Rock Fall at Riverside Quarry with Injuries to Belayer - Lessons Learned
Apologies in advance for the length of the post:
I’m fairly new to climbing and just starting to legitimately make the transition from gym to crag. I’m enormously grateful for having close friends who are conscientious, careful, and patient enough to educate a beginner like me. One of the things that I love about climbing is the technicality and discipline that is involved in reducing (not eliminating) risk while still maintaining efficiency. I wanted to share details of an incident that occurred this last weekend as well as my observations about lessons learned. While the outcome really wasn’t very bad (Admittedly, easy for me to say, since I’m not the one with the stitches.), things could have gone very differently for both belayer and climber, so I think it’s good to be a little self critical and share so that the community can comment and it can serve as a cautionary tale. I’m interested to hear what observations others might have on best practices.
On Sunday morning, I was climbing at Riverside Quarry with two experienced friends and my regular climbing partner, Pete, who has about the same amount experience as I. Pete and I led and followed “Whammy” while Jon led the next route to the left, “Power Play” with an extension to the upper portion of “Double Whammy”. Weather was perfect, and we haven’t had recent rains. Jon and I traded routes, and I began to follow the extended Power Play route. Pete was belaying me without a helmet, using a GriGri2 on his belay loop, wearing “Belay Shades” prismatic glasses and positioned near the wall, just to the right of the bolt line with the 70m flaked rope on a tarp right below the bolt line. I always wear a helmet on lead but often don’t when following or on TR. In this instance, I was still wearing my helmet, probably just because I had been leading earlier.
The beginning of the route has a few tough moves that are a little beyond my ability, and the upper extension, which goes at 5.11b, was certainly over my head to lead. But on TR, I was afforded a great opportunity to play with a fun route. After messing about (and failing) with the lower crux, Pete gave me a good pull so that I was able to get past it and try the rest of the route. The route moderates significantly, with solid holds - probably 5.9 or so. As I passed the 6th bolt up (of 8 plus anchor chains on the Power Play portion of the route), Jon was just above me and to my right, cleaning Whammy. I pulled a really beefy double-handed undercling flake to a decent ledge just below it
In the past, I have come across small rocks that just don’t feel right, moved a little, or sounded hollow. There was absolutely no sign to me that this flake was loose at all. I weigh 240 pounds and have slowly built up the strength to pull that weight around on the wall, so there is a good chance that this flake has never seen that kind of pull since the route was set. With the 7th bolt above me and to the left and feet on the ledge just below the flake, I was moving to a strong hold on the right, while countering the right weight shift with one hand still on the bottom of the undercling. At that point, the entire overhanging flake pulled from the wall and started to slide down parallel to the face of route. The sliding hunk of rock was at least 6” thick at the bottom and about 3 feet high and wide - probably at least 200 pounds, all in. I immediately shouted “ROCK!” at the top of my lungs and I distinctly remember it banging past my right leg as I watched it plummet down onto the rope and tarp at the base of the route. I wasn’t immediately aware of where Pete was when the rock grounded, and I hung from the rope and shouted to Pete to see if he was OK. To my relief, he responded, “I’m OK!”, then, “Oh, I’m bleeding”, and finally, almost sheepishly, “yah, I gotta go to the hospital”. I could see from above that his left forearm was cut and bleeding significantly.
Pete said he was OK to lower me, so he began to lower. With the remainder of the rope under the rock, he had to yank on the brake-side to pull enough slack to lower. Someone who was nearby on the crag came over to see if we were OK and and had the presence of mind to caution him to check the rope as he lowered so as not to lower me off a cut end. I untied, others applied direct pressure to the wounds, and someone on the crag was kind enough to tie a bandana around his wounds.
Pete was fine to put on his boots, grab essentials and hike out with me to the car. We went to the hospital, where we could see that he had two gashes on his arm from the rock or a fragment. One was straight, 3” long, and deep but not totally through the skin and ultimately required 4 stitches. The other was a 3” semi-circular gash into the subcutaneous fat layer that required 10 stitches to close. Fortunately, there was no sign of deeper tissue injuries, and he is healing amazingly quickly.
