On October 16, a 29-year-old climber from the Bay area arrived at the second anchors of the two-pitch sport climb Members Only (5.10d) at Owens River Gorge and prepared to descend.
While the first pitch is a popular five-star 5.10d, the second pitch is a run-out 5.9 and not often done. Combined, the two pitches of Members Only are more than 50 meters, making it possible to link them as one pitch but impossible to lower from the second set of anchors, even with a 70-meter rope.
Though as of press time the climber was not ready to answer questions, it is reasonable to assume that while clipped in direct, she untied her rope and fed it through the anchors. The belayer (who requested anonymity) unclipped and removed his device.
The climber retied, unclipped her direct attachment to the anchors, leaned back and fell to the ground.
Olivia Nguyen, Holly Hansen and Patrick O’Donnell were climbing at the nearby Mothership Wall when a noise caught their attention.
I heard this whack, glanced over and witnessed the free fall, says Nguyen. Then something happened to her rope and flipped her, slowing her down.
Hansen, who helped check the injured climber’s vitals, says that the climber and her belayer had never climbed together outside prior to that day. The climber suffered a broken pelvis and fractured vertebrae among various other, less serious injuries. She is back in the Bay area, has undergone four surgeries and remains hospitalized, receiving rehab to regain function in her left leg.
Witnesses noted that the climber set up intending to be lowered, while her belayer thought she was going to rappel.
A river [makes communication difficult]. It would be hard to know if she yelled or he didn’t hear, says Hansen.
The climber fell 40 feet before her rope kinked and caught at the anchor. The kink jerked through the chains but the snag slowed her down before she fell another 100 feet to the ground.
Roughly 5 percent of the recorded accidents in 2009 were related to rappelling, according to Accidents in North American Mountaineering. Here are two surefire ways to prevent becoming a statistic.
Discuss your plans with your belayer before you leave the ground. Will you lower? Rappel? Is the rope long enough to reach the ground? Tie a knot in the end of the belayer’s rope if you’re planning on lowering. If you are rappelling, most manufacturers recommend a backup, like a prussik. In any case, before climbing ensure a safe lowering scenario by discussing your plans and trouble-shooting possible outcomes with your belayer.
2 Test the System
Prior to unclipping, inspect your knot and see that the rope is properly threaded through the anchor, then check with your belayer and make sure he is holding your weight. If rappelling, inspect your rigging, then take up slack and test the system by weighting it before you unclip.Almost all rappelling/lowering accidents can be prevented by following these two steps, but a single lapse in protocol could result in a tragic accident. Remember, you have to go through the process every time.