At around noon on June 16, a party of three climbers—Pete, Mark and Vlad (all names are pseudonyms per Yosemite National Park protocol)—prepared to rappel down the left side of Little John Pinnacle after climbing Little John, Right (5.8) low on the west face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Mark went first, yelling “Off rappel!” when he reached the ground. As Vlad finished threading his device, the team heard someone screaming, “Haulbag, haulbag, haulbag!” from above. Vlad hugged the wall, but Pete, who was sitting, couldn’t dodge and was “hit in his left arm by a fully-loaded El Cap-sized haulbag,” according to a report filed by the climbing ranger Bud Miller, who interviewed the climbers at the scene after the accident. The impact broke Pete’s left arm (humerus). The broken bone ripped through the skin, and Pete began to bleed profusely.
The haulbag had detached from a setup rigged by Jeff, part of a team rappelling from Heart Ledges directly over Pete, Mark and Vlad. Jeff was approximately 100 feet above Little John Pinnacle when the bag cut loose. His partner, Aaron, was one rappel below Jeff when the accident occurred. Roughly level with the top of Little John Pinnacle, he swung in to the ledge to assist. Jeff, who is an EMT, quickly rappelled and began assessing and trying to stabilize Pete as well.
Attempts at controlling the hemorrhaging by applying pressure failed, as did two attempts to tourniquet Pete’s arm. Finally, Jeff and Aaron succeeded in slowing the bleeding by again using applied pressure with clothing.
In the meantime, Aaron was able to call 911 with a cell phone. Less than an hour after the accident, a team of park rangers arrived at the base and informed the climbers that an Advanced Life Support team was on the way, but that it would take at least an hour to package and lower Pete.
The climbers decided to stabilize Pete’s arm using hiking poles, clothing and items from Aaron’s first aid kit, and get him to the base. “Jeff rigged for a tandem rappel using a modified version of a rescue spider,” ranger Miller wrote. “It should also be noted that this is the exact same method Jeff had been using to rappel with the dropped haulbag, and that, in many slightly different iterations, is a common way to rappel with a heavy load.”
Once safely at the base, Pete was carried to the road then flown to a hospital by a medical helicopter. According to the head climbing ranger, Brandon
Latham, because of the prompt actions of his rescuers, Pete’s arm was likely saved.
According to a photo of the setup that Miller shared with Rock and Ice, Jeff had extended his rappel device by clipping two Purcell prusiks (using locking carabiners) to the locking carabiner on the ATC. He then clipped a third locking carabiner to the locker on the ATC, added a sling, and used a non-locking carabiner to clip the sling to the haulbag. Jeff then added a second sling to the haulbag with a non-locker and attached it with a non-locker to the locking biner used to clip in the first sling. (It’s possible he didn’t clip this non-locker into the ATC carabiner masterpoint because it was already clogged with three other locking carabiners.) During the rappel, the haulbag caught on a small ledge and un-weighted the runners.
When the bag released, it detached, fell and struck Pete. The climbers on the ledge reported, according to Miller’s write-up, that they were “fairly certain” both runners were still attached to the haulbag. Jeff’s “best guess” was that the locker holding the runners opened, allowing the bag to detach. “Due to the high level of stress and chaos,” the report stated, Jeff didn’t remember if that locking carabiner remained on the masterpoint.
This accident might have been prevented if the haulbag had been backed up with true redundancy. When the single locker holding both slings failed—by either unscrewing or because it was accidentally left unlocked—the bag dropped.
Yet the complexity of the rig likely contributed to the accident. The system employed seven carabiners. By clipping a single prusik directly to the ATC carabiner and using one sling girth-hitched on the haulbag clipped directly to the ATC carabiner or harness belay loop, you could eliminate five carabiners and two slings, resulting in a simpler setup and one that is easier to monitor. Although the redundancy of the system would be compromised, the simplicity would increase the chances of remembering to lock the crucial carabiner and allow easy visual monitoring.
Avoid clipping carabiner to carabiner and eliminate links in the chain as much as possible by girth- hitching. Every link is a point that could potentially fail. Keep an eye on carabiners, and make sure they’re locked. Replace screw locks with auto-locking biners. Orientate screw locks so that they screw downward, with gravity. Make sure that locking carabiners are not rubbing on other gear that could open them.
Keep it simple, a watchword of safe climbing practice.
This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 238 (November 2016).