Two Climbers Die in Separate Rappelling Accidents in El Potrero Chico, Mexico

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Julie Ellison
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1/5/2015 - Two unrelated rappelling accidents in as many days resulted in the deaths of two young male climbers in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, during the height of the area's climbing season. Prior to these incidents, the area, known for its big wall sport climbing, had only two reported deaths since the area was developed in the 1990s. One past accident was a free soloing fall, while the other death occurred on an "illegal route," meaning it's not maintained by area climbers and developers.

On Friday, January 2, two experienced 5.12 climbers, one from France and one from Germany, quickly dispatched the area's most famous route: 23-pitch Time Wave Zero (5.12a). The team simul-climbed a lot of the route, reaching the summit around 3 p.m. The descent involves rappelling the route, and at the top of the first rappel, the German, a male in his late 20s, ran the rope through the chains to set up for the next rappel. The team was rappelling on an 80-meter rope that had been previously cut on one side. Knowing the rope was shorter on one side of the middle marker, the team adjusted it to account for the difference in length. Unfortunately, it was adjusted the wrong way, making one side much longer and the other much shorter. No knots were tied in the ends of the rope and as he moved down, he was unaware of where the ends were, eventually rappelling off the rope entirely. After he had fallen about 300 feet, he hit another climber who was on the route, but the climber did not sustain any major injuries. It is believed that in total, he fell approximately 1,000 feet to the bivy ledge on pitch 12, about 150 feet left of the anchor. The man who died was a very experienced and skilled climber, and he had just arrived to El Potrero.

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A helicopter heads into the canyon on January 3 to search for the body of the first victim.

The following day on Saturday, January 3, a helicopter flew in to find and recover the German climber's body from the area of the route. His body was successfully retrieved in early afternoon, and only a few hours later, sometime around 5 p.m., on the other side of the canyon, several teams were descending from another classic route, the 12-pitch Estrellita(5.10b). The descent involves five rappels down into Los Lobos Canyon, and then a steep and slippery trail to the road. Four friends were rappelling together with two ropes, sending one person ahead to set a rope for the rest of the team to rappel down, in order to speed up the process. A twenty-six-year-old male from Austin, Texas, began to rappel from the top of the third pitch. He had been rappelling for 15 to 20 seconds when there were loud cracking sounds and a scream. A few of the other climbers on the route said the noise sounded just like massive rockfall, so they feared loose rock.

One of the friends yelled out that the climber had fallen, and a climber from a different party on the fourth rappel was able to call for an ambulance. The friends continued descending, reached the ground, and immediately headed down to get help. Around the same time an ambulance arrived, and several climbers with medical training down on the road saw and heard people in Los Lobos Canyon yelling for help. The climbers went up to offer assistance to the injured climber, but he had been unresponsive on the ground for about an hour and had experienced a massive head injury. Since no one at the scene was a doctor, the situation was still considered a rescue, so dozens of climbers hustled to carry the man down the extremely steep and unstable trail to get to the road and waiting ambulance.

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Estrellita climbs the prominent formation on the left, and then descends into Los Lobos Canyon (far left).

About 1.5 hours later, the few dozen rescuers successfully got the climber's body to the road, where they were met by Mexican authorities. Local and federal officials then questioned rescuers about moving the body, and an investigation was initiated. Although it's not completely clear what caused the rappelling accident, one witness reported seeing the rope whip through the chains, and it appeared that there were no knots tied in the ends of the rope. It's believed that the climber rappelled off the end. Friends called him an experienced climber who was "a great person that will truly be missed by all that knew him."

Source: Eyewitness accounts

Corrections: The French climber was not a mountain guide, as previously stated, and the team had four years of experience climbing together, but both were 5.12 climbers (not 5.13). The climber fell from the top of the first rappel and landed about halfway down on the bivy ledge on pitch 12. It was also misreported that they simul-climbed all of the route, when in fact, they simul-climbed a large portion of it.