Severed Top Rope Anchor at Devil’s Lake
This past June, Grayson “Chip” Bush was climbing at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, with three other friends. His friend and climbing partner of about eight years went to set up a top rope on Gill’s Nose while Chip continued his lead climb nearby. Said friend, whom I will call Person 2 for anonymity, completed the anchor—he slung a large boulder with webbing and extended the master point closer to the edge of the cliff—and walked down to the base of the cliff with Person 4, who was observing the setup. Person 4 was new to outdoor climbing and did not have the knowledge to check Person 2’s anchor.
Both Person 2 and Person 4 climbed on the top rope, weighting the rope at various points as they either fell or asked the belayer to take up slack. Person 3 also climbed on the top rope. As Chip prepared to take a lap on the top rope, he had no reason to doubt the system; seeing multiple climbers use it before him only assured him further of its safety.
Chip cruised up the route until a point where it splits: left for Gill’s Nose or right for Gill’s Nose Direct. There he asked his belayer, Person 3, to take so he could pause and decide which way to go. Person 3 took up the slack and weighted the system by sitting backward in his harness against the tensioned rope. Person 3 said he felt a “twang.”
Chip felt the rope come tight, and then, almost instantaneously, he too felt a “twang sensation,” he said. Chip began free falling. The rope and the two carabiners that comprised the master point were falling with him.
Chip hit a slab near the bottom of the climb and came to rest 15 feet from the base. He had fallen about 50 feet.
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His injuries consisted of two collapsed lungs, six broken ribs, a broken scapula, a broken leg, a puncture wound in his right shin, a rope burn across his neck, a punctured bladder, and abrasions across his body. An EMT and another WFA-certified individual in the vicinity put Chip in a recovery position, and within 10 minutes park staff were coordinating a rescue.
An hour later, a helicopter airlifted Chip to a hospital. Doctors expect him to make a full recovery.
Person 2 slung a large boulder atop Gill’s Nose with webbing when he set up the top rope anchor. He then used a Black Diamond 120-centimeter nylon runner to extend the master point closer to the edge. The runner was connected to the sling via a figure eight on a bight and a locking carabiner. He tied another figure eight on a bight in the other end of the runner to create a master point near the edge. He opposed two locking carabiners to complete the top-rope anchor setup.
The BD runner effectively had two independent strands between the two figure-eights, but at the master point it was just single-stranded. The runner was cut near the master point knot.
“It’s so cleanly cut,” said Black Diamond Climbing Category Director Kolin Powick of the break. “Given the orientation of everything, it appears that it had to be the rock that did it.”
Because the setup sustained a couple of climbers before Chip, the runner must have been “sawing” back and forth on a sharp edge, resulting in the cut’s clean look, Powick said.
Eric Barnard, owner of Big River Climbing Guides and provider for the Professional Climbing Instructors Association, recreated the anchor (see pictures below) at the site of the accident and noticed a sharp chockstone in a crack. The sling likely got lodged in this crack, pressing against the sharp edge.
The slung boulder was a sufficient anchor point by itself, but the non-redundancy of the figure-eights on the 120-centimeter runner used to extend the setup led to the failure. The runner likely migrated into the crack where the chockstone was, or was set there in the beginning.
Inspecting an anchor area for sharp edges and ensuring that the various components cannot be compromised is an important part in any anchor building process. In this particular scenario it is even more imperative than normal—Devil’s Lake is known, among other things, for slick rock and sharp edges.
Redundancy in all parts of the anchor also could have prevented this accident. One option would have been to double up the extension runner—either with a different knot or a second sling—or to use a more abrasion-resistant static line. The best option though would have been adding a second anchor point, other than the boulder, into the system. This addition would also center the master point at one location, minimizing the pendulum motion that can cause the aforementioned “sawing.”
The climbers also could have inspected the anchor after each climb—or at least after one of the early laps—to see how it was holding up. This is less feasible at a place that doesn’t have easy top-down access, but many of the cliffs at Devil’s Lake do. In some cases the climber can easily see the anchor upon reaching the top, and take a look before lowering back down.
“It’s never really stated, to inspect the anchor consistently between climbs,” said Chip.