This story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of our print edition.
In August 2014, climber Wayne Crill fell 70 feet while attempting a first ascent in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Though he was wearing a helmet, he suffered a serious head injury and still faces a long road to recovery. According to the accident report, Crill had placed nine pieces of protection before traveling 10 feet above his last piece and placing a slider nut and a nut with a Screamer, which is a shock-absorbing sling designed to minimize impact on a piece of pro. When he fell, the Screamer ripped (like it’s supposed to), but both pieces still popped out. His next two pieces stayed in place, but the rope detached from each of them, which introduced enough slack for him to hit the ground. The two rope-side carabiners somehow had unclipped from the slings attached to the pieces. The climber seemingly did everything right, so let’s examine what went wrong and outline how to prevent it from happening to you.
Crill had extended his gear with alpine quickdraws (two carabiners on a single-length sling) to clip into his protection. Accident investigators considered gate flutter (when the gate momentarily opens because of a bump against the rock or other obstacle), but all the carabiners were wiregates, which made this scenario unlikely. Wiregates do experience gate flutter, but the gate doesn’t open as wide or for as long a duration as a standard gate, making the possibility of the sling coming unclipped from this scenario very improbable. Investigators determined the most likely explanation is that when the top pieces pulled from the wall, this caused the rope to whip around violently. This then led to the rope-side carabiners on the next two pieces flipping upside down (fig. 1) and landing with the gate on top of the sling, a situation very similar to back-clipping a quickdraw. At this point, the force of the fall caused the carabiners to unclip from the slings (fig. 2). Many in the climbing community have dismissed the incident as a freak accident, but the fact remains that it happened twice in one fall. We talked to IFMGA-certified guide Joey Thompson, who has witnessed biners unclip themselves, to learn how climbers can prevent this type of accident.
The Hitch Conundrum
This accident sparked healthy discussion across online climbing message boards, and a suggestion made by many climbers was to girth- or clove-hitch the rope-side carabiner to the sling to hold it in place. Girth-hitching is particularly bad on Dyneema slings because it weakens the sling directly at the spot where it cinches, meaning it can fail under a much smaller load than its strength rating. Clove-hitching can also reduce the overall strength of the sling, and Thompson says, “As a mountain guide, I use the materials based on the manufacturer’s recommendations, and until I get some drop-testing results on the clove-hitch setup, I can’t recommend it.”
• Use two biners on the rope in an opposite and opposed configuration. If you’re extending with an alpine quickdraw, you will already have an extra biner on the gear, just relocate it to the rope end of the sling.
• Use half ropes, which add an extra layer of safety by reducing the vectors (and thus reducing force) on your pro and provide an independent backup, should one rope fail.
• When you place gear, make sure slings are running straight without twists.
• Clip the rope-side biner so the spine is toward the direction you’re traveling. This helps ensure that only the spine and rope basket will be loaded in a fall, not the gate.
• Try a locking carabiner on the rope end of critical placements, but make sure it’s easy to operate with one hand. Practice opening and clipping it on the ground to get it as dialed as possible. We like the Black Diamond Magnetron and Edelrid Strike Slider for their ease of one-hand use.
• Extend gear properly so the rope doesn’t zigzag, which increases the force put onto gear in a fall and makes it more likely for pro to pop out. Check out our articles about extension basics and extension 102 for techniques. A zigzagging rope is also more likely to whip around unpredictably like the rope that contributed to the Eldo accident.
Joey Thompson: In 2013 the AMGA recognized Joey Thompson as Outstanding Guide of the Year, and in summer 2014, Thompson became the 92nd person in the U.S. to become an IFMGA-certified guide. Check him out at mountainguidejoeyt.com.