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Middle Muddle


On a clear September day on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a 41-year old woman from Nanaimo threaded her anchor to rappel Reaching Out (5.10b), an 80-foot route on the main wall at Crest Creek Crags. The woman, an experienced climber, and her fiancé were using a rope with three markings: one to indicate the middle and two that were 30 feet from either end.  All marks on the lime-green rope were black. As the woman began to descend, she rappelled off one rope end and dropped 50 feet to the ground, her head making first impact.

A witness in the nearby parking lot heard the woman scream, and the fiancé ran toward the parking lot, yelling for help. The witness grabbed a first-aid kit and followed the fiancé but by the time they arrived back on the scene, the woman had died. Witnesses believe that she mistook one of the 30-foot end-warning markings on the rope for the middle mark.


Given the fact that each marking was identical in color, it could be easy to mistake one of the markings 30 feet from the end for the middle mark. Unfortunately, such errors aren’t unheard of in the climbing world; witnesses speculated that the Needles pioneer Paul Duval made the same mistake when he died after rappelling off the short end of his rope in June (see Passages, Rock and Ice No. 172).


There are two issues: One, the climber may have relied solely on the rope markings to determine the middle, and two, no safety redundancies were applied to the system (e.g., knotting the rope ends or using a rappel backup).

Rappelling accounted for nearly 10 percent of reported fatal accidents in 2006, according to Accidents in North American Mountaineering. Only one other category, falls and slips on rock or ice, resulted in more. This incident—like every accident that involves rappelling off the rope ends—could have been prevented had the ends been knotted. There is a small risk that a knotted rope end will snag a crack or flake, but the effort to fix a snag hardly outweighs the benefit the knot provides. Further, this accident could’ve been prevented had the climber first asked her partner if the rope ends were touching down.


End warning marks, such as those on the rope used in this incident, are designed to do what their name suggests, but do not supplant other safety measures. Wherever possible, build redundancy into your rope systems. If you can’t visually confirm that both ends reach the ground, or the next station, tie the ends of the rope together and flake them through the anchor. This will insure that the ends will be even, and the knot will act as a back up.  Further, know your gear. Products from different companies might be designed differently. Perhaps this climber did not realize that there were end markers as well as a middle mark. Not all ropes, belay devices and harnesses work the same—know the ins and outs of each piece of gear. Look over new ropes and familiarize yourself with the recommended applications, as well as the appearance. As ropes are used they develop discolorations and nicks that also must be monitored. Run the length of the rope through your hand often to tactilely check the integrity of the cord.

Middle-marked ropes are useful for quickly finding the middle of a line, as are bi-color or bi-pattern ones, but as soon as rope ends are trimmed (a common practice to lengthen the life of cords), these markings become obsolete. Regardless of rope markings, always knot your ends, a fool-proof backup worth the small amount of extra time, every time.

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