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One Dead, Another Seriously Hurt When Belay Anchor Rips In Eldo

A first-hand account reveals the cause of last week's deadly climbing accident in Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado.

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One climber is dead and another seriously injured following an accident on Thursday, August 26 in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. The two climbers fell over 100 feet—still roped together—while climbing the Wind Tower formation. According to a press release from Boulder County, the surviving climber was in his 20s, while the deceased was in his 30s.

On Sunday evening, Climbing spoke briefly with the surviving climber, who asked that his name not be published until he has had a chance to speak with his late partner’s family. He is currently in the hospital undergoing a series of surgeries for his extensive injuries.

“We climbed the first pitch of Tigger [5.6], and then we did the second pitch of Wind Ridge,” the climber said. “We were at the bottom of the third pitch of Wind Ridge when the accident happened. I was climbing and my partner was belaying.” 

The second pitch of the 5.7  Wind Ridge ends at a large ledge that diagonally traverses the top half of Wind Tower. Many parties choose to walk off from here, as the third pitch has less solid rock than the lower two, and the descent from the summit is more involved. 

“I used a cordelette to sling a boulder in the alcove that is just above the part that is the traditional belay of the third pitch,” the climber said. “I girth-hitched this large horn. My partner was hooked into that cordelette and it was also the first piece for me as the climber [on the third pitch.]” 

The third pitch of Wind Ridge begins with some awkward moves in a large hueco, and is one of the cruxes.

“When you’re inside the hueco, it’s a very strenuous position, but I felt secure, hunkered down in it,” the climber told Climbing. “My partner had led the pitch before, and he was talking me through it. I was nervous, but he said, ‘Man don’t worry, if you fall it’s okay.’ We knew the girth hitch wasn’t the best possible piece of gear, but even if I fell, he was spotting me toward the ledge.

“As I came out of the hueco and moved up, in a very exposed position, that’s when I knew I was going to fall. I gave him a warning, but I never thought it was going to be a highly consequential fall. Even at that point I thought we had this piece and horn that was slung. The next thing I know we’re both falling and we exploded off of four different ledges.”

Aubrey Runyon, a longtime Eldo climber, was climbing below the party when the accident happened and was first on the scene. “My partner and I were on Wind Ridge, and I was going to run the first two pitches together as one. Then I was going to bring my partner up and we’d walk off the ledge,” Runyon said.

“I was about 40 feet below that ledge when I heard a climber yell ‘Falling,’ above us,” Runyon said.

Looking up, Runyon then saw two climbers tumble end over end. They came to a stop near the top of the first pitch of Tagger, a climb adjacent to Wind Ridge. Runyon estimates that the two climbers fell approximately 100 to 150 feet, contrary to the higher estimate of 150 to 200 mentioned in a Boulder County press release.

Runyon, who has past search-and-rescue experience outside of Phoenix, Arizona, built a gear anchor in the crack she was climbing and immediately called 911. She then lowered to the fallen climbers. (Runyon’s belayer was still on the ground.)

Said Runyon, “I was able to get to their position in about three minutes, give or take. One of the climbers—the one that survived—was kind of half hanging off the ledge [at the top of the first pitch of Tagger]. I was able to pick him up and put him on the ledge. He had severe leg trauma, and also a serious wrist injury. I secured his leg and was able to stop the bleeding. He was conscious the entire time. He was in shock and didn’t seem to be feeling any pain. I checked the other climber, who was tangled up in a tree, for a pulse. He was already gone. I decided to focus my efforts on the person I could help. I was able to secure him to the wall via the bolted anchor [on Tagger].” 

While waiting for search and rescue, Runyon gleaned what she could about what had happened from the climber who was still conscious. The climber told Runyon that he had been about 10 feet above the belay ledge when he fell.

The climber asked Runyon, “Was it me that fell? I must not have placed gear before I fell if I’m here.” Runyon—who later climbed to the top of pitch 2 and walked off—did not see an anchor at the base of pitch 3 and said she could see no gear hanging anywhere on the beginning of the pitch. 

The climber believes the girth-hitched cordelette anchor must have slipped off the boulder—leaving him and his partner unattached to the cliff in any way. 

The climber kept telling Aubrey, “I barely know this guy, I barely know this guy.” The two men had climbed together only four times, the climber later told Climbing.

Two members of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG) arrived at the base of the climb approximately 10 minutes after Runyon called 911. (Speaking to the impressively fast response time, Runyon noted that “a couple of the main members of the SAR team for Eldo live in Eldorado Springs.”) Runyon had already fixed ropes for the responders to facilitate a quicker rescue. The first rescuer had ascended to their position on the side of the wall only five minutes after arriving. Runyon filled the RMRG responders in on the situation and the severity of the injuries, and passed off care.

The Boulder County press release states, “​​Upon arrival at the [climbers’] location, a doctor with Rocky Mountain Rescue Group pronounced one of the climbers … deceased at approximately 6:11p.m.” RMRG responders lowered the other injured climber on a litter, did a rope carry through the talus, and evacuated him in an ambulance. He was later airlifted to Denver in a helicopter.

“I’m very grateful to the person [Aubrey Runyon] who helped us on the wall, and the search and rescue team,” the surviving climber said.

Asked for comment, Drew Hildner, the public information officer for Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, noted that RMRG has not conducted an accident investigation and no members were on the Wind Ridge route at any point during the rescue or de-rigging.

“As members of the climbing community ourselves, we grieve with those who have been affected, and also have many of the same questions about how this occurred,” Hilder wrote in an email. “We also know from experience that we rarely get a clear picture of what exactly occurred to cause an accident. Climbing is an invigorating and beautiful activity, requiring us to balance risk with reward. Knowledge, situational awareness, and recognition and mitigation of both objective and human factors improve our safety on the rock, whether at the crag or in the mountains.”

Catastrophic accidents of this type—in which one roped climber pulls the other off the rock—are rare. The most high-profile in recent years came in June of 2018, when Tim Klein and Jason Wells fell to their deaths while simul-climbing (with little to no gear in between them) on the Salathé Wall, on El Capitan, Yosemite.

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