On February 4, Ian Mack, 23, of Appleton, Wisconsin, started up the route Paradise, a four-star 5.9 at the Banana Belt crag, Owens River Gorge,
a popular sport-climbing area on the East side of the Sierra Nevada.
Mack, a climber with two to three years’ experience, successfully, though shakily, navigated the dead-vertical route, clipping its 12-odd bolts. He arrived
at a set of stainless-steel hooks with spring-loaded gates, a common anchor type at the Gorge.
To lower, Mack would simply have had to drop his lead cord into the hooks, but he clipped his cordelette to bolts above the fixed hooks, clipped a locking
carabiner to the cordelette and clipped his rope.
According to Aidan Loehr, a guide for American Alpine Institute who was climbing a route next to Paradise, Mack clearly yelled, Off belay.’ Mack’s
girlfriend, who was belaying, took him off belay and stepped back to take a picture of him.
Seconds later, Loehr saw Mack, still tied to the rope, free fall 120 feet to the ground. Nearly a dozen climbers rushed to evacuate Mack, but he died of
his injuries at the hospital in nearby Bishop, becoming the first fatality at the Gorge.
Paradise is well bolted and equipped with lowering hooks and a bolted toproping station to save wear and tear on the hooks. A 70-meter rope will
lower you back to the belay ledge, about 15 feet off of the ground. According to a climber who had done the route just prior to Mack, the belayer can
see the climber for the first three or four bolts, but after that the climber is out of sight and you have to communicate verbally.
Typically, if you were going to lower off Paradise, you would drop your rope into the hooks, yell, “Take,” and be lowered by your belayer. While
no one will ever know with certainty what Mack, who was a first-timer to the Gorge, had in mind, the fact that he ignored the hooks and clipped his
cordelette to the bolts and clipped his rope through this with a locking carabiner suggests that he intended to toprope the climb, and clean the station
later. With that in mind, Mack either meant to be lowered, and said “Off belay,” when he meant to say “Take,” or correctly said “Off belay,” and intended
to rappel. In the latter scenario, which is the least likely, he may have failed to correctly clove-hitch into the anchor. If he only looped the rope
through the locking carabiner, instead of hitching it down (a mistake that would be easy to make), when he leaned back at the hanging stance the rope
would have pulled through the carabiner with almost no resistance. Since Mack did not have a daisychain or sling fixed to his harness, anchoring in
with a clove-hitch or a figure-8-on-a-bight would have been the only way for him to secure himself.
A contributing factor may have been Mack’s apparent rattled mental state. Although he was wearing a helmet, an indication that he was safety conscious,
witnesses say he sketched up the route. When you are stressed, it is easy to make absent-minded mistakes, such as yelling out the wrong belay command.
Mack’s girlfriend initially thought she might have taken him off belay when she was supposed to lower him, but witnesses clearly heard him say, “Off
belay,” and felt the accident was no fault of hers.
MISCOMMUNICATION between the belayer and climber is a common cause of accidents, often fatal.
When the climber and belayer will not be able to see one another, such as on Paradise, clearly stating — before the climber leaves the ground
— whether the climber intends to lower or rappel is crucial. Novice climbers in particular should heed this advice, and when other route options abound,
avoid climbs where communication can be a problem.
As an extra precaution, even when the leader yells, “Off belay,” the belayer can keep the leader on, and feed the rope through the belay device all the
way to the end. This might be annoying for the climber, who struggles to tug up the rope and rig the rappel, but guarantees that he is never off belay
until all the rope has played out and the intent of the leader is clear.
Last, preventing an accident of this type is as simple as never weighting
the rope until you clearly hear a got you from your belayer. In this case, the lack of a reply would have alerted Mack to the fact that he had issued the
wrong command, and was in fact no longer on belay.