Basics

Three Deaths, Three Very Important Take Aways

What we can learn from three accidents.

Rumney, New Hampshire, September

This past September, a tragic and preventable accident occurred at the Parking Lot Wall in Rumney, New Hampshire. A collection of schist crags with loads of moderates and no lack of 5.14s, Rumney is one of the top sport-climbing destinations on the East Coast. A climber in his 60s arrived that fall day without his harness. We can only assume he left it at home, something we have all done. The climber’s name has not been made public.

After climbing three quarters of Dead Sea Equestrian, an eight-bolt, often-wet 5.7, he leaned back to be lowered and plunged roughly 50 feet to the ground. He did not survive the fall. His harness, which he had improvised from a leather belt and kayak straps—the kind that cinch down to secure a kayak to your car—failed when he weighted it. 

Kristen Neilson, who was climbing two routes over, witnessed the accident. On the NEClimbs Facebook page, Neilson wrote: “[The victim] had, sadly, been offered a safer alternative by other climbers who saw him in the parking lot, but he opted to use his own straps and belt.”

Key take away: modifying or using homemade climbing equipment is dangerous, especially when your life depends on that piece of gear. Sure, use a shoelace to hold up your chalk bag, and wear tennis shoes on a toprope, but for anything else, use real climbing gear.

Modified or homemade climbing equipment has a long history dating back to the beginning. Most famously, Warren Harding used the sawed-off legs of a stove for pitons when he and his partners climbed the “Stove Leg” cracks on the first ascent of the Nose in 1958. Climbers are a self-reliant and creative bunch, but we now live in an era when there is CE-certified gear and there’s never an instance where you should or need to make your own climbing harness.  

 

Shawanunks, New York, August

Situated on an idyllic hillside, and day-trippable for New York City and a host of other big East Coast populations, the Gunks are one of the most trafficked climbing areas in the nation. But not just for proximity reasons—classic routes, great rock, beautiful trees and plentiful moderates round out the Gunks. It is also a crag where many climbers learn to place gear, the rock being generously featured with horizontals and breaks that accommodate traditional protection.

This past August, Lauren Sobel, 25, was leading the second pitch of Triple Bulges (5.5) on the Guide’s Wall when she fell. While an official report by the Mohonk Preserve has not been issued, it appears Sobel fell early on the second pitch and suffered catastrophic injuries from the fall itself. New York State police reported that she fell approximately 50 feet, ripping three or more pieces of pro. 

Key take away: never, ever let your guard down, especially on easy terrain. Accidents can occur when people are confident, especially on a climb that is easy for them. When the latter is the case, we might not worry about making sure the pro is bomber. Climbing is dangerous enough without unnecessary risk. Don’t let ease of terrain mask the severity of the situation. Though this was not the case with Sobel, as she has been described as an avid climber and appears to have been climbing within her ability, always trad climb a few grades—I recommend three—below your sport climbing redpoint level if you are learning to place gear. Even though the terrain may feel easy, place gear, lots of it, and make sure it can hold any manner of falls.

 

Castle Rock, New Zealand, August

On August 19, Lauren “Kimi” Worrell was descending Castle Rock Pinnacle in the Coromandel Forest Park when, according to the coroner’s report, she clipped into old webbing and slipped. When she slipped and weighted the webbing, it snapped. Worrell, 28, who had been living in New Zealand, fell roughly 400 feet. She did not survive. 

The family of Worrell issued a statement through the New Zealand Police, part of which read: “The family ask climbers to consider very carefully their reliance on equipment left permanently fixed to rock faces, and the condition of this equipment.” 

Though we might not know exactly what link in the chain failed for Worrell, all reports indicate that weather-worn gear was the culprit.

Key take away: Never blindly trust fixed belay and rappel stations. For instance, I still examine the anchors on the world’s most-logged 5.11b, Eighty Feet of Meat, at Rifle, Colorado, where on any given day 30 to 40 people polish the route. Inspect every bolt, anchor, tree and piton.

 Pay special attention to anchors on routes that are seldom travelled, such as alpine climbs. Because these sorts of climbs are remote, the anchors and slings seldom get replaced and few people report the quality of the anchors. When in doubt, there’s a simple solution: back up the anchor with gear or slings of your own.

 

Feature image: Silas Rossi, a local IFMGA guide, on New Frontier, Millbrook, Gunks. Most climbing accidents are entirely preventable. The Gunks is often the site of numerous accidents each year. Photo by Chris Vultaggio