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472 Rappelling Accident 2011-09-09


When I was a child, I witnessed a technical rescue on the granite slopes of Stone Mountain, Georgia. I don't remember much about the rescue; but I guess I wanted to be one of those guys. In the backyard I climbed on the side stabilizing bar of the swing set, draped my belt around the top bar, secured the belt to a belt loop, weighted the belt, and promptly fell to the ground with a thud. I immediately saw the need for better gear and some instructions. I admit, I did not know what I was doing; but I landed in the sand and didn't get hurt, so all was good.

Wednesday, we reviewed Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2011. After reading the book and writing the short review, there was one accident that stuck out as being odd.

A couple (John and Jane) went rappelling. Their equipment was reported as one climbing rope, a non-climbing rope (I am assuming like the ones sold at the big hardware stores), harnesses, and carabiners. Jane was attached to the non-climbing rope by a "shoe lace" tied into a prusik knot. John stood beside her with his separate rope running through the carabiner on his harness. Neither person was using a descending device. Jane backed over the edge and started "rappelling". She landed on a ledge with rope burns, a broken wrist, and back injuries. John proceeded to rescue Jane; but the rope moved smoothly through the carabiner until John hit the ground. He had rope burns and two broken legs. (ANAM, page 73)

I am assuming that Jane was supposed to allow the prusik knot to tighten to slow her descent. Her prusik was reported as being tight on the rope, as it melted the rope and the cord. She probably let go of the knot (and it tightened) only after receiving burns to her hands. It would have been unnatural to let go of the knot if you were falling.

Poor, John then tried to rappel to rescue Jane. He had the rope running through the carabiner; but the rope was not attached to a friction device or friction knot, like the munter hitch. He proceeded to fall down the rope.

Often times a little bit of training is a dangerous thing. John had received some training but the instructions could have been more about rappelling techniques rather than rigging. He paid dearly for his lack of knowledge.

Rappelling is a dangerous sport. The climber is totally dependent on his gear while descending. If any of the gear (anchors, rope(s), knots, carabiners, harness, or friction device) fails there could be serious consequences. This is why climbing programs use a separate belay rope to give safety through redundancy to the system.

It is important to learn lessons from this entry in Accidents.

Take a class. Learn from a professional. John had training; but we do not know how much.

Practice your skills. Early in my climbing career, while leading I stopped at a ledge to belay and could not remember how to tie a knot. Luckily, no one was hurt. You must practice to retain your skills.

Buy real climbing gear. Some hardware stores sell gear that looks like climbing gear; but it is not. Most of the look alike gear is marked not to be used for climbing. This gear is not climbing gear. Don't trust your life to anything less than UIAA and CE certified equipment.

Practice on the ground before making the big step. If you are unsure of the technique or gear to be used, then it is a good idea to first practice with a dry run on flat land.

Use common sense. If something doesn't look right, then it probably isn't. Question what you and your partner are doing.

Use a separate belay. It requires another person and more gear; but it makes rappelling safe.

Have fun but never at the cost of safety. It just isn't worth the risk.

Hopefully Joh and Jane will get better gear and instructions before they try rappelling again.

Happy rappelling trails


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