When Cri Boratensky heard a “pop” as he lowered off the Rigid Designator, a classic Colorado ice climb, he assumed his rope had slipped over a small hump above, and thought nothing of it.
When he felt the second pop, he thought the anchor, a tree on which slings had been wrapped, had pulled, and he looked up expecting to see it hurtling down the ice.
Instead he only saw his rope, coiling “like a cobra,” falling through the air with him, over 70 feet to the ground.
It was March 21, in the ice amphitheatre above Vail, and Boratensky, 31, instantly assumed he would not survive.
Today he recalls experiencing “a vision” of his wife and year-old son off to his right side, like holograms. “They were still images and may have been recollections of actual photos,” he writes in an e-mail, “but their background consisted of rock scrolling upward at a blurring pace. I said, ‘I’m sorry,’ to them in my mind.” His friends say he never made a sound before hitting the ground.
His rope had been threaded through two pieces of webbing, and as he lowered, the friction burned through them.
Boratensky, who has been climbing since he was 15 doing ice routes in Valdez, Banff and Ouray, and peaks such Rainier, Shasta and Shuksan, realized his error in retrospect. After leading the pitch, he had threaded his rope through two loops of webbing on the tree “with the expectation that I would rap down, pull the rope through and my buddies would lead up as well.” Upon reaching the ground, he found that his partners, Charlotte and Oscar Fors, wanted to toprope rather than lead as he had expected. “I never thought about the fact that I hadn’t run the rope through biners.”
As he puts it, “A momentary lapse of judgment is all it takes.”
Both of his friends toproped the ice formation and lowered off. Boratensky then toproped it to finish the day.
He had been lowered about 15 or so feet when both slings failed. He sustained nine fractured vertebrae, a collapsed lung, a broken nose, facial lacerations, two broken ribs, a broken sternum, a dislocated hip and two dislocated shoulders. Fortuitously, he had no head trauma (he wore a helmet). Rescuers from the fire department arrived in 30 to 40 minutes, followed by the Vail Mountain Rescue team, and evacuated him.
Boratensky has generally recovered, though he will experience some lasting effects. He plans to attend the Ouray Ice Fest.
He expresses enormous appreciation for his life and luck. “I think every day how much worse the situation would have been had the anchors failed while one of my friends was climbing.”
At its source, the accident was caused by the friction of rope against webbing, which will melt slings. Even the action of pulling a rope through slings once, as per the climber’s original plan, weakens them for subsequent use. In this case, belaying and lowering three climbers cut the webbing.
Never run a climbing rope over slings. Ropes should only run over metal! Leave carabiners or quick links on the slings if necessary.
If you choose to rap through slings, replace old tat with new slings. While rappelling with the ropes directly through slings is common on mountain and alpine routes where you may not have enough gear to leave carabiners, do so with extreme caution.
For toprope anchors, always use redundant anchors, fresh slings and two opposed carabiners. In the same way that you check your partner’s knot, habitually check on anchors, even ones arranged by someone you trust.