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an unexplained accident


Original Post
neils · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2016 · Points: 30

I was recently involved in a lowering accident - I was not the injured party nor was I the person doing the lowering but it was in my climbing group for the day.  I really don't want to go into all the details for  analysis here (I hope that is understood)  We talked it over with each other, as well as with other experienced guide folks and went over everything that transpired.  Essentially we cannot account for how and why the person being lowered fell.  Nothing points to a sound explanation of belayer error, device failure, anchor failure, or anything else conclusive.  The practices used for the situation we were in were deemed "sound" - nothing really strange or out of the ordinary.  But something obviously went wrong we cannot account for.

My question is this - has anyone ever been involved in a climbing accident where its essentially like WTF?  We did nothing wrong but obviously something went wrong and we can't explain it.  How do you mentally reconcile that?  We do our best to be safe and follow best practice.  I recognize climbing is dangerous and things happen - there are always circumstances and things that happen out of our control.  But that is a bit of difficult thing to swallow...anything can go wrong at any time regardless of what you do...yes I know thats how life is - its accepted risk - but an event that appears to be an "anomaly" or "freak accident" in a normal, frequent climbing procedure is a bit unnerving.  Has anyone ever experienced something like this and what did you do?  Just chalk it up to an accident and move on?  Recently I listened to a podcast where a guy was climbing in el dorado canyon and all of his bomber cams inexplicably ripped and he discussed it at length.  This isn't what my group went through but similar in some ways.

it wont let me post below so adding here:

EDIT  ok - I will try and make this as simple as possible - a climber was on an anchor at the top of a climb on a large ledge.  was going to rappel but realized the rappel device was left on the ground by accident.  on an adjacent climb off the same shared anchor another pair had a TR set up. a decision was made to use this rope to lower the climber.  the climber tied a fig 8 on a bight to a locker to belay loop on the non gear side of the rope.  initially they were going to tie into the end and pull up all the rope but it was an 80 meter rope and they decided to go with the bight.  it was confirmed there was enough rope on the ground to get them down.  they clipped in and weighted the anchor while on PAS.  taken tight from the ground they were lowered about 75 ft with no issue.  about 25 ft up from the ground they fell and the rope was running.  I was above on rappel watching.  Prior the fall it seems the climber had noticed rope of some sort in a crack - it may have been slack - it may have been tail off the bite - that is unknown.  The belayer says as the climber fell the rope was not running fast through the device.  The rope was still in the device when they hit.  No gear had pulled on the gear side.   They were still completely tied in when they decked.  No gear failed up top.  Everything was bomber and solid.

All we can speculate is, as someone said above - somehow the rope got around or in a feature of some kind that "popped" and caused slack to release coupled with the person stopping at a small ledge on the way down as others have said - maybe it was 20 or 25 ft?  I am not sure. This is what I know based on what I saw and what was discussed after.

Miraculously this person only suffered an injured foot.  As I said, it looked very bad.

Marc H · · Longmont, CO · Joined May 2007 · Points: 255

Without details, you’re basically inviting a shit-show of speculation to occur.

In my experience, if you can’t figure out what exactly went wrong, it was a user error, and the user that erred is not remembering the events correctly for a variety of reasons.

wonderwoman · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2006 · Points: 93

I am sorry that you were involved in an accident and that 'post mortum', which actually means 'an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death' does not indicate that it was a fatality.  If so, my sincere condolences to you and everyone involved.

It would be helpful to provide as much information as possible amongst yourselves, and if it helps, here.  'Shit happens' situations are more rare than climber error.  It may take awhile to figure out, but is worth all the reflection time possible so that the accident does not repeat itself.  

Again, sorry that you were involved with this.  I hope it gets resolved!

neils · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2016 · Points: 30
Marc H wrote: Without details, you’re basically inviting a shit-show of speculation to occur.

In my experience, if you can’t figure out what exactly went wrong, it was a user error, and the user error is not remembering the events correctly for a variety of reasons.

