Rappel Error — Uneven Ropes, Fall on Rock, New York, Shawangunks

Publication Year: 2012.


New York, Shawangunks

On May 21,I met my friend Dana B. in the West Trapps lot for a day of climbing in the Gunks. I’ve been climbing for over 15 years and have climbed all over the country; I’ve lead honest 5.10 on gear, and done long routes. I started out on the first pitch of Middle Earth, and we rappelled from the tree above its first pitch. This uses the entire length of a 60m rope. Next, Dana climbed most of the route Snake and traversed left to the tree above Sente. Once I arrived at the tree, we talked about top-roping Sente but decided against it, as it looked like a short rainfall was moving in. We were only one rappel from the ground and it was a warm day, so we weren’t worried about getting caught by rain.

We were using Dana’s bi-pattern rope. I rigged the rope by lowering one end first. Dana let me know when I reached the pattern change, and then I tossed the other end. As often happens for that rappel, both ends were piled in a puddle on a ledge partway down. I use an ATC-type device to rappel and backed it up with a friction knot clipped to the leg loop of my harness – though I know that this does not protect me from unattended short ends. I am fairly sure the rope was even when I left the tree; I remember seeing both patterns of the two sides when I put myself on rappel. I stopped midway down to clear the rope from the ledge. I remember looking down and checking that the left side reached the ground, but I did not check the right side. I don’t know why.

Less than a second later, I heard the dreadful ‘click’ of a rope end going through my device. Honestly, I have no idea how the ends got that uneven, but in the end, regardless of cause, it was my responsibility to make sure both ends hit the ground and I didn’t. Just like forgetting to check a rearview mirror when changing lanes on a highway, it was a small mistake with big consequences.

When I heard the ‘click’, I yelled up to Dana, “I’m off the end!” That communication was purely reflexive, because if she weren’t already watching, she’d see soon enough. I remember thinking that the ground seemed impossibly far away and thinking to myself, “Hmm... Wonder how this is going to go?” I fell somewhere between 30 and 40 feet.

I hit the ground first with my left foot. I felt a huge jolt of electricity up and down my spine when I hit and I remember thinking, “Uh, oh, I know what that is!” I bounced or rolled somehow. (My helmet later turned out to be cracked just above my ear.) As soon as I came to a stop, I took quick stock: Arms move. Legs move. Phew. Though I didn’t feel pain, I knew something was very wrong with my left foot and I knew I didn’t want to let it swell up in a climbing shoe, so I pulled that shoe off. I saw bone poking through skin on the inside of my heel and saw that the heel seemed oddly short. Somewhere in there I yelled for help, though I could already hear people yelling and knew they were coming. Then my back seized up and the pain kicked in. I crab-walked myself around a few feet in an attempt to get my back on a flat stable surface. In moments, there were probably a dozen people around me trying to keep me safe and comfortable.

The rescue was incredibly well organized and executed; I was very lucky, and have a lot of people to thank. There was a scary and painful litter carry (I apologize for everyone’s ears. I know I was yelling from the pain), finally some morphine, a trip up the carriage road in the back of the pickup, an ambulance ride from the steel bridge to the field across from the Deli, a helicopter to Poughkeepsie, where I was scanned and x-rayed, and then another helicopter to Westchester, where I landed amongst world-class orthopedic trauma surgeons.

The damage: my left calcaneus was broken in several places, earning me seven screws and a plate. My L1 vertebra burst, and now I have a titanium cage in its center, and it’s fused to the vertebrae above and below (T12 and L2). Very fortunately, I have no neurological deficit. The spine surgeon kept saying, “You were very, very lucky,” because the burst vertebra came so close to pinching my spinal cord. I had a pleural effusion on the left side and was on a respirator for a day after the fusion surgery.


For many climbing accidents, there’s usually a bunch of post-hoc Analyses: What went wrong, and how can we avoid it? Especially for rappelling and lowering-off-the-end accidents, the idea that ‘I just don’t see how this happens’ is pervasive.

As a neuroscientist, I feel particularly qualified to respond to ‘I just don’t see how this happens’. The answer is very simple, though it is also hard to confront and accept: Humans are fallible and our attention is imperfect. Human fallibility is why we tie knots in the ends of ropes, though that isn’t always the answer. It’s why auto-locking devices exist, though those sometimes cause new problems.

There are thousands of experiments and papers and such, accidents on all kinds of scales that demonstrate the imperfection of human attention. No one is exempt as appealing as it is to think that experts or experienced people might or should be. As ‘R.G.’ said, “Like many things in climbing, you can do it right thousands of times, screw it up once, and you’re hosed.” As for me, I get to live, walk, and climb again - and try harder to pay better attention. (Source: Edited from a report sent in by Julie Haas - 40)