A woman has died following an auto-belay accident at Ascent Studio Climbing & Fitness, in Fort Collins, Colorado, on Saturday, June 12.
Fort Collins Police Services spokesperson Brandon Barnes told The Coloradoan that the climber fell from about 40 feet up in the auto-belay area. Authorities have not yet released the woman’s name.
Jon Lachelt, co-founder and general manager of Ascent Studio Climbing & Fitness, declined to comment when reached via email by Climbing magazine.
On June 15, three days after the accident, Ascent Studio Climbing & Fitness released a statement on their Facebook page explaining that that climber had died from her injuries. “Our hearts go out to this person’s friends and family,” read the statement. “Many of our staff are also quite shaken by this event and we are all still trying to cope. We closed the gym on Sunday to help with this, but did reopen on Monday to help get back to some normalcy.”
The statement went on to explain that, though there “was no apparent equipment failure,” the gym owners have temporarily removed all auto belays from the gym floor pending the results of a “full investigation.”
Though auto belay accidents happen every year, deaths are uncommon. Most auto-belay accidents are the result of individuals failing to completely clip into the device, or forgetting to clip in entirely. (The precise circumstances of the June 12 accident at Ascent Studio Climbing & Fitness are still unknown.). In January 2014, Mark Hesse, 63, a climber with decades of experience, fell to his death after failing to clip into the auto-belay device in the Boulder Rock Club, Boulder, Colorado.
Following Hesse’s death, the Boulder Rock Club installed “a large triangle of heavy fabric … below the auto-belay system [that] must be removed before climbing with the auto-belay.”
In a 2018 article for Rock and Ice, Francis Sanzaro wrote that, while such methods are not fool proof, “these accidents are becoming more infrequent” due to such precautions.
This April, Gym Climber reported on a lawsuit stemming from an accident where a climber may not have properly clipped in to an auto belay.
As evidenced by Hesse’s death in 2014, auto belay accidents do not discriminate between the experienced and inexperienced. Complacency and brief lapses in attention or focus can mean the difference between remembering to clip into the auto-belay lanyard or not clipping in at all.
Sean McColl, who will represent Canada in climbing’s debut at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, says: “The highest error in auto belays is people forgetting to clip in. My mom was actually a survivor of one of those accidents. She climbed every few days on auto belays. And then one day she let go at the top and wasn’t clipped in.”
This inability to completely nullify human error, McColl says, is why partner checks are vital—even on an ostensibly individual activities like auto-belay climbing. “You can have two people climbing side-by-side on auto belays and check each other,” he says.
The innocent lapses in attention that lead to auto-belay accidents are also to blame for top-rope and lead climbers who forget to finish their tie-in knots—mistakes with similarly dire consequences.
For example, in 2012, John Long, a Stonemaster and climbing’s foremost storyteller, didn’t finish his knot. He later wrote in the inaugural issue of Gym Climber magazine: “The last thing I remember after reaching the chains at the top of the route is landing feet first on the ground, crumpling in a heap and rolling up to see my tibia jutting out a hole in my shin. Fifty days and five operations later, I got discharged from UCLA Medical Center and spent most of the next year on crutches.”
For more on the importance of remaining vigilant in the gym, even when climbing on auto belays, watch the video below.
Forgetting To Clip an Auto Belay — An Interview With A Survivor