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High Exposure is one of the Shawangunk’s finer outings, offering two pitches of flint-hard horizontally banded stone that goes vertical to overhanging and even pulls a small roof, all for 5.6. First climbed by Fritz Weissner and Hans Kraus in 1941, “High E” would be five star anywhere on Earth and in the Gunks it’s a magnet for anyone who wants air without having to pull too hard to get it.
The first pitch of High Exposure is moderate, 180 feet of 5.4 climbed in either two short or one long pitch to the Grand Traverse or “GT” ledge under a large roof. Pitch 2 is the goods, 60 feet of 5.6 that can feel more difficult depending on your tolerance, or lack of it, for air.
Enter our trio. After climbing to the GT and belaying his two partners onto the ledge, the team leader, who we’ll call Bob, blazed up the gently overhanging 5.6. Bob anchored atop the cliff then had his two partners on the GT ledge, who were tied into the same rope 20 feet apart, begin simul climbing. They simul climbed presumably because they only had one rope, and consequently this was the only way to get all three of them up the route.
Simul-belaying two climbers isn’t uncommon on easy terrain, especially in the mountains where speed equates to increased safety due to exposure to ice and rock fall. But on a relatively short rock climb and on a steep wall, this belay method is unusual—in nearly 50 years of climbing I’ve never seen it done.
The followers got off to a good start. They cleared the initial roof and headed up the 100-degree wall, with the climber tied highest on the rope cleaning the gear. Then, the bad news: the lower climber fell, pulling the higher climber off the wall. This was witnessed by David Snyder, who was also on High Exposure and who supplied the details for this report and the diagram that shows the situation after the fall. The two climbers, says Snyder, both dangled “in free space 10 feet from the wall with no way to get back on.”
Bob, now holding two climbers in midair—an undesirable situation—was unable to help the climbers back onto the rock, and couldn’t lower them to the ground because the rope was too short. What to do?
In a moment of inspiration or perhaps desperation, Bob tossed his tail end of the rope over the side where it was latched by the suspended climbers.
“Tie in to the rope,” he yelled, or something like that, to the lower climber, who followed orders.
What happened next defies imagination unless you’ve just read Joe Simpson’s harrowing Touching The Void, and happen to have a knife somewhere in your team kit.
“Cut the rope,” the guide yelled to the higher climber.
Amazingly, the top, higher climber had a knife and, more amazingly, was willing to use it. He slashed the rope.
The lower climber “dropped another 10 feet,” says Snyder, “screaming and hollering, swinging in the breeze, 15 feet away from the wall.”
Luckily, or we might say “likely” owing to the route’s popularity, a climber on GT ledge was able to toss a rope to the screaming climber, pull her to safety, and rappelled with her to the Carriage road below. The top, still dangling climber, unencumbered by the weight of another climber, was able to get back on the route and finish the pitch.
I guess it’s good to carry a knife when you climb. In this situation, however, cutting the rope wasn’t necessary. There were other climbers on High Exposure who could have climbed level to the dangling climbers, then tossed them long slings or rope and hauled them back onto the rock.
Tying two climbers to one rope on an overhanging route isn’t advised. Simul-climbing on one rope on low-angle terrain is doable, but it’s better to belay everyone up on separate ropes, or bring up one climber, then throw the rope down to the lower climber if getting the rope to that person is a sure thing (a near impossibility on an overhanging route, and difficult in many situations, such as when the pitch traverses). Bringing the followers up separately lets them climb at their own individual pace, and you don’t run the risk of slack developing between the two followers, or having one climber pull the other off. An option for Bob might have been for him to tie himself to the middle of the rope, and have his partners each tie into one of the ends. He could have then led the pitch, and belayed each partner up on separate strands of rope. This, assuming the doubled rope would reach the top.
The High Exposure climbers made the mistake of two followers on one rope, then compounded the error by having the top follower clean the gear. If the top climber had left the gear and then clipped the rope below him to the gear, both he and the lower climber would have been tacked to the wall and able to get back on after the lower climber fell.
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