Winter-weary climbers flock to the horizontally fractured, quartzite cliffs of New York's Shawangunks each spring eager to dust off racks and practice trad climbing on the many steep classics of every grade. On March 20, a Saturday, the popular Trapps area was in prime condition and climbers were trying a variety of routes. One climber (who asked that his name be withheld) ran together the two pitches of Ape Call (5.8 R) and arrived at a belay ledge 110 feet above the base. The leader set up his anchor on a tree commonly used as a rappel station and rigged his device, a Black Diamond ATC Guide, in autoblock mode, clipping it directly to the anchor. He intended to bring one climber up, lower her, and then belay another climber up.
In order to release the locked device and lower his partner after she completed the pitch, as the leader later wrote on gunks.com: I girth hitched a sling to the belay biner and re-directed it through the anchor At first, tension did not release, so I pulled slightly harder and the rope went through very quickly.
His partner, in a separate post on the site, wrote [T]he last words I heard were, It may be a bumpy ride,' and then I just went flying, hit the right side of my head under the roof, spun around, hit the left side of my hip on a bulge, fell into/through a tree and finally came to a stop above a large rock on the ground. The belayer was able to arrest the fall, but incurred serious rope burns on his brake hand. His partner was taken to a hospital in Poughkeepsie and treated for cuts and contusions, but is doing just fine.
AUTOBLOCK DEVICES SUCH AS THE ATC GUIDE are simple, excellent tools for belaying second climbers up, but in the self-locking mode they become complicated and potentially problematic for lowering since they require additional rigging and muscle to release the lock. In the written instructions that come with the device, Black Diamond stipulates that a backup (like a Munter Hitch) be utilized when lowering climbers in autoblock mode, adding even more rigging. That said, these devices can be used to safely lower climbers if they are properly set up and backed up.
In this case, the climber clipped his release sling to the carabiner that was acting as a brake bar. Pulling on the sling resulted in releasing all friction from the belay. If you clip that biner and release the friction, it's like an on/off button, Kolin Powick, Black Diamond's Director of Global Quality, told Rock and Ice.
The ATC Guide is outfitted with a special hole that should be slung and that sling redirected through the anchor. When weight is applied to the sling, the device pivots, and a climber can be safely lowered.
The mechanics of using an ATC Guide for lowering are demonstrated on blackdiamondequipment.com. Check out the ATC Guide how-to video, but note that the recommended backup is not shown in the video. Again, refer to the manufacturer's written instructions for full directions.
Always read manufacturers' information regarding the safe operation of climbing gear and strictly follow the guidelines. In this case, the device was rigged incorrectly and the accident was caused by user error.
Autoblock devices can be used to lower climbers, but in cases like this it is better to use the device as a traditional friction plate clipped to your harness with the rope re-directed through the anchor.