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Lowered Off The End Of A Rope: Accident Report

An analysis of a tragic accident in Rifle Mountain Park. And a reminder to us all to tie a stopper knot at the end of your rope.

On May 22, a climber was lowered from the Eighth Day, a classic 160-foot 5.13a located on the Project Wall, in Rifle, Colorado. According to bystanders, he reportedly climbed the pitch with a 70-meter rope. An 80 isn’t long enough to get you down. There are chains mid-route for a double-lower. While he was being lowered, the rope went through his belayer’s device, and he fell about 40 feet to the ground. 

[Also Read: Groundfall and a Broken Back: Lessons Learned]

The sound of his body’s impact echoed through the canyon—loud like gunfire, dull like rockfall. I looked over in time to see him let out a fizzled cry; his body in the shape of a comma in the road. All nearby climbers froze while the air was sucked out of the canyon. After someone had run to the camp host’s cabin to dial 911, all we could do was wait. 

I had been sitting at the base of Waka Flocka, at the far end of the Project wall, Grigri in hand, while my partner waited for the line to clear and to boot up. I’m thankful, selfishly, that neither of us had been looking in his direction when the fall occurred. Unable to process what had happened, we remained seated, eyeballs whisking from ground, to one another, back to ground. Anywhere but to the man. I later learned that he was an experienced climber. 

 

Analysis

The accident began when there was not a knot in the end of the rope. There are few circumstances in sport climbing where you don’t want a knot in the end of the rope. 

First, because of longer ropes, routes are getting longer and are bolted with, say, a 70-meter rope in mind. Rifle has very long routes, in particular. A person with a 60-meter, once the norm, might not know that they are getting on a route that, to lower from the chains, requires a 70-meter. Second, you might have cut a core-shot section off your rope, and now it is shorter, but at the crag you forget that. Third, the beta on MP could be wrong. Never assume. Tie a knot Period. In this case, of course, it needs to be asked if the climber or belayer made plans for a double lower. Did they talk about it and forget the plan? Were they unaware? 

 

Prevention

A knot at the end of the rope would have prevented this accident, and so many others. Tie a knot, and leave it there. This is the most important, because even if the climber and belayer forgets everything else, the accident will still be prevented. 

Secondly, consult the guidebook. Or ask around. You should know exactly how tall the route is and how long your rope is before getting on. Again, MP can be wrong, so go for multiple sources if you’re unsure.

[Also Read: Check Every Knot, Every Time. And other tips for staying safe]

 

How to Double Lower

Assuming your route has midway anchors (most routes that are longer than 40 meters will), know how to do a double-lower. There are two ways to double-lower. They both start with topping the route, clipping the chains, and cleaning the route as your belayer lowers you. When you get to the midpoint chains, you go in direct to each chain. Call off belay. Here, the methods diverge: 

  1. Trace the rope with your eyes, going from your harness, up to the top chains, and back down to the anchors you’re currently in. Grab the belayer’s side of the rope (below the chains you are in), pull up some slack and tie an overhand knot on a bight. Clip that bight to a hardpoint (belay loop) on your harness—this is so you don’t drop the rope. Untie. Pull the rope from the above chains. Thread it through the chains and tie back in. Take out the overhand knot, and then call for back on belay. Then you will lower off the midpoint chains and continue cleaning as usual.
  2. Alternatively, while in directly to the midpoint chains, pull the rope off the route entirely, so that it is left attached only to you. Then clip (or thread) it back into the midpoint chains. Call for back on belay. This method is not preferable if the route is overhung, because it will make cleaning the bottom half of the route difficult. On the plus side, you never have to untie. 

Note: If there aren’t midpoint anchors, your options are going in straight into two bolts that are approximately midway. Awkward, but possible if you have an alpine draw and the bolts are close enough. Remember, two points are important, because bolts can and do fail. 

[Also Read: Rappelling is One of the Most Dangerous Parts of Climbing: Here’s How to Do It Safely]

Another solution if there aren’t midpoint anchors is to go directly into the top chains and then call for a second rope to rap down on. This process will be explained in a coming article.

Ultimately, because the climber is the one on the sharp end, it is the climber’s responsibility to ensure a stopper knot is tied at the end of the rope and that they know what to do if the rope won’t reach. But, it helps if the belayer is keeping an eye out for rope and route length, as well as the middle mark.

Double lowering requires some logic and forethought. But as long as you’ve got a knot tied at the end of your rope, you’ve given yourself a chance to figure it out.