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A tragic lesson: anchor shuts from above
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May 19, 2012
Seven years ago, a personal friend of mine died when rappelling. At the time, the way the accident happened never occurred to me as possible. It's been a while, so, for the sake of getting the word out there to a newer generation, here's the gist of the tragedy. I hope it might prevent it from happening in the future to someone else.

He and his partner had topped out their climb and were now standing on top of the cliff, basically safe. There is more or less a trail that follows close to the edge of the top of the cliff. They were walking along the top looking for descent anchors when he and his partner found a pair of anchors commonly referred to as "shuts" just below them on the vertical face. The edge is clean, and the anchors are easily touched by crouching down from above.

These shuts are the "clip" type commonly found on some sport routes. They are a loop of metal with a wire gate facing upwards. They can be clipped similarly to carabiners. They are designed to be clipped from below before being weighted.
Rock Climbing Photo: not necessarily the style/brand referenced in the ...
not necessarily the style/brand referenced in the story

My friend and his partner clipped their rope into the anchors from above and threw down both ends of the rope. Now imagine, we have a fairly typical top-rope style setup on clippable shuts.

My friend reached down and pulled up a bight of rope on each strand going to the ground and set up his belay device properly for a rappel. But he is standing above the shuts. The rope is threaded through the shuts, but is now pulled upwards, toward the harness of the person about to rappel. Toward the gates at the top of the shuts.

After checking everything, my friend carefully lowered himself over the side. The rope is constantly pulled tight as he lowers himself. He was slightly to one side of the anchors as he went over, as is typical in order to keep tension in the rope.

As he did so, one strand of rope was now on top of the shuts, pressing into the gates. The rope unclipped itself. From both.

If you have a hard time visualizing what happened, take a carabiner. Hold it below you with the gate facing up. It doesn't move because it's bolted to the wall. Clip a rope into it from above. Pull both strands of the rope upwards toward you (and your harness) so the rope is pressing on the gate. Rotate your pull to the side and down and the rope will unclip. This was the same thing, but with two shuts threaded simultaneously. It's somewhat similar to backclipping, but not quite the same thing.

I still think about it every now and then: the complete lack of realization of what was happening that he must have had. It makes me think about what might be out there waiting to get me that I am completely oblivious to. Be careful out there. Never, ever climb above clippable shuts.

Folks who know nothing about climbing tend to think it's crazy or dangerous or something. Folks who know a little sometimes scoff at that and dismiss it as the view of people who don't know how "safe" climbing can be. Folks who know a little more start to realize that yeah, there are a crap ton of ways to get hurt or die out there.
Brian Abram
From Celo, NC
Joined Oct 17, 2007
208 points
May 19, 2012
Sorry to hear about your friends. This can be the end result also to back clipping. Thank you for the post and hope that people can take knowledge from it. Ryan Chelstowski
From Colorado Springs, CO
Joined Jan 6, 2008
100 points
May 19, 2012
thanks for the post, very informative and something I had not thought of. Sorry to hear about your friend. Gilles
From Arcata,CA
Joined May 11, 2009
5 points
May 19, 2012
Brian, thanks for sharing that. 1000 ways to die out there. Good info on this one. FrankPS
From Atascadero, CA
Joined Nov 19, 2009
15 points
May 19, 2012
Very good info, thank you for sharing. Condolences. agd
Joined Mar 31, 2010
0 points
May 19, 2012
Damn. I'm sorry man. Thanks for raising awareness as to what can happen. I really appreciate it. Royal
From Santa Rosa, CA
Joined Jun 11, 2010
105 points
May 21, 2012
Bump, for just an all around good reminder that your brain is still your best piece of gear.
Thanks for posting.
Brent Apgar
From Out of the Loop
Joined Oct 20, 2007
35 points
May 21, 2012
Very sorry about your friend. I'm a new climber, thanks for passing this along - I'll file it in my brain. Hiro Kurotsuchi
From Colorado
Joined Apr 2, 2012
200 points
May 21, 2012
Hiro wrote:
Very sorry about your friend. I'm a new climber, thanks for passing this along - I'll file it in my brain.

Mason G
From Anacortes, WA
Joined Feb 26, 2012
10 points
May 21, 2012
Thank you for posting. Sorry about your friend.

With cold shuts that look like the one above but without the gate (still around on a number of older sport climbs in various places), there is another accident that can easily happen:

- two people are climbing and the belayer ties into the rope to make sure they don't drop the leader when lowering
- the leader leads up and lowers off
- they pull slack through (if any), maybe noticing a bit of twisting in the rope, maybe not, and the follower climbs
- those twists in the rope bunch up toward the follower as the follower nears the top of the climb
- right near or at the anchor, the twists in the rope have built up enough that the rope simply jumps out of one or BOTH shuts, and suddenly the follower is at the anchor with nothing - and ready to be pulled off the climb by the belayer!

This happened years ago at Owens River Gorge to a well-known climber who luckily managed to grab a shut and pass the rope back through the shuts. This is one of the reasons that people abandoned "open cold shuts" in favor of ones with a gate, or chains, mussy hooks, etc.

If you are on a climb with open cold shuts, just making sure that twists are out of the rope will keep this from happening nearly every time. But there's only one way to completely avoid this potential problem (since you can get rope twisting just from belaying, a twisty rope, etc) - which is to girth hitch each open cold shut with a shoulder-length sling (so you are toproping through biners on those two slings), then have the last climber pass it through the cold shuts, tension from the belayer, and remove the slings (which are usually pinched under the rope so it can be a pain).
Greg Barnes
Joined Apr 10, 2006
1,410 points

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