Simul-rappelling accident causing one fatality and one serious injury
Joe and Mark were climbing Lunatic
Fringe, a classic single-pitch route at Reed’s Pinnacle. Joe led the route and remained at the bolted anchor on top, 140 feet off the ground, to belay Mark up. They then set up to rappel, using a single 80-meter rope and confirming that both sides just barely reached the ground.
The two men chose to simul- rappel, a technique in which both climbers descend simultaneously on each rope strand, counter- weighting each other. Mark used a Grigri and Joe used an ATC with no hands- free backup ( e. g., a friction hitch). As they rappelled, Joe traveled more quickly down the rope and was soon about 50 feet lower than his friend; he waited for Mark 15 feet off the ground on a small, sloping ledge. Then, as per the accident report at the website climbingyosemite. com, Joe “felt a sudden change in the pull of the rope, the rope ‘ going’ [ through his belay device], and he started to fall.”
Joe fell 15 feet and Mark fell approximately 70 feet. After the fall, Joe briefly lost consciousness. Once awake, with a broken leg, he crawled down the short approach trail to get help. At the parking area, he flagged down visitors, who called 911. By the time YOSAR arrived, Mark was unconscious with no pulse.
Analysis and prevention Hands-free backup:
Always use a hands-free backup when rappelling ( see Guide’s Tip,
p.40). This means creating a friction hitch with a prusik cord in conjunction with your belay device—the idea is that the prusik will “bite” down on the rope when you don’t actively manage it, arresting a fall. Here’s one method: To tie a prusik, girth-hitch your cord around the rope at least three times. Dress it so the wraps are sitting neatly next to each other and not crossed. To test, clip the prusik onto the leg loop on your harness and weight it while still clipped into the anchor. You can also use an autoblock hitch: Wrap your prussik cord four or five times around the rope and clip both ends into your leg loop.
Simul-rappelling is dangerous because you’re relying on your partner for your own safety, and vice versa. Only simul-rappel if necessary—say off the summit of an anchorless spire. With a Grigri, Mark could only rappel on a single strand. To avoid any unnecessary risk, fix the rope for that person to descend on a single strand, then unfix the rope and rappel both strands using an ATC. In rare situations where simul-rappelling might be useful, clip into each other with daisies or a sling to stay at the same level and easily maintain communication.
Tie back-up knots:
Do so at both ends of the rope when rappelling. This would have stopped the rope from springing up through Joe’s ATC, preventing Mark’s fatal fall.
Alternatives to rappelling:
By its nature of total reliance on the system, rappelling is inherently dangerous, mostly due to user error. If you can avoid it, do so. With an 80-meter rope, Mark could have lowered Joe back to the ground after Joe’s lead, and then Mark could have seconded the pitch on a slingshot toprope. To close the system and avoid lowering the climber off the end of the rope with this rope-stretching pitch, the belayer could have tied in ahead of time.
In Yosemite, we are fortunate to have one of the most skilled and competent SAR teams in the world. However, the first and most important step is to avoid having an accident. We all need to work toward educating ourselves about climbs, accident prevention, and self-rescue techniques. It is much easier and less painful to do things right in the first place. Finally, and most importantly, do not underestimate the dangers of rock climbing. Accidents can happen to anyone, including the most skilled and seasoned climbers. Maintain a healthy respect for the rock and the adventure so that you can live to climb another day.