I know - i am contemplating deleting this - I am hoping it can stay ok - I am just kind of having difficulty with it.  I suspect it can be user error or any number of things - I just don't know what they are nor does anyone from the group.


Essentially a climber was lowered off the top of a 100 ft pitch.  75 ft down all was well.  25 ft up from the ground slack peeled out...from the climber side of the device - not through the device - like a 30 ft length of slack "appeared" and the climber fell.  It looked very bad but fortunately injuries were not overly serious.  I was above the climb on another line on rappel at the time.  The climber was taken tight at the anchor on top rope, lowered 75 ft with no issue and then just fell.
abandon moderation · · Tahoe · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 204

I would probably not want to climb with any of the potentially responsible parties any more. If no one can figure out what they did wrong, there's good chance they do it again.

That may sound harsh but someone f'ed up very badly to have a lowering accident, and either doesn't realize it or doesn't want to admit it.

Sometimes shit just happens out of your control and you shrug it off (like rockfall whizzing past your head) but I don't think a lowering accident is that sort of thing.

EDIT: Ok, given your explanation it's speculation time. It sounds to me like the anchor effectively dropped 15ft. Perhaps a "redirect" up top failed. Not necessarily gear failure, but the rock was slipping over a horn or something above or to the side of the anchor and suddenly gave lose, dropping the rope to the real anchor. Sometimes people do intentionally place directionals like this that are poor (eg, a single nut or cam) not thinking about how much slack is introduced if it fails.

neils · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2016 · Points: 30
wonderwoman wrote: I am sorry that you were involved in an accident and that 'post mortum', which actually means 'an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death' does not indicate that it was a fatality.  If so, my sincere condolences to you and everyone involved.

It would be helpful to provide as much information as possible amongst yourselves, and if it helps, here.  'Shit happens' situations are more rare than climber error.  It may take awhile to figure out, but is worth all the reflection time possible so that the accident does not repeat itself.  

Again, sorry that you were involved with this.  I hope it get resolved!

i removed the post mortum comment - the climber is ok - certainly not dead...although it looked that bad from my vantage point at first TBH

Fehim Hasecic · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 155

This is nothing like “cams exploding inexplicably”. You can’t ask for an advice without explaining what happened. Lowering accidents in most of the cases, I’m yet to hear otherwise, are user error.

Peter Blank · · Grand Junction, Colorado · Joined May 2008 · Points: 690

Everything happens for a reason.  I don't mean in a predetermination sense.

Nick Sweeney · · Spokane, WA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 674
neils wrote:

25 ft up from the ground slack peeled out...from the climber side of the device - not through the device - like a 30 ft length of slack "appeared" and the climber fell.  It looked very bad but fortunately injuries were not overly serious.  I was above the climb on another line on rappel at the time.  The climber as taken tight at the anchor on top rope, lowered 75 ft with no issue and then just fell.  

What belay device was used? Sounds like belayer error to me.  Thirty feet of slack doesn't just "appear".

JCM · · Seattle, WA · Joined Jun 2008 · Points: 95

It is possible that this could be an anchor issue, or a run of rope issue, rather than a belayer/device issue.

Questions:

What was the anchor setup on top of the pitch?

Could something have failed in the top anchor?  
Were there any directionals on the pitch that could have failed? 
Could the rope have been running around an arete or rub, that it then popped off of? 

neils · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2016 · Points: 30
Nick Sweeney wrote:

What belay device was used? Sounds like belayer error to me.  Thirty feet of slack doesn't just "appear".

it was a gri gri - I understand everyone's point - I have a seperate synopsis I compiled - perhaps I should share it

Attentive Follower · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2018 · Points: 0

If a climber partially unweighs the rope near the bottom of lowering (e.g. standing on a small ledge) the rope stretch when they weigh again can be surprisingly far. I once saw someone hit pretty hard from about 10 feet for this reason. We understood why immediately after it happened but were surprised by the length of the fall. It's a common mistake with beginners when lowering.

