Saturday, August 30 was an excellent day for a romp up Captain Hook, a multi-pitch 5.7 outing at Suicide Rock near Idyllwild, California. Trevor Mathews, 21, and his climbing partner Claire McKay, 22, completed the first pitch without incident. Mathews, a climber of nine months according to a friend of the team quoted on watershednews.blogspot.com, set off up the second pitch with a thin rack of cams and nuts. McKay, whose account of the accident was later related by a friend on supertopo.com, belayed standing on the ledge, clipped to an anchor consisting of one #3 C4 and a single nut. After climbing for roughly 20 feet, Mathews placed a cam, made a couple of tenuous moves and fell. As the rope came taut, the cam blew out of the crack and Mathews whipped onto the belay, hitting McKay. The impact threw her against the wall, fracturing her cheekbone, arm and wrist, and knocked her unconscious. When Mathews’ weight came onto the anchor, both pieces ripped. Since McKay lay unconscious on the ledge, the rope ran unchecked through her device. Mathews fell headfirst to the ground, bashing his head against the wall, and breaking his helmet, and ending up wedged upside-down between a tree and the rock. He sustained head injuries and broke his neck in the roughly 100-foot plummet.
Clark Jacobs, Phil Sanchez, Richard Magner and others who were climbing nearby witnessed the accident, called 911 and initiated a rescue. They secured Mathews in an on-site litter and carried him to the road, where he was evacuated by helicopter. Idyllwild and Riverside County firefighters arrived as rescuers turned their attention to McKay, and out of nowhere, threatening clouds moved in. Sanchez and Magner decided to climb to McKay. As they ascended, rain and grape-sized hail pelted down, forcing the helicopter to abort the second airlift. Luckily, McKay was conscious at this point and, with assistance from rescuers, was able to rappel to the ground.
Both climbers are expected to fully recover from their injuries.
As is the case with many climbing mishaps, several variables combined to create the accident. The most obvious mistake was the inadequate protection. Three pieces of gear failed, which indicates that they were incorrectly placed—Mathews was a relatively inexperienced leader. The nut could have stripped as it was weighted with outward force. One thing is certain: It is crucial that the leader safeguard himself and his party against groundfall by placing good gear and sufficient backups.
In any climbing situation the first piece of protection is paramount and must be trucker, since failure will always result in groundfall or a fall directly onto the anchor. On multi-pitch climbs, the anchor must be inviolable and absolutely bombproof. If there is doubt about the integrity of the anchor, the leader must scout for alternatives or backups, and not bring up the second or continue with the pitch until he is certain that the protection is secure. He should also spare no effort in placing a good first piece, even just a few feet above the anchor, to protect the anchor from a direct fall. When using passive protection, look for oppositional placements that will eliminate outward or upward pull and possibly strip the gear. If the first anchoring scenario is sketchy, consider climbing up or down and choosing a less comfortable, but safer stance. Never skimp on gear for the anchor and consider retreating rather than climbing on a less than ideal first piece or anchor.
Ironically, McKay was lucky that she was knocked unconscious since otherwise she would have undoubtedly locked off the belay and been pulled off the ledge when the anchor failed. Her injuries occurred when Mathews slammed into her on his way down. These injuries could have been prevented by positioning a reliable, multi-directional anchor to one side of the leader’s fall line.
To summarize: Any protection that acts to safeguard the climber or climbing party from groundfall must be absolutely secure. If no good gear can be found for an anchor or to protect insecure moves off the ground, choose prudence over chutzpah. In those cases, retreat and return with an appropriate rack or pick an alternate climb.