On the morning of June 22, 2010, Joseph Miller began leading the second pitch of the Yellow Spur (5.10a), one of the most popular routes on the Redgarden Wall in Eldorado Canyon near Boulder, Colorado. Miller’s belayer was anchored to a tree and paid out slack as Miller traversed to the base of a short dihedral, placing a nut and a .4 Camalot along the way. According to his belayer, Miller had some trouble with the tricky 5.8 moves leading into the dihedral and paused to wiggle in a marginal .5 Camalot. Shortly after placing the cam, Miller slipped. The .5 pulled and he plummeted past a small ledge. The rope pulled tight and the belayer witnessed Miller decelerate, as if the fall were being arrested. Under normal circumstances, the belayer should have been pulled sharply to the left but he later said in an interview conducted by the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group that he felt little force. The rope stretched and severed abruptly. Miller fell 80 feet to the ground and died.
As climbers we take it for granted that ropes don’t break. That’s why this accident attracted the attention of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG), a volunteer, primary responder to all mountain-rescue emergencies in Boulder County. The RMRG performed a number of drop tests on the second pitch of the Yellow Spur using the same gear. After completing these tests and interviewing witnesses, the RMRG concluded that the rope-end carabiner of a two-foot runner on the .4 Camalot had pinched the rope against the rock. The RMRG then recreated the accident using a drop tower and a piece of flagstone that simulated the sharp edge over which Miller’s rope ran on the Yellow Spur. The RMRG measured fall forces generated on the belayer and climber sides of the protection and created falls that severed ropes. The damage at the rope ends, however, didn’t match the damage characteristics of Miller’s rope, which was abraded for roughly two inches with core strands pulled out. The damage characteristics suggested that the rope had sawed for a short distance across the edge. When the RMRG added the slight pendulum that would have occurred given Miller’s position relative to the protection, the rope severed under 800 pounds of force with 100 pounds of force exerted on the belayer, and the rope abraded for two inches before it cut. In short, it appears that when Miller fell his rope was pinched, tensioned and sawed along the sharp edge.
The old tenet, “Ropes don’t break, they cut” holds true here. Climbers must take every precaution to ensure that their ropes don’t run across sharp edges. Use slings to extend your rope so that it runs without rubbing. Slings will reduce drag and help protect your lifeline in the event of a fall. Sometimes, however, rock features like ledges, aretes and roofs are impossible to negotiate without having the rope contact an edge. In these instances, it is important to place good gear that will minimize pendulums and therefore protect against sawing the rope along the edge. While ropes are super burly and constructed with sheaths that protect the core fibers, tensioned ropes are actually very easy to chop. On routes or in areas where ropes inevitably contact sharp edges, it is a good idea to climb with double ropes. Finally, if you feel that your rope is in danger of being cut if you fall, don’t press on without remedying the situation. Retreat might be the best option.