in place at the anchor and was lowered to the ground. Powers then climbed Bypass (5.10), the route to the immediate right of Cracker Jack on top rope. Wood again belayed Powers from the ground. Powers and Wood had not discussed whether Powers would rappel or be lowered. In addition, the area where the group was climbing is directly above the highway and river. Verbal communication once Powers was climbing was difficult and, once above an overhang, he was out of the belayer’s view.

When Powers reached the anchor, he decided to thread the rope directly through the permanent chains to avoid having a less experienced climber clean the anchor later in the day. He shouted for slack. Wood heard his call and fed him some rope. Wood then thought she heard Powers call, “Off belay.” Wood paid out rope but kept Powers on belay to make sure he was intending to rappel.

Once the rope was threaded through the anchor, Powers decided to place an intermediate anchor or directional (quickdraw) high on Cracker Jack to improve the rope placement for the next climber. The rock was low angle, so Powers was able to down-climb about 20 feet. He placed a quick draw on the second-to-last bolt on Cracker Jack. The action of the rope as Powers was down-climbing seemed to Wood as if he was pulling up rope to arrange a rappel. Wood again thought she heard, “Off belay,” so she removed the rope from her belay device and called up to Powers that he was off. At the same moment, Powers clipped the rope into the directional quickdraw, called for tension, leaned back on the rope and fell 70 feet to the ground.

Powers’ companions administered first aid immediately and runners were sent down to the road to and up to a high point for a cell signal. The Golden Fire Department responded and carried Powers by litter to the highway where he was taken by Flight for Life to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver. Global Rescue was also contacted. Powers sustained substantial internal injuries, broken C6, C7, T6 and L1 vertebrae, thirteen broken ribs and a broken left humerus as a result of the fall.

Analysis

As the more experienced climber, it was my responsibility to acknowledge my belayer’s experience level and give her more information before leaving the ground, especially at such a noisy location. Wood reported that in her past experiences, it was common practice for her climbing partners to rappel from the bolt anchor. “I couldn’t see Phil, and the road and river noise made hearing difficult as well. When Phil climbed down to place the directional, it felt to me like he was pulling up the rope he would need to rappel on. The combination of signals I was receiving led me to believe he wanted to be taken off belay so that he could rappel.”

Because Wood was not able to see or clearly hear Powers as he was climbing, failure to discuss what Powers planned to do when he reached the anchors contributed to the confusion that caused this accident. Clearer communication and planning can prevent accidents like this from happening to climbers of all skill levels and experience. That said, taking a climber off belay is a serious decision that should only be made when there is complete clarity about the situation. (Source: Phil Powers.)