Josh Creasser, an experienced climber from Las Vegas, stood below the 1,000-foot Original Route (5.12b) on the Rainbow Wall at Red Rocks. It was December 1, at around 9 a.m., a dry, sunny winter day. He was there to rope-solo the big wall, waiting for the party ahead of him to finish ascending a rope fixed to the top of the second pitch. They yelled down and Creasser hooked on his ascenders and started jugging. He reached the anchors and accidentally dropped a chain of carabiners.
“I needed them for the rest of the route,” Creasser wrote in an e-mail. “So I began rigging a rappel. This is where my memory stops.”
Somehow, Creasser disconnected from the anchor and fell 140 feet to the base of the route. Luckily, the haul line was clipped through the anchor and attached to Creasser. A belayer from a third party, situated on an anchor on a nearby route, observed that the haul bag acted as a counterweight, slowing Creasser’s fall.
“My old HB carbon-kevlar helmet had some nasty dings in it, likely saving my skull several times,” Josh wrote. “Somewhere in the course of the fall, I shattered my sacrum and broke several vertebrae in my thoracic spine. No spinal-cord damage. However, plenty of nerve damage occurred in my sacrum and I was fully in shock, hypothermic and nearly dead by the time I arrived at the ER in Las Vegas.”
Creasser walked with a walker for the first time on February 21.
“With successful nerve-graft surgery and/or enough time, the muscles in my left calf, ankle, hamstring and glute may work well enough to restore previous function. I’ll be able to climb again, but that’s a good year off, minimum.”
Descending accidents are legion for a number of reasons – haste, exhaustion, carelessness or simply relaxing one’s attention when shifting focus from climbing to rappelling. Creasser commented that this accident was caused by over-confidence. While we may never know exactly how he detached from the anchor, the point is that in this case – as in many others – it happened.
Since rappelling is notoriously dangerous, every climber needs to come up with a foolproof system that incorporates the principles of simplicity and redundancy. Creasser suggested that his accident probably had something to do with the complexity of a two-bolt big-wall anchor-mess.
Everyone knows that anchors must be redundant, but it is also important that they are simple. You should be able to look at an anchor and instantly understand how it is rigged. Eliminate links in the chain between you and your anchor by using a cordelette (a 17-foot length of cord equalized and tied off at a master point) and a dedicated daisy. Always clip the cordelette directly to your anchor points with locking carabiners and clip your daisy directly to the master point. Clip a second sling to one of the anchor pieces for redundancy. Rig your rappel line through the fixed anchor (or master point if you’ll be returning to clean the anchor).
If you’re rapping off fixed pro, make sure it is redundant and equalized, and that any fixed webbing is solid.
Visually inspect your system twice and, most important, weight the rappel before unclipping: Gently bounce-test the line to see that any fixed protection is sound, and that your device is correctly threaded. Only then should you unclip your slings.
To summarize: Simplify by eliminating links from the anchor chain, incorporate redundancy and always test the rappel before unclipping backups.