American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Inadequate Belay Anchor, Poor Position, Exceeding Abilities, Washington, Seattle

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 1986


Washington, Seattle

On a field trip to Camp Long in Seattle, a Seattle Mountaineers climbing class was using the belay towers when the following occurred on February 22, 1985.

It was the end of the day and the other stations on the belay tower were being dismantled. The instructor was giving a few students the opportunity to use a mechanical belay device. The first student, a female, successfully caught the weight with the Figure 8. Shari Hogshead (40) was next. The instructor set up the system for her. The Figure 8 was being set up as one would set up a rappel using the device, with the Figure 8 clipped to the front of the harness and the rope wrapped around it. She was also clipped into the belay anchor through the back of her harness.

The belay anchor was below and about one meter behind the belay stance. The rope ran just above the level to the ground to a pully attached to one of the tower poles about 30 centimeters above ground level and 12 meters from the belayer. For a sitting belay, the rope would form a triangle, with the belayer’s system at the apex.

Hogshead was standing on a little mound of dirt that made up one bank of a small drainage ditch between the belay anchor post and the runway. She was instructed to step forward to remove the slack, though the presence of the mound may have made this difficult. The weight was raised and then dropped. She clamped down tight and the belay was apparently quite static.

When the force of the weight reached the belayer, she was violently knocked to the ground at the same time as she felt tremendous pressure about her waist. She ended up partially in the drainage ditch, supported partially by the rope under tension.

She immediately complained of severe pain above her pelvis. She was supported while the tension in the rope was released and her harness removed. Then she was carried to the runway and placed on ensolite pads. Traction was applied, and she was placed on a piece of plywood and carried to the parking lot and an ambulance. X-rays revealed a compression fracture at T-12 (Source: Seattle Mountaineers report, February 1985)


From the trip leader, instructor, and victim, the following points were made:

Protecting standing belays at this particular training is probably inappropriate. The anchor and the first point of protection (the lower pulley) are lower than the belayer.

The belayer should not have been attached to the anchor at the back, but rather, at the same point on the harness that the locking carabiner was attached. This caused tremendous forces, squeezing the belayer from the sides by her seat harness. This is only true if the topmost strand of the harness rides higher than the belayer’s hip. If the seat harness rides entirely on the hip, these forces are well within the body’s ability to withstand them.

The slack between the belayer and the anchor should have been taken up.

Demonstration of the mechanical belay followed by practice without the full force of the weight should precede the simulated leader fall.

Communication between instructor and students needs to be clear.

(Source: Seattle Mountaineers, via George Sainsbury)

(Editor’s Note: Thanks to the Seattle Mountaineers for sharing this report, which has application for all climbing instructors.)

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