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Accident Prevention

Rappel Swing Goes Awry, Climber Injured and Rescued

After a late start because of threatening weather, James Reed, Blue Eisele and Eric Moore climbed 50 feet of fourth-class terrain to the first pitch o...

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After a late start because of threatening weather, James Reed, Blue Eisele and Eric Moore climbed 50 feet of fourth-class terrain to the first pitch of the Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. Moore led the pitch (5.8) and then belayed Eisele, who cleaned it. To save time, Reed clamped on his ascenders and began to jug a fixed line. As Reed dangled from his daisy chain, Moore called down. In the rush to get on the wall, he’d forgotten his own aiders and ascenders.

Reed faced a choice: shuck his load of water, food, gear and rope, unhook from the fixed line and scramble back down to the ground; or rappel to the base, grab the equipment, and jug up to the first belay anchor. Neither option was particularly appealing, but he decided to rappel.
The first pitch begins left of the main line and traverses right to the first anchor, where the route follows the buttress directly to the top. Looking toward the anchor, Reed assessed the rappel. Thinking he was about 10 feet left of the fall line, he figured he could kick off the ledge and swing over for a plumb descent. He hooked up his Grigri. As he weighted the rope and moved right, he lost his footing and arced toward the route’s jutting buttress, swinging about 20 feet and smashing his hip on a horn of rock. Immediately, he knew he’d been hurt badly.
Reed lowered himself back to the ledge but was in too much pain to continue the rappel. Moore rapped down to help, while Eisele configured the anchor to lower Reed to the ground. Moore rigged a chest harness to take weight off Reed’s hip, but he still couldn’t be lowered—when he moved, Reed felt bones grating.
A party above the trio had a portaledge, but was unwilling to lend it as a litter, so Moore rappelled to the ground to run for help. However, two other climbers stopped and gave up their day to assist Reed.
After at least two hours, Reed said, Zion SAR showed up with a litter and morphine, and evacuated Reed. The rescue took more than seven hours.

ANALYSIS

SEVERAL THINGS WENT wrong that day. The friends were rushing because they were running short on time, and left crucial gear at the base.
Frustrated, Reed also rushed through his assessment of the rappel. He didn’t notice the dished-out section on the wall where he lost his footing, or accurately gauge the pendulum. In retrospect, he says, he should have jugged up and over before beginning the rappel. Fortunately, he was using an auto-locking device and was able to hold the rappel.
Additionally, the other party’s refusal to give up their portaledge to use as a stretcher was appalling. “If we had a litter, we could’ve been on the ground in 10 minutes. We could’ve done a rough-ground carry and been on the road in 45 minutes or less,” Reed says. Instead, he waited in pain for hours.

Prevention

This accident could have been avoided with a simple gear check at the base of the climb. Don’t rush your buddies when out climbing. If time is short, abort.
Remember, too, that an inordinate number of climbing accidents occur on the descent. Rappels are dangerous, and it’s important to slow down and assess the situation every tme. Are you rigged correctly? Is the rope touching the ground? Is it running over loose rock? Will you swing when you cut free from the stance or belay? In this case, some pieces of directional protection would have negated the swing.
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Finally, the rescue could have been expedited if the party above had been more compassionate. We are a community: If you’re on a wall and you notice another party has sustained an injury, do what you can to help. If you have gear they need—lend it.