This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 254 (November 2018).
Late last August, in the dog days of a Tuolumne summer, Megan Kelley was knocked unconscious by a loose block dislodged high on Cathedral Peak, a popular alpine formation with numerous multi-pitch variations. Kelley was following the first pitch on its Southeast Buttress— she was on the right side—when she was struck. A doctor was present on the wall when the accident occurred, and descended immediately to help. However, Kelley, a Seattle-born native, died that day. She was 25 and had been climbing for about a year.
Is there such a thing as safe climbing? Cathedral Peak’s popularity cannot be exaggerated. The Southeast Buttress tackles 700 feet in about five pitches. When I climbed the 5.6 in 2015, there were people everywhere—soloists, guided parties, simul-climbing teams, beginner teams. On the fourth pitch, we ran into someone in tennis shoes. It was his first time on the route.
The nature of Cathedral’s wide granite skirt allows multiple parties to weave in and out of 5.5 to 5.7 face and crack climbing, until the chimney up high, which is a bottleneck. The day of Kelley’s accident, a climber just below the summit reported counting 23 climbers on the first three pitches.
The cause of the rockfall remains a mystery. Though someone did yell “Rock,” Kelley, who was wearing a helmet, was not able to get out of the line of fire. Rockfall can happen naturally or be caused by trailing ropes, climbers or ropes between climbers.
Kelley’s accident might have been a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unavoidable with the exception of waiting until the route was clear, assuming of course the rockfall was caused by climbers, which is unknown.
Climbing’s popularity is growing exponentially simply because the sport is growing. More climbers means more people are exposed to
rockfall and potentially more inexperienced individuals at the crags.
We may think of rockfall as a hazard only for alpinists and mountaineers, but it is a danger for all climbers—a few years ago a co-worker at this magazine took a wallet-sized plate to the top of his head at the base of a popular sport crag. The rock split his scalp, but he dodged a bullet and recovered.
Another co-worker just pulled off a plate of rock on a new route in Rifle and his face looked like Mr. T’s in “Rocky III” for two weeks. Point being—loose rock is common, and as crags become more popular, falling rocks will become more of a problem.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for dealing with rockfall, but there are general guidelines based on scenarios.
[SPORT CLIMBING] You’re on a sport route and come upon loose rock. If the rock is small, easily removable and you can safely drop it out of your belayer’s and everyone else’s way, do it. Make sure your belayer has given you the green light that no one is around, since if you’re climbing and up high you may not have a clear view of the ground, and people can walk up unexpectedly.
If the block is too large to safely dislodge, mark it with an X in chalk, then tell a more experienced climber, or your local steward organization, about the death block. Or, come back at a later date, when the wall is quiet, and remove it yourself. Consider removing the block as public service. Also, watch your feet on pebbly or scraggly ledges, and always test the solidity of holds, especially on new routes.
For belayers—always belay out of firing range, which means to the side just enough. Holds pop off even the most well-traveled routes. Wear a helmet.
[TRAD CLIMBING] Due to the nature of trad climbing, you’ll encounter more loose rock than you would on sport routes. Experienced trad climbers are always knocking and inspecting holds, as they should be. Loose rock has a hollow sound. Detecting and leading around loose rock is an art.
When you climb, be aware of all parties on the formation—a loose block can ricochet or careen down a talus field to take out approaching parties. The rules for sport climbing also apply to trad climbing, but be more aware of your rope pulling off blocks or loosening them from drag. If you come upon a chossy section, tell your belayer.
Rope management on loose rock is key. Use slings on pro to direct the rope away from loose blocks and flakes, don’t place gear behind loose rock, and pull down, not out, on suspect holds or use alternate holds. Still, holds that pull off usually do so unexpectedly—anticipate holds to break and protect yourself accordingly. Last, wear a helmet and be especially cautious of loose rock if you have to rap the route.