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Humboldt State Climbing Team
Humboldt State Climbing Team

Experience Doesn't Matter

25-Jun-2010
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Dennis Luther, 54, was a dedicated and veteran climber, establishing a slew of new routes in the Adirondacks from the early 1980s through 2007. At Poke-O-Moonshine, one of his favorite stomping grounds, he did first ascents of such popular routes as Son of a Mother (5.10b), Air Male (5.11c), Static Cling (5.10c) and, most recently, Pandemonium (5.10). His overall contributions to the crag were so great that locals named a section of cliff the Luther Wall.

Off the rock, Luther lived in Morrisonville, New York, and plied his mechanical-engineering skills for a manufacturer of paper-handling equipment.

His engineering background, says his friend and climbing buddy Jim Lawyer, carried onto the rock. "Dennis could always figure things out," he says, in improvising anchors or threading new routes up improbable rock. Luther was intimately familiar with his local rock, and accustomed to complicated rigging.

When Luther lacked a partner, he'd often go to Poko and clean, inspect and work out the moves on new routes by himself. He'd return when he could muster a partner, and send the route.

At Poko on October 7, Luther and a friend took turns toproping a new 150-foot extension to their linkup of the routes Menace to Sobriety (5.10c) and Psoriasis, a historic Dick Williams 5.9. They sussed the moves and mapped out the bolt placements for the line they intended to name Sobriety Test.

To prep the route for the lead, Luther loaded himself up with gear and doubled their 60-meter rope through the top anchor. Despite knowing that the doubled rope was at least 50 feet short of the lower belay ledge, and that the rope ends were 200 to 250 feet shy of the deck, Luther rappelled without knotting the ends.

He was found, dead, at the base of the wall after apparently having rappelled off the end of his rope. Curiously, he had pulled the rope with him: One side was still through his rappel device and had a prussic back-up attached to it. His was the Daks' fifth climbing fatality since 1916.

ANALYSIS

No one will ever know exactly what caused Luther's accident, but it's likely that when the rappel rope was set, the rope ends weren't evened up. Nor were they knotted. The fact that Luther's device was still on one side of the rope, and that he pulled the rope down with him, supports the theory -- when the shorter end of the rope zipped through his device, his weight, still on the other side of the rope, pulled it through the anchor.

Why Luther rappelled on a rope that he knew was at least 50 feet short of the belay ledge is a mystery. Perhaps, surmises Lawyer, he intended to place an intermediate rappel station. Also unknown is why he rappelled off the rope ends. Lawyer says that losing control on the slightly less-than-vertical face is unlikely. Lawyer speculates that Luther, who was burdened with gear and a pack, simply didn't notice that one end of the rope hung shorter than the other. Such a lapse is unfortunately common and usually tragic.

PREVENTION

If everyone simply knotted the ends of rappel ropes, rappelling fatalities would be greatly reduced if not nearly eliminated, save for those caused by equipment or anchor failure. But, while just about everyone knows that knotting the ends is the safe thing to do, most climbers don't do it, believing they are either experienced enough to avoid an accident; or that the knotted ends will hang up on the rock; or they just can't be bothered. This is absurd thinking.

Knot the ends of your rappel ropes! Also, even-up your rope ends. If you are rappelling on ropes of dissimilar lengths, make sure you know which end is shorter; tie the ends together if you are uncertain. The vastly experienced Luther was safety conscious (note the prussic back-up) and certainly aware of all of these rappel precautions, but says Lawyer, If there's any lesson to be learned, it's that experience doesn't count for shit.

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