On June 23 two groups from area gyms were climbing at crags along the Meadow River in the New River Gorge, West Virginia. Instructors from the gyms were guiding the climbers and both groups were overseen by an AMGA-certified rock-climbing instructor. At approximately 5 p.m., while the rest of the group was packing up to leave, one of the gym instructors, Arian Bates, decided to lead one more route.
He chose a sport route at the Rehab Crag that was red-tagged, indicating that the line had not yet been redpointed. But, having heard, incorrectly, that the line was an open project, he decided to try it.
The climb was about 55 feet tall and followed a steep 5.12 slab for five bolts to a horizontal six- to eight-foot 5.10 roof. The roof had two bolts, with another just over the lip. These three bolts and the two-bolt anchor had in-situ quickdraws. When the AMGA guide questioned Bates about his ability to climb the roof, Bates said that he would lower off a fixed quickdraw if he had trouble.
Bates set off and completed the slab, but fell at the first bolt in the roof. He hung for about five minutes, then decided to bail. As he lowered from the first bolt in the roof, he cleaned his draws off the lower bolts. At the second bolt off the ground, Bates swung onto a small ledge, unweighted the rope and unclipped the draw. When he re-weighted the rope, the bolt in the roof pulled out. Bates fell 10 feet to the ground and fractured his tibia.
Properly placed bolts of the appropriate length and diameter do not pull out of solid stone. Nuttall sandstone, the type of rock found in the New River Gorge, is especially solid. The bolt that pulled out was a 2.5-inch by 3/8-inch stainless-steel wedge anchor. Bolts of this type in solid rock have a rated pull-out strength of around 3,500 pounds. Bates dynamically weighted the rope when he stepped off the ledge, but forces generated on the bolt could not have reached anywhere near the rated pull-out strength. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that the bolt was improperly placed or defective.
Inspection of the bolt revealed damaged threads on the shaft and that the nut was fixed (unable to spin). Further, the expansion collar on the bolt was not fully engaged. Finally, there were hammer marks on the shaft, nut and hanger. One possibility for the marks, thread damage and subsequent failure is that the hole diameter was too small (perhaps a metric bit was used).
The AMGA instructor and a local climber returned after the accident and rappelled the route, inspected the bolts and attempted to remove the hangers. All the bolts appeared solid, yet when the local climber tried to wrench off the nuts, the studs spun in the hole, preventing him from removing the hangers. Clearly, something was wrong with all the bolts, though it is impossible to diagnose the exact problem.
According to local Dan Brayack, the route was his project. When he bolted it on aid, the bolt in the roof didn’t drill properly and it didn’t tighten down. With his drill battery shot, Brayack redtagged the line to keep people off it until he could return to replace the bolt.
In any anchoring scenario—even using provisional anchors to bail midway up a route—you must have two independent protection points, preferably equalized. In this case, Bates could have left a carabiner clipped to the last bolt in the slab and backed it up with a long sling fixed to the other bolt in the roof. This should have prevented the accident.
It could also have been prevented had the bad bolt been promptly replaced.
Finally, view all fixed gear—bolts, pins, chain, quickdraws—as suspect. As discussed in a recent article [Cliff Notes, No. 197], accidents involving fixed gear are on the increase. Most of us, like Bates, put our faith in fixed gear all of the time, but we’re beginning to see the folly in that blind trust. Take responsibility for your own safety by using your own gear when possible, and by backing up fixed gear.