Rope stretch doesn't explain 30ft of distance in a 100ft of height, but the sudden increase in force could have also caused the rope to pop off an edge at the same time.

None of this accounts for 30ft of rope, but maybe it wasn't really 30ft?

wonderwoman · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2006 · Points: 93
neils wrote:

it was a gri gri - I understand everyone's point - I have a seperate synopsis I compiled - perhaps I should share it

After the 75 ft mark, did the belayer for some reason move his / her hand to the guide strand?  As in, the climber was on a ledge, and then had to be lowered again?  That could cause the cam mechanism to fail and have the rope suddenly whip through the device.  Once the guide strand is unweighted the gri gri would catch the rope again.  Just a thought.

J-- Kaiser · · Southern California · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 55

One possibility is: The rope may have been caught behind a slightly protruding piece of rock, and when the rope popped over it, the rappelling system could experience a nearly instantaneous availability of slack on the climber's side.  One must be aware of the rope's position on the rock, when being lowered, to prevent this from causing an accident.   I am very sorry for your friend.  I hope they recover soon. 

greggrylls · · Salt Lake City · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 217

If somebody is dead something definitely went wrong.   Whether the "reasonable person" could have foreseen or prevented an accident is the question. There are so called "acts of god" and human error.  

Someone getting dropped lowering to me immediately points to human error.  Whether that was gross negligence or a rare situation that the reasonable person could not have foreseen I don't know.  I wish you the best with your healing and hope you get answers to your questions.  When I get lowered the person literally has my life in their hands.  If I end up injured they are the first person I'm gonna look to for an explanation.

Doug Chism · · Arlington VA · Joined Jul 2017 · Points: 5

Sounds like the the rope was actually hung up on something when the climber started being lowered, and then got loose, or like the other poster suggested, part of the anchor failed. Was it a gear anchor,  bolts, slung trees? Did you all inspect the anchor afterwards? 

Bares · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Apr 2008 · Points: 5

Was the climber cleaning the route, or just lowering straight to the ground?  Was the route overhanging, vertical, or less than vertical?   

Nick Sweeney · · Spokane, WA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 674
neils wrote:

it was a gri gri 

This type of accident is fairly common with Gri Gri devices.  I'd guess that many of these incidents are never reported or published because many times, people are able to walk away with minor injuries.


Typically, here's what happens:

The belayer is using proper gri gri technique by opening the locking mechanism with the left hand while controlling the lower with their right hand on the brake strand.  For whatever reason (fatigue, friction burn, distraction, etc.), the belayer loses control of the brake strand.  The left hand instinctively pulls down hard on the brake lever, which holds the camming mechanism open and sends the climber into free fall.
Mark Andes · · Golden, CO · Joined Jun 2016 · Points: 91

lead climb and the top anchor got unclipped somehow??  Sorry now we're just speculating.

Matt Robinson · · Saint Petersburg, FL · Joined Apr 2013 · Points: 0

How was the climber attached to the rope? Were they attached to the rope when they decked? Based on the limited information provided it sounds as if the knot untied/wasnt finished and slipped through itself causing the climber to fall and the rope to recoil from the load suddenly releasing. This would explain the slack above the belay device.  There are certainly freak never before seen accidents but this doesn't sound like one of them. If you cant figure out how this happened yourself use that as a learning moment to identify a gap in your knowledge of what could go wrong and learn from it.

wonderwoman · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2006 · Points: 93
Nick Sweeney wrote: The belayer is using proper gri gri technique by opening the locking mechanism with the left hand while controlling the lower with their right hand on the brake strand.  For whatever reason (fatigue, friction burn, distraction, etc.), the belayer loses control of the brake strand.  The left hand instinctively pulls down hard on the brake lever, which holds the camming mechanism open and sends the climber into free fall.

My bets are on this.  Again, sorry.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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