Yosemite’s leaning tower hangs like a tilted ironing board over the Merced River. Tipping out at an average of 110 degrees, and less featured than El Cap, the Tower’s 1,200-foot West Face had been the exclusive domain of aid climbers ever since Warren Harding’s first ascent, in 1961.
Then, in 2001, the Brits Leo Houlding and Jason Pickles did the unthinkable, patching together a largely free version of Harding’s route. Their Westie Face (5.13 A0) was thought to be it for free climbers until four years later, when Todd Skinner and Jim Hewitt fired off the improbable Wet Lycra Nightmare (5.13+ A0), a free version of the old aid line Wet Denim Daydream. Skinner, stoked at having found a free line on the tower, and doubly psyched to have discovered that the wall was more featured than anyone had thought , soon began planning yet another free route up the wall. In 2006, with his partner Hewitt, he began work on the 1992 Eric Kohl and Eric Rasmussen horror show, Jesus Built My Hotrod (VI A4 5.7).
On October 23, after having worked the route off and on for some two weeks, Skinner and Hewitt began rappelling back to the valley floor from ropes fixed off Ahwahnee Ledge, a large bivy platform about 800 feet off the deck. Skinner fixed his Grigri to the rope, clipped to it with a locking biner and began the free-hanging rappel. Hewitt heard a sound, then looked to see Skinner on the ground.
Skinner’s Grigri and locking carabiner were found still on the rope. The belay/rappel loop on his harness, to which he had clipped the Grigri, was broken, and was found at the base of the wall a day later. An examination of the belay/rappel loop showed that it had worn nearly through. Prior to the accident, Hewitt and Skinner had noticed the frayed loop, and according to Hewitt, the two were concerned about it.
Wearing through a belay/rappel loop is extremely unusual. Typically, the leg-loop tie-in point is the first part of a harness to wear out, as it is constantly subjected to the nylon-on-nylon sawing action of the rope. The belay/rappel loop usually only sees action from carabiners, which cause nominal wear. In addition, because the belay/rappel loop is a non-redundant and critical component, it is usually sewn in a doubled thickness, making it all the more difficult to wear out.
According to an initial report, Skinner had his daisy chains permanently girth-hitched to the belay/rappel loop, a common set-up for many big wallers. Rigging the daisychains this way prevented the belay/rappel loop from rotating, so every time he weighted a daisy chain, the belay/rappel loop rubbed against the leg-loop strap in the same spot. Over time, and given Skinner’s prolific use, the chafing action simply sawed through the loop.
Inspect your harness Manufacturers mean it when they tell you to examine every inch of your harness every time you put it on. Especially pay attention to the leg-loop cross strap, typically the first area to wear, and the belay/rappel loop. Replace your harness if any component appears worn. Replacing your harness every two years even if it still appears in good shape is advisable.
Don’t girth-hitch daisy chains or any sling to your belay/rappel loop. This is the most important lesson to take away from Skinner’s accident. It underscores the danger of nylon-on-nylon abrasion, especially when the wear is concentrated on one specific area. Your harness belay/rappel loop must be free to rotate so it can wear more evenly, and you should only clip your locking belay or rappel carabiner to it.
If you must fix daisy chains or slings to your harness for jugging or anchoring, thread them around the leg-loop cross strap and around the swami belt. To do this, take your harness apart and pass the leg loops through the bottom loop of your daisychains, then re-assemble your harness, also passing the waist belt through the daisy chain’s bottom loop. This configuration spares the belay/rappel loop from wear, and is redundant. If the leg-loop strap breaks, you still have the waist-belt back-up, and vice versa. Alternately, you can girth-hitch the daisy chains or slings around the leg-loop cross strap and waist belt. This method doesn’t require taking off your harness, so you can rig it on a climb, but it squeezes your leg-loop strap and waist belt together.
Use a backup. Many versions of the rappel backup exist, and there are pros and cons for each system. There is no argument, however, against using a backup. If you have ascenders, you can clip one on the rope above your rappel device, and hold it open with your top, or guide, hand as you rappel. If you have a prussik, you can put this on the rope beneath your rappel device, and clip it to a leg loop. Hold the prussik in your brake hand as you rappel (see Climb Safe, Rock and Ice No. 136.)
Make your back-up independent. Tragically, even if Skinner had used a back-up, the outcome might have been the same because his daisy chains, which would have connected him to the back-up, were only hitched to the belay/rappel loop, which failed. Use a back-up and connect it to a structural part of your harness that is independent of your belay/rappel loop.