The names of the climbers involved in this incident have been changed.
On July 10th, 2016 at 2:50pm Yosemite Dispatch received a call regarding a climber fall with injuries at Reed’s Pinnacle. Initial reports came in as a male climber with a broken leg. Upon arrival at the parking area, the first responding ranger on scene found an adult male, John, with an angulated lower leg/ankle fracture. John instructed the ranger that his partner David was still at the base of the cliff, and had been in and out of consciousness after sustaining a long fall.
The park ranger ran up the approach trail to the base of the cliff with a medic bag. Upon reaching the cliff, he found David unresponsive, without a pulse, and not breathing. He immediately called for additional resources and began CPR. After updates and communication with the park’s Medical Control, the patient was pronounced dead at approximately 3:55pm.
The following has been assembled through numerous interviews between the surviving partner and on-site post-accident analysis by the responding ranger.
Before the accident the two climbers had climbed Lunatic Fringe, a popular 5.10c single pitch route at the area Reed’s Pinnacle. After leading, John remained at the anchor at the top of the climb to belay David up. With both climbers at the anchor they then decided to simul-rappel. David had a Petzl Gri-Gri with him and used it to rappel, while John used a Black Diamond ATC device. They were using an 80 meter rope – which reaches the ground, but without any excess.
During the rappel, John was beneath David and remembers David stopping or slowing down at some point. John reached a small sloping ledge on the cliff about fifteen feet above the ground, and waited for David to catch up with him. According to the post-accident analysis, David was roughly 70’ feet off the ground at this point. John felt a sudden change in the pull of the rope, the rope “going”, and he started to fall. He briefly lost consciousness, and when he came to he saw David on the ground near him. John asked David if he was ok and remembers David briefly responding. John told David that he would go get help. When he tried to stand he realized his leg was broken, and so he crawled down the short approach. As he made his way down to the trailhead he noticed David going in and out of consciousness. At the Reed’s parking area he found visitors who were able to call 911, activating Yosemite’s emergency response.
David died of injuries sustained following an accidental fall while simul-rappelling
Lunatic Fringe. From a follow-up investigation, it is estimated he fell approximately 70 feet after the end of the rope on John’s side passed through the ATC rappel/belay device. This was determined based on the amount of rope left beneath David’s Gri-gri as well as observations made in the follow up scene investigation. There were no knots or back-up systems on the rope.
A “fixed” nut was observed in the crack near the point where David fell, and one explanation is that David stopped to remove this piece of equipment. If David had pulled onto the wall momentarily, John would have felt a sudden drop (as he stated consistently). Without a hands free backup hitch (prusik, auto –block, etc.), if John let go of the rope even temporarily he would not have been able to regain control of the rope, and it would rapidly pass through his belay device.
How the accident could have been avoided:
A “hands-free” backup should be a fundamental element of every climber’s rappel system. Any unexpected momentary lapse in control rappelling without a hands-free backup can lead to catastrophic consequences. While simul-rappelling both climber’s lives are placed at risk.
The above scenarios could have been avoided if the climbers had tied knots in the ends of the rope, or attached the ends to their harness. A knot would have prevented the rope from passing through John’s ATC.
David reportedly had climbed the route before and knew that climbers could rappel the route with a single 80 meter rope. Knowing this, David could have lowered John, and John on the ground could then belay David seconding the route as a toprope.
One reason John stated they simul-rappelled was because David only brought a Gri-Gri (a single strand rappel/belay device). To avoid the risk incurred by simul-rappeling, John and David could have tied the rope to the anchor allowing David to rappel the fixed rope on his Gri-Gri. John would then untie the fixed rope and rappel with his ATC allowing them to pull the rope once he reached the ground. Controlling an ATC is patently safer on two strands as opposed to one.
In the special circumstance that simul-rappeling is preferred, communication is an important element of safety. The excessive distance (~50’) between the two climbers perhaps inhibited David from expressing to John why he had slowed his rappel. If John had been near David he may have had the opportunity to anticipate the momentary weight shift and not lost control of his device.
Regardless of the exact sequence of events that lead to the accident, this was preventable. Both John and David made mistakes in judgement, and failed to put in place back-up systems for the high risk descending technique of simul-rappelling. Sadly, this resulted in significant injuries to John, and the loss of David’s life.
Thank you to Yosemite Climbing Management for providing this report. If you are interested in learning more about safe and ethical climbing in Yosemite, please visit their website at www.climbingyosemite.com