On the afternoon of Friday, May 7, Japhy Dhungana and Brian Ellis finished the popular Yosemite eight-pitch linkup of Serenity Crack (5.10d) to Sons of Yesterday (5.10a) and started rappelling. When they reached Sunset Ledge at the top of Serenity Crack, Ellis tied their two ropes together with an overhand knot, threaded his Trango Cinch (an “auto-lock” belay device for single ropes) onto the 10.2-mm rope, clipped in and prepared to descend. Dhungana and Ellis were using the Reepschnur rappel method, in which a thin cord (in this case a 6-mm line) is tied to a thicker rope. The knot joining the ropes jams against the rappel rings, making it possible to descend on a single line and then pull the thin cord to retrieve the ropes. Ellis tested the set-up to make sure that the knot would not pull through the rings, then rappelled about 15 feet and stopped to photograph another party on the third pitch of Serenity. He moved right and left to get different angles, then began rappelling again.
“This is when I heard a pop and the sound of the rope whizzing,” Dhungana wrote in an online post. “I tried to grab [the rope] with my bare hands and held on tightly as long as I could. I even tried to wrap it around my waist for an emergency brake, but the rope just burned through my hand.”
The knot had pulled through the rings. Ellis fell 300 feet to the base of Serenity Crack. He died at the scene.
According to Dhungana , Ellis was fond of rappelling on a single line with his Cinch, a method that depends on the knot jamming against the rappel rings. He had used this system successfully many times in the past, but in every other scenario, he had rigged a backup in case the knot pulled through. In order to back up a Reepschnur, climbers must tie a figure eight on a bight in the retrieval rope, clip a locking carabiner to the bight, then clip this ’biner to the thicker line. This prevents the rope from running freely in the event that the stopper knot pulls through the rings.
Dhungana wrote, “When Brian set up this system and tied the knots (I was coiling the ropes in the meantime preparing for tossing), he forgot to tie the backup knot. When I checked the system for him, I, too, committed the same mistake and only observed the main knot.” Ellis checked the system three times, Dhungana wrote, without noticing the missing backup. “The only explanation I have for this is distraction and complacency.”
In this instance, the worst-case scenario happened. The knot popped through the rings and a backup wasn’t rigged.
The Reepschnur method is a good way to descend on a single rope using an auto-locking device, and still be able to retrieve the rope. It is especially handy when you want to save weight by pairing a climbing rope with a thin cord. The method does have limitations, however. First, the rappel station must have rings with a diameter small enough to trap the knot. The climbers here used an overhand knot, which is popular. Note that if the anchor has slightly larger rings you can tie a bulkier knot. You cannot use this method to rappel at stations with large rings or carabiners, however, or on alpine routes where webbing is used without rings. Second, you must always rig a backup. [See photos for the correct way to rig a Reepschnur rappel.]