This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 245 (September 2017).
On May 12, Conor Felletter and Kelly Kochanski began Werk Supp, a two-pitch 5.9 in Eldorado Canyon, one of Colorado’s best-known Front Range cragging areas. After topping out on the first pitch, they decided to skip the second and join the nearby mega-classic The Bastille Crack, a five-pitch 5.7. To do so requires about 80-feet of traversing to the right up a gully with bad rock. Another party, of which Felletter was aware, was already on The Bastille Crack. After traversing, he joined the beginning of the 4th pitch (which goes at 5.6) of The Bastille Crack and stayed about five feet left of the main route to avoid mingling ropes or gear. Once Felletter topped out on this fourth pitch, he built an anchor to the left of the traditional spot, since the latter was taken by the party already on the route.
Felletter wrote, “To give [the person at the belay] room I then moved an additional five feet up and to the left onto a slightly dirtier/ steeper area that had good cracks.” He placed a cam, but then, just as he was about to get in a second piece, he slipped and fell 40-plus feet after his first piece, a marginal nut, pulled. He plummeted headfirst: “My forehead took a direct hit to a jug. The impact split the top of my helmet, pulling the top off.” Rocky Mountain Rescue arrived on the scene, stabilized Felletter’s spine and lowered him to the ground on a litter. He is currently recovering from eight broken vertebrae and a number of lesser injuries. Felletter expects to make a full recovery and hopes to start climbing again next year.
When Felletter decided to traverse off route and join The Bastille Crack, knowing another party was on it, he put himself in a difficult position. Though the gully looked easy enough and seemed well below his ability, he wasn’t sure what the climbing entailed. This section fortunately proved to be easy. The difficulties began when Felletter finally joined The Bastille Crack and realized that the party on the route had, for obvious reasons, used all the best gear placements. He was relegated to marginal placements five feet left of the route. Once he reached the belay ledge, which he couldn’t see from below, he had to set up a belay above and left of the traditional station. He does not remember the specific reason for falling, but, given that he had a solid stance, it is possible he slipped on dirty or loose rock.
Felletter’s accident is the result of a series of events, beginning with his decision to traverse to another route. This does not mean that you should never traverse off route, or try to pass a party; that’s another conversation. Yet, if you decide or feel forced to do either, you need to know if it can be done respectfully and practically. This accident could have been prevented:
First, once he joined the fourth pitch of The Bastille Crack, Felletter could have used long slings to keep his rope under him (he was climbing to the left) and avoid the tangle while capitalizing on better and more frequent placements on the main route.
Second, Felletter couldn’t see the belay stance where he was going. That is a major red flag. More often than not, sharing a trad belay with another party should be avoided. In cases like Felletter’s, when you are unsure of what lies ahead, it’s better to make a belay when you get one, and not force excessive numbers on the belay station above. Waiting would have been optimal, or since the gully was wide, Felletter could have looked for a bomber belay earlier.
Third, on questionable rock, be extra cautious; also be aware of dislodging loose rock on climbers below. Felletter should have clipped into the cam he plugged in at the belay before he fell. According to Felletter, Rocky Mountain Rescue later said it was a solid piece. While not everyone clips into a belay piece before completing the anchor [read: Should You Clip the Belay As Your First Lead Pro?], it is good practice in a lot of situations; that alone could have prevented this accident.