Before being lowered, I noticed that the entire (former) interface between the fallen flake and the wall was covered with a layer of sand and dirt. There was even a bug sitting there that had been exposed by the removal of the rock. This indicated to me that the rock had long been compromised and ready to fall. I was never aware of a pop or crack. It simply went from bomber to pulling away.
Pete recalls hearing me shout (not necessarily aware that what I was yelling was “ROCK”), seeing the rock (actually multiple fragments, so we are pretty sure it hit on the way down and broke up some) and thinks he dove right and may have protectively raised his left arm. He is pretty sure he never let go of the brake side of the rope.
Jon, still at the top of Whammy, recalls seeing Pete move to the right, away from the rock. Since he was off belay while cleaning, his belayer, Stephanie, was unhindered by a rope and free to move far right, away from the fall line.
Jon and Stephanie cleaned up all of our gear while Pete and I were on the way to the hospital and made the chilling discovery that the rope had been cleanly severed about 10m from the end. They carefully inspected the remainder of the rope and were able to use the remaining 60m to clean the route. Jon inspected area around the fallen rock and was able to clean up some choss and other loose rocks, but he felt the route needs a more determined examination and cleaning to ensure it’s safe.
Due to length limits, I'm posting my Observations and Lessons Learned next...
Lessons Learned / Observations
I recall shouting “ROCK!” very loud and as fast I could. Many nearby climbers heard it, clearly understood the situation was not normal and came running. Pete heard me, but doesn’t recall understanding what I said as “ROCK”. Ultimately my call did the job and he was already looking up and saw what was happening, but I think I should have kept shouting “ROCK! ROCK! ROCK!” until the rock was all the way down.
I allowed myself to fall into the rope and then just hung there, trusting the belay. It never crossed my mind that the safety systems could have been compromised. Later we found that the rope was cut, fortunately past the belay, but it could have happened above, in which case I would have fallen. As I was shouting, I should have realized the size of the rock fall and potential for the belay to be compromised and simultaneously worked to gain a hold on the wall and then, if possible, go in direct to the nearest bolt or draw until I could positively determine that I was actually still safely on belay.
Though understandably dazed, Pete should have also carefully checked the integrity of the system before we commenced with the lower.
I wish I could say that I should have noticed that the rock was compromised. But I’m not aware of any clues I missed. I do still want to check one thing back at the crag, though. I know that most of the rock at The Quarry is clean granite even the underside of under-clings. But I have a vague recollection that the underside of this one was dirty. This stands to reason, as there was clearly dirt behind, so maybe the underside had more dirt than normal on it. I’ll look at the fragment next time I’m up there to see whether or not that’s the case.
We are still new enough to lead that both Pete and I pay close attention on lead belay. But I know that I have a tendency to get pretty lax on TR belay. I have been known to sit in that situation, too. It’s true that, as long as the slack is taken, looking away doesn’t compromise the climber, but there is danger to the belayer from above, and any time one is below a climber, whether belaying or not, one needs to be paying attention to the potential source of that danger and ready to move.
Lead belay typically requires the belayer to be close to the wall and in line with the first bolt in anticipation of a lead fall. However, that’s not really the case for TR belay. The belayer should take advantage of this to place himself (and the gathered rope) away from the most likely path of rock fall. A little distance also gives the belayer much greater options to use the rope length between him and the anchor to move away from danger in an emergency. When the climber is following a route, as opposed to being on a true TR, this latitude to move increases with each anchor the climber passes, releasing the belayer side of the rope.
Given that rocks do fall, as a belayer, or even a bystander near the wall, one should consider which directions pose the greatest threats and where one could go to take cover in case of a fall. Is it better to leap to the side? Will that be possible if the rope is taut? What about near the cliff face under a protective overhang? A little planning ahead could pay off when time is short.
My neck gets sore when I have to constantly look up. I love that belay glasses allow me to take a more relaxed stance. But when what you see is 90° rotated from the real world, it’s difficult to move instinctively. I have wondered what I’d do if I suddenly had to take cover, and Pete reported that the belay glasses made it harder to tell where to go when it mattered. I’m not sure what the best strategy is: Do you remove them? Look around them? Close your eyes and move? Not use them in the first place?
