The Midnight Surf Wall at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky is one of the newer sectors in Muir Valley. Most of the routes are long and overhanging, featuring dynamic moves between spaced holds, and equipped with quickdraws. Recently, a climber started up one of the area classics, a 5.12d called Tapeworm.
He clipped the first draw and climbed past it to the second bolt, but instead of clipping it, he decided to downclimb. Two feet above the first bolt, he slipped. Taking a short fall with little rope out resulted in high impact forces. Both the belayer and climber (who asked that their names not be used), described hearing a loud pop! The rope cut and the climber landed on his feet, stumbled backward and fell, hitting his head on a rock and knocking himself out. He lay on the ground bleeding from a head wound and twitching.
The belayer had a phone and attempted to call 911, but lacked service. A third member of the party was just about to run and call for help at one of the Muir Valley rescue stations when the climber came to and said, “I guess I’m OK.”
He decided to “walk it off.” Later that evening he went to the emergency room and had his head wound stapled.
The climber was at the crag climbing the next day, and is reportedly “just fine.”
As fixed draws are becoming more prevalent at popular sport-climbing areas, instances of ropes being “sheathed” (where the mantle of the rope is stripped away from the core) by sharply grooved carabiners are also becoming more common. Accidents involving cut ropes are rare, but not unheard-of. Kolin Powick, on his Black Diamond blog, reported hearing of a similar accident, this one in a Prague climbing gym in 2008, when a rope was cut by a sharp carabiner, also located at the first bolt.
The Tapeworm accident was the result of many factors, but three stand out.
First: the position of the first bolt invariably leads to a greater angle in the rope as the belayer stands away from the vertical plane. This angle causes more force to be exerted against the carabiner as every climber is lowered, and this force causes the rope biner on the first draw to wear faster than other draws.
Second: The shape of the carabiner plays a role in how sharp the worn edge can be. In this case, the basket of the biner was manufactured to be wide and then sharply tapered to a narrow spine. As the metal wears, the edges of the wide basket can become thin slivers. This wearing pattern can occur on any I-beam or wide-to-narrow carabiner design, and photos of the Tapeworm carabiner confirm that it was at that stage.
Third: As Isaac Heacock, a Red River Gorge guide, told Rock and Ice, “People are pretty good about replacing worn draws on crux bolts, but first bolts in terrain that is easy in respect to the grade are sometimes neglected.” Heacock said that people had noticed that the first quickdraw on Tapeworm was badly grooved, but didn’t feel compelled to replace it because they didn’t expect to fall on the 5.11a climbing.
These three factors resulted in a razor-sharp carabiner, left in place. The hard catch with little rope out severed the cord.