Touchstone Blog Archive
Friday, May 14, 2010
  Accidents in Yosemite
Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. The tags on all new gear, the inside of guide books, and any solid rock instructor will give you this advice. Despite the utmost care and attention to detail accidents do happen. In the past week, a woman lead climbing on middle cathedral took a forty foot fall and broke her back. A YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) team shot up the route, gave her first aid, and then helped her into a litter that was dropped from a helicopter. In more tragic news was the death on Serenity Crack above the Awhanee Hotel.

Brian Ellis, a LA Santa Monica area climber, began climbing on Serenity Crack to Sons of Yesterday around 7 am with his partner Japhy Dhungana. The pair finished the three pitch 5.10d Serenity Crack and headed up Sons of Yesterday 5.10a. After the last pitch, they began to descend. When they reached Sunset Ledge and the top of Serenity Crack, they had an unfortunate accident.

They were using Reepschnur method of rappelling in which a single fat line is tied to a skinnier pull cord. The climber descends the fat line, using the knot to keep it from sliding through the anchors. The skinnier line is then used as a pull cord. This system is ideal for rappelling with an autolocking belay device and for climbing in an alpine setting, where weight is criticial. A back-up knot along with a locking carabiner attached to the thin line is needed to ensure that the knot does not go through the anchors. Below is an illustration.

Japhy Dhungana gave an account of the accident. “Brian and I tested the knot atop Sunset Ledge and made sure that it wouldn't pass through the rings. When he started rappelling on the single line, he descended about 15 ft, locked off his (Trango) Cinch and started taking photos of the leader on the P3 crux of Serenity for about 10 minutes. While he was taking photos, he moved a bit to the left, and then to the right to check out the climber. Then, after having spent about 10 minutes taking photos, he went back to descending the single line. This is when I heard a pop and the sound of the rope whizzing. I tried to grab it with my bare hands and held on tightly as long as I could. My instinct even tried to wrap it around my waist for an emergency brake, but the rope just burned through my hand.”

The knot had passed through the rings causing Brian to fall three pitches to the ground. He was still concious when the first responder came to the scene. He died shortly after the fall. The first responder on the scene wrote a harrowing account of the accident which can be found on his blog site.

Yosemite Climbing Ranger Jesse McGahey spoke about the accident at the Climber’s Coffee in Camp 4 on Sunday morning. “The rap rings were the larger-opening-diameter aluminum ones, this explains how the knot was able to pull through the rings. The webbing and rap-rings were shock-loaded during the fall.” McGahey along with some Yosemite Search and Rescue Members replaced the anchor. “It is now a solid welded steel ring with an extra biner as a backup,” stated MacGahey

For further resources check out Black Diamonds’ tests on rappel knots in which they found that the Double Fisherman’s was the strongest knot for tying two ropes together. Also, using two ropes of different sizes is the weakest way to rappel. Black Diamond’s Rappel Knots Also see a full discussion on the accident on as well as some comments by Japhy about passing parties ettique, which may have exacerbated the situation.

Accidents happen in rock climbing. There is no substitute for proper training and experience. If you have any questions, please seek knowledgeable instruction. The links above are only for further information and are not condoned by Touchstone. Touchstone Climbing gyms offer a number of courses on rope and lead techniques. For further information ask the front desk staff about the next lead climbing clinic. Be safe out on the rocks.

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