Rocks (and people) fall off walls. In the case of The Quarry, the rock looks solid, but it’s important to remember the face was dynamited. There are a lot of cracks in there. Nobody anywhere below a climber should assume that they are safe from rock fall. They need to pay attention and wear a helmet. Pete was paying attention, but not wearing a helmet. He was lucky not to get hit in the head by even a mid-sized rock.
When resting on the crag, we are often near the routes, but if not actively belaying we tend not to wear a helmet and not pay too much attention. We should be conscious of moving to a safer spot to rest or stay alert.
Pete was using a GriGri2 to belay, and he is pretty sure he held the brake side the whole time. If he was belaying with an ATC or similar device without assisted locking and had been hit harder or was more distracted, I would have been dropped. However, in all likelihood, the gri would have held under the same circumstances. The objective in climbing should be to minimize (where reasonable) the potential for single points of failure. An assisted locking device is an easy way to add redundancy. On TR belay and even for lead there is hardly a reason not to use one. I get that there are arguments against for multi-pitch climbing (an ATC-guide in guide mode when belaying from above has assisted locking), but when there isn’t a major disadvantage, why not gain the redundancy? I’d say one should never belay from the ground without assisted locking.
We benefitted from a fellow climber with a bandana. We should have had a decent first aid kit handy.
All in all, we did some stuff right and we were lucky in some ways. It could have gone much worse for either of us with a more direct hit to Pete, the use of a non-assisted-locking device or a higher rope cut. It’s my hope that we learned a thing or two from this to make us safer, that we can learn even more from comments to this post, and that this can serve as a cautionary tale to educate others.
Hey, don't know how the crew missed this.
First, glad it wasn't worse. That's a mighty close call for your friend.
Second, good of you to write this up and share.
I don't have much to add, just a few comments.
I agree on using helmets, everyone is different, though.
"Rock!", depending on how serious it is yelled, is a warning for something not all that big, to me. Anything serious, especially unexpected, warrants "rock! Rock! Rock!", if for no other reason than repeating it is only used for an immediate safety issue. Anything that is repeated in threes, is an emergency signal.
Moving side to side along the wall is better, I believe, because if the belayer gets yanked they are less likely to slam into the wall.
From what I've seen of trundles, rock just goes all over the place, either bouncing unpredictably or exploding and sending shrapnel. Pulling in and making yourself small might be all you can do, especially while belaying.
Best to both of you, OLH
You know, I've been on this site for a long time, maybe 12 years? And the only posts I ever see about Riverside Quarry are about this wall or the other falling down. Or some huge rock fall. Or which routes don't exist any more because they fell down.
Imho, while I'm glad you're okay, and I'm glad you learned some good lessons, if I were you, I'd find somewhere else to climb.
Ok. I’m not reading the whole 50000 letters of the post. But. It’s a quarry. Hello
I second Mr. Wilder’s post
Glad you're okay. Don't have much to say about the rock fall.
But you say "When the climber is following a route, as opposed to being on a true TR, this latitude to move increases with each anchor the climber passes, releasing the belayer side of the rope."
This implies belayer is on the draw side of the rope and climber is on the anchor side. For all climbs this limits the belayers mobility and adds a method of failure to the system (belayer getting pulled into the wall and tripping or whatever and dropping the rope). Not a big deal on its own, but on any climb that traverses it can give the follower nasty pendulum falls, and on overhanging routes can give a big swing into space forcing the follower to be lowered as opposed to continuing on. Sure, none of these are major (except potentially a pendulum fall, which can be nasty even on TR) but it increases risk at no benefit (what do you lose by having the follower tie into the draw side?). Again, yeah, if its straight up a vertical (or less than vert) wall it doesn't matter.
tl;dr followers should go up the draw side of the rope.
I remember climbing that route. That entire section of 5.9 - 5.10B had a bunch of "X death blocks" on them. To say the least, we've never climbed that section again.
Stephen D wrote:
Thanks for the thoughtful response. You're exactly right. In my quest to look at this from all angles, I goofed on that one.
Admittedly, I made that mistake the first time I attempted to climb something that was already lead by a friend, but I was quickly corrected and haven't climbed that way since.