When Your Rope Comes Untied—and 5 Ways to Prevent the Nightmare
Coming untied from the rope while on lead doesn't happen every day, but it happens often enough that you should put the scenario on your radar.
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I still think about the time Joanne’s rope fell off her, 80 feet up on Easy Skankin’.
At a recent Tuesday Night Bouldering session at a local gym, several people ruminated animatedly about that day, because no one who saw or even imagines it can fail to shudder.
Easy Skankin’ is a long, sweeping 5.12b on the Anti-Phil Wall on the steep limestone of Rifle Mountain Park, Western Colorado. Everyone loves it and considers it the best climb of its grade, the perfect warmup; I always struggle. The crux is hard, the holds worn and chalked, and that long reach to the gaston seems hopeless. The only way I ever did the route was when my friend Heather Ardley, two inches shorter than I at 5’5”, showed me an extra foot move.
I was with Heather the day of the incident. Walking along the road past the AntiPhil sector, we gazed across the river to see the strong and kind Danny Robertson blasting up the route as if chased by hellhounds. Heather, who swapped dog care with him, called out.
Danny glanced around but turned back.
What we didn’t notice through the trees was a person above him, ropeless.
Joanne Tuohy, an excellent climber with a smooth, creeping style and 5.12 and 5.13 sends under her belt, had taken a toprope spin on Easy Skankin’. Lee Sheftel had led the route on her rope, a new one. Later she would say she probably tied her knot correctly, but should have tightened it better.
“I had tightened the knot initially … The difference that day was that I noticed the knot didn’t appear as cinched down as a used rope would. It was my mistake to brush that off.”
She had tied a double bowline, popular with many because it unties more easily than the double figure eight—which is why I use the figure eight.
Then she entered the bouldery, uncompromising opening moves, moved through bulges and across a traverse, and finally began the fierce and fingery crux into a groove.
She managed the crux and ensuing sustained moves up the dihedral. At the rest, a stem with a good jug for purchase, she stopped and shook out.
Lee, belaying the toprope from below among a crew of chatting climbers, was unaware that she had paused and continued to haul in the rope.
Perched high, Joanne saw the rope snake out from her harness and pull off into the air. She screamed and grabbed at it futilely.
At the cry, Lee reflexively yarded in rope. The rope whipped up and around, and to his horror landed in a pile at his feet.
Joanne looked left at the last bolt, placed a bit below knee level and thankfully equipped with a quickdraw. She dipped down, leaned left, clutched it and clipped in.
She later said it was the best place for the incident to happen, but she still did very well in the situation. Of course she was aghast; and even, as she later told me, “embarrassed to have caused everyone so much trouble and worry.” Freaked and unable to trust the single bolt, she dared not hang in her harness but stayed on the thin rock holds, swapping hands and shaking out. When we saw Danny, he was hurrying up with a rope.
If Joanne had fallen earlier, on the opening bouldering sequence, the weight of her fall might have tightened the knot into safety. If she had fallen from the crux, with the rope at least partially untied? I cannot imagine anyone surviving that. She also might have reached the anchor and leaned back without noticing the problem. The route is 110 feet.
Joanne is a hardworking and focused, conscientious person. At that time, she was enrolled in the vet-tech program at Colorado Mountain College, Glenwood Springs. She went on to earn her doctorate from the Professional Veterinary Medicine program at Colorado State University, and last year completed a residency in small-animal surgery at North Carolina State University. She is now a board-certified surgeon in her first year of a PhD in cancer immunology.
From her today: “I do sometimes still reflect on that day in Rifle, and I continue to feel very fortunate that no terrible accident happened.”
She is not climbing currently, but only because her present location of Raleigh, North Carolina, lacks a good sport-climbing area close by. She and her husband, Michael, instead mountain bike on the great local cross-country trails.
“We’d love to get back into climbing some day.”
I know three other people who have suffered the same calamity. One, Geoff Radford, climbing in the Adirondacks, also saw a rope fall away from him when a bowline untied. When asked later, he maintained without affect that he just threw in some pieces of pro and waited for a friend to lead up to him. But he was the kind of guy who would bivy on an Alaskan mountain without comment, and he was on moderate ground.
Lynn Hill was the most visible case. A world champion climber, she was threading her rope into her harness for a 70-foot warmup climb, Buffet Froid (5.10d-5.11a) at Buoux in France, when she noticed her shoes were out of reach. She stopped and walked 20 feet to fetch them, at the same time greeting a nearby woman friend from Japan, and never completed the knot.
“The thought occurred to me that there was something I needed to do before climbing,” she wrote in her memoir, Climbing Free. “I asked myself, Should I take my jacket off?” But the day was cool and she left it on, its bulk hiding the merely threaded rope end.
She climbed to the anchors, leaned back to be lowered and fell to the ground, grazing a tree but fortunately landing in a patch of dirt between two boulders, just missing a stump. She dislocated her elbow, broke a bone in her foot and needed stitches for cuts, but recovered fully. Eight months later, in January 1990, she became the first woman to climb 5.14, with Mass Critique in Cimai, France.
Another climber, Jordan Mills of the Shawangunks, erred in the same way. His rope dropped off on a hard climb, and he hit superfocus and downclimbed several feet to grab a piece of pro.
I think of Joanne sometimes when climbing high off the deck.
Could I do that?
I’d rather not find out.
- Always check your knots.
- Visually inspect your partner’s knot before every pitch. If he or she leaves the ground before you can check, ask, “How’s your knot?” Ask that she / he check it and show you.
- If someone asks you a question or tries to hand you something when you are tying your knot, wait you are finished to answer or take the item. Do nothing else until the knot is complete. Likewise, hold off on conversation if your friend is tying his/her knot.
- Remember, a knot’s not finished until you tighten it. A stiff new rope is more likely to loosen. Reef on it.
- Tie a stopper knot above your knot. (And ….This is not one of the tenets to prevent the problem, but …. Carry a quickdraw. You could be glad.)