Climber Dropped at Instructional Clinic

Narrowly avoiding a death fall at an instructional clinic.

By Rock and Ice | June 30th, 2016

John Frieh and Megan Erspamer climb <em>High on Boulder</em> (WI 4), Cody, Wyoming. <em>Moonrise</em> (WI 5), the scene of the accident, is the flow to the right. Photo: Aaron Mulkey.” title=”John Frieh and Megan Erspamer climb <em>High on Boulder</em> (WI 4), Cody, Wyoming. <em>Moonrise</em> (WI 5), the scene of the accident, is the flow to the right. Photo: Aaron Mulkey.” style=”float: right; margin: 0px 0px 10px 10px;”><b style=At approximately 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 14, Gary Weber arrived at a V-thread anchor atop the second pitch of Moonrise (WI 5) near Cody, Wyoming. Weber, age 56, an experienced ice climber from Phoenix, Arizona, who was participating in a one-on-one clinic at the 18th Annual Cody Ice Climbing Festival, didn’t like the looks of the thread, so he passed it up, climbed to a higher stance and placed two screws. Weber clipped the screws, and his instructor, a climber from Bozeman, Montana, lowered Weber to a point just above the ledge at the top of the first pitch. Then the end of the rope slipped through the guide’s belay device.

Weber impacted the sloping ledge and slipped off it, sliding about 30 feet toward a vertical drop described as between 60 and 100 feet.

“I remember somewhere there [I] was falling, and then I felt my ankle twist a little bit,” Weber said in an interview with the Cody Enterprise. “I was scraping with the tool, and it wasn’t grabbing anything. Then I started sliding again, and scraping wasn’t working. Finally I was able to whack it, and it stopped me.”

Weber was joined by climbers who were on the nearby route High on Boulder, who helped him hike the three miles to the road. He underwent surgery on his broken ankle and is expected to recover fully.

ANALYSIS

The Cody Ice Climbing Festival does not use certified guides to conduct clinics. Rather, as Don Foote, the festival chairman put it, an instructor/guide who teaches the clinics can possibly be “a gear rep, athlete, local or frequent climber familiar with the particular waterfall, [who] has the knowledge, skills and ability to help others enjoy the day ice climbing.” Participants pay around $100 per clinic, and the instructors receive around $250 per day, according to Foote.

In cases like this it is tempting to place the blame entirely on the “guide.” He was, after all, a paid instructor and should have taken precautions to prevent the rope end from slipping through the belay device, especially on a two-pitch route. Yet Weber never publicly mentioned negligence.

In a follow-up interview with the Cody Enterprise, he shared responsibility, commenting, “I know the things we’re supposed to do to prevent this from happening. I’ve done them hundreds of times. But this time I didn’t do them.”

PREVENTION

This accident would have been prevented if the belayer had been tied to the end of the rope, which he should have been on a multi-pitch route. Even if the belay ledge were sufficient to let the climbers safely walk around, the belayer’s end of the rope should have been knotted.

Weber was willing to take responsibility for the accident, yet he had entered what was probably an unusual situation for him, climbing as a guided client. In these situations it is easy to surrender responsibility for your safety to someone else.

Even so, never leave the ground without doing a “buddy check.” Confirm that your knot is tied correctly, but also check out your belay. Is it rigged right? Is your belayer alert and ready? Are you going to rappel or lower?

If rappelling, always tie knots in the ends of your rope. If lowering, confirm that there’s a knot in the free end. Always follow every part of this pre-climb safety check.

 

This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 235 (July 2016).

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