On May 29, 2017, at around 9 a.m., Shelby Withington fell 500 feet to his death after a simul-rappelling accident on the 1,300-foot Goat Wall near Mazama, Washington. The 20 year old from Seattle was a student at Western Washington University.
Withington and three other climbers, ages 21, 22 and 27, were on the 10-pitch Sisyphus (5.11). They completed the route’s first seven pitches and decided to descend from there, before the route entered a series of third class ledges and two more easy pitches to the top. According to mountainproject.com, “Many parties will opt to descend after the seventh pitch as [route] quality deteriorates.”
It was Memorial Day weekend and “the team was going to do one more climb, then go home,” Rick Avery, the Search and Rescue Coordinator for Okanogan County, tells Rock and Ice.
Likely in an effort to save time, the four climbers chose to simul-rappel the route in pairs, Avery says—a technique where one climber counterweights
the other on opposite stands of the rope, allowing both to rappel at the same time. Withington and another climber went first. The other climber, whose name has not been released, got ahead of Withington, and reached the belay ledge at the top of the sixth pitch first. He un-weighted the system, breaking the counterbalance, and his strand of the rope slipped through his rappel device. They had not tied knots in the ends of the rope.
“[Withington] probably fell around 300 feet before he impacted anything,” Avery says. “And then he kept going for another 200 feet or so.” According to Avery, the Navy, who sent a rescue helicopter, estimates that Withington fell over 500 feet in total to the base of the climb.
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“It was not rockfall or an equipment failure. It was climber error during the rappel process that resulted in the fall,” Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez told Methow Valley News. “[Withington] died on impact. The injuries were catastrophic.”
According to Avery, one of the other climbers at the seventh-pitch anchor saw the rope whipping through the anchor and attempted to grab it with his hands, but he was unable to stop the rope and suffered severe rope burn to his hands. “The rope came down with the body,” Avery says.
Another climbing party that was about to start up Sisyphus witnessed the accident and called 911. Aero Methow Rescue Service and the Okanogan
County Sheriff’s search-and-rescue team arrived within an hour, according to Methow Valley News, and the rescue team was able to hike to the body. The Whidbey Island Naval Air Station also sent a helicopter search and rescue crew, who retrieved Withington’s body and flew him to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base.
The rescue team and other climbers helped the three other climbers get down.
Withington was the third fatality on the Goat Wall in the past eight years. In May 2016, Ryan Kautz, 26, died in a rappelling accident while descending Prime Rib of Goat, a popular 11-pitch 5.9. In September 2008, Ryan Triplett, 31, fell to his death while free soloing on the wall. Due to the increase in the number of rock climbers, and accidents, in the area, Okanogan County Search and Rescue is developing a high-angle rescue team.
The risks of simul-rappelling—In July 2016, a climber was killed in a similar simul-rappelling accident on Reed’s Pinnacle in Yosemite. Like in Withington’s accident, the two climbers on Reed’s Pinnacle neglected to tie knots in the ends of the rope or back-up the system.
“In my opinion the rewards of simul-rappelling rarely outweigh the risks,” Jeff Ward, an AMGA/IFMGA Mountain Guide, wrote in Ask the Master. “Oftentimes when I see people simul-rappelling they are rappelling so slow and carefully (which is a good idea) that they really aren’t saving themselves that much time.”
According to Withington’s Couch Surfing profile, after graduating
from the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, he took a gap year to: “[follow] my calling to travel the world and climb mountains everywhere I can! I want to get the most out of the life I’ve been given and fill it with new friends, new places and amazing experiences!”
Under “One Amazing Thing I’ve Done”, he wrote: “Summited every 10,000+ foot volcano in Washington and Oregon.”
On his Instagram feed, one photo of a smiling Whithington, holding up taped and bloodied hands in front of a sandstone wall, was captioned: “Look at this cool pic of me happy as crap after a good fight with a cool rock :).”