March 11 was a bluebird day at the Soul Asylum, a limestone sport crag in the Utah Hills near Saint George, Utah. Ike Palatt, 21, on his first day of spring break from university in New York, was eager to warm up on the 110-foot Soul Train (5.12a), a line that starts slabby, then rears to vertical about halfway up. Belayed by friend and frequent climbing partner Jarret Hunter, Palatt tied in and sent the route.
Arriving at the anchor station, a pair of Metolius Rap Hangers, Palatt daisied in with two short draws, untied and threaded the rope through the thick, rounded hangers. He pulled up the rope to its midpoint and rigged it for a single-rope rappel in which he would rap one side while his partner counter weighted the opposite side. Although unconventional, counterweight rappelling was Palatt’s preferred method of descent, one that he and his partner often employed.
After setting his Grigri on the rope and clipping in to it, Palatt inspected his rigging. It all looked good, he says. I yelled, Got me?’ and Jarret said, Yeah.’ Then I leaned back.
Because Palatt had used short quickdraws to clip himself to the anchor, he was unable to weight the rope to test that all was in order. Nevertheless, having performed this counterweight rappel numerous times, he was unconcerned.
When Palatt weighted the rope, it zipped through the rap hangers — he had accidentally set his rappel on the same side of the rope that his partner was counter-weighting. “I yelled Take,” says Palatt, but obviously that didn’t work.
Palatt plunged down the climb, struck the wall, rag-dolled to the ground and landed unconscious in a bush. Hunter, a trained EMT, administered first aid, stabilizing his seriously injured friend while climbers nearby went for help. A rescue team arrived, transporting Palatt to the University Medical Center in Las Vegas. He suffered two badly broken feet, a broken elbow and rib, fractured vertebrae and a bruised lung. Today, after several surgeries, he expects a full recovery and to be back on the rock in the near future.
Palatt is lucky to have survived a 110-foot fall. He was probably spared because the bush he landed in cushioned the impact, and the friction of the rope pulling through the rap hangers slowed his fall, if only a little.
The causes of the accident are twofold. First, although Palatt and his belayer both understood that Palatt would rappel on one side of a counterweighted rope, they did not discuss on which side he would rappel. Palatt assumed that his belayer knew he would be on the right side because they had climbed together for over three years, and he always rappelled on that side. The belayer, however, assumed that Palatt would rappel the left strand in order to clean the draws clipped to that side of the rope.
When you climb with someone for so long, says Palatt, you just assume you do things the same way. We were so comfortable with one another that we just left out that critical piece of communication.
Second, while Palatt did visually check his anchor and confirm with his belayer that he was on, he wasn’t able to weight the rappel while remaining clipped to the anchor since he was clipped in with two short quickdraws. A simple test bounce on the rope should have raised the red flag.
Lowering accidents are common, although the circumstances of Palatt’s accident are uncommon. Still, the root cause — miscommunication — is to blame for this and most other lowering accidents. In this case, because both climbers were so tuned in to each other’s systems, they felt that spelling out the details was unnecessary. If, prior to leaving the ground, Palatt had confirmed that he would rappel on the right side of the rope, the accident would have been avoided. Whether you are counterweight rappelling, lowering, or simply rappelling on both strands of rope, confirm your intentions with your belayer, and reconfirm them at the anchor before you commit.Palatt’s accident could also have been avoided had he carried longer quickdraws or long slings, which would have let him remain tethered safely to the rap hangers while testing the rappel rope. Instead, Palatt, like many minimalist sport climbers, headed up the route with just two short draws for clipping himself to the anchors. Adding two long draws to the sport rack and reserving them for rigging your lowering station is a good idea.
Finally, while counterweight rappelling does allow the climber to control his rate of descent, it is unnecessarily complicated, requiring a rappel and a counterweight. Simply lowering straight through the anchors would have avoided the accident.