On July 13, Matthew Hearn and some friends were climbing in Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon, at the Salt Lake Slips area, a small granite crag just a few miles up the canyon. Hearn, a 26-year-old Maryland native, was toproping High Fructose Corn Syrup (5.8), a single-pitch sport route on edges, jugs and flakes. Hearn started up the route, which had draws hanging, but he was on the free side of the rope and was not cleaning the draws. When he reached the anchors, as witnesses later stated, it appears he requested to be off belay, and so his belayer took him off. Soon after, Hearn fell 115 feet to the ground and was fatally injured.
Early reports of this accident, such as a few from Salt Lake City newspapers, cite gear failure as the cause, but given the prevailing evidence, that is incorrect. Hearn was tied into the end of the rope and his personal anchor system was clipped to his harness. Investigative reports indicate that he had not attempted to use his anchor system. This accident was most likely caused by a communication breakdown, or misunderstanding, between him and his belayer. Despite two witnesses claiming that it “seemed” Hearns did ask to be off belay, that might not have been the case, given that the route is equipped with Fixe steel lower-off biners that you can simply clip. If indeed gear failure was the culprit, it would likely have to be anchor failure, but given that no such hardware was connected to his harness, miscommunication is the logical cause. Whatever transpired in Hearns’ communication to his belayer, Hearns likely leaned back thinking he was to be lowered, when in fact he was off belay.
Talk to your belayer before heading up. This type of accident can be prevented by: (i) letting your belayer know exactly what you are doing; use clear verbal commands; (ii) testing/weighting the rope before committing to being lowered and unclipping your personal anchor system; if your weight isn’t being held, figure out why and wait until it is; (iii) if you are the belayer and think the climber is rappelling but are unsure and want to be extra safe, give out some slack and tie a bight on the brake side of your belay device just to be sure, as this would catch a fall if they leaned back and thought they were being lowered; once sure, untie the bight. Or, just give out some slack and keep them on belay until you are 100% sure they are rappelling.
When it comes to cleaning an anchor, a few rules of thumb exist to prevent common accidents:
1. Know the anchor configuration before climbing. Chains? Fixed biners? Rap rings? If you can’t figure out the anchors prior to climbing—don’t blindly trust an old guidebook or online sources—bring gear (slings, leaver biners, etc.) to account for every possible scenario you may encounter.
2. Know what to do in all different anchor scenarios. Practice repeatedly, and in each case communicate: tell your belayer the game plan. Have a set of protocols that you can remember; for instance, learn the AMGA’s new guidelines for cleaning anchors: pushing a bight of rope through the rings or links (see photos above left) rather than untying.
3. Secure yourself. Always have, at minimum, a back-up sling, and employ
it immediately at the top of a route (the accident reported in R&I issue 245 could have been prevented by clipping in at the anchor immediately). There should never be a moment when you are not anchored in. Even if the route is slabby, hang on the anchors so you know you are always “in”; i.e., let the gear take your weight, not your feet, to avoid a false sense of security. Likewise, before you unclip or commit to a single source, triple check the system, and communicate with your belayer. Always be sure the bolts and anchors are sound before committing to them.
How to Lower from a Sport Lead without Going Off Belay
This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 246 (November 2017).