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Weekend Whipper: Soaring Trad Fall From 400 Feet Up

The filmer breaks down exactly what happened—and what went wrong.

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Readers, please send your Weekend Whipper videos, information, and any lessons learned to Anthony Walsh,

Recently, Tim Larsen, Steven Cunnane, and Oliver Williams were climbing the multi-pitch classic Armageddon Time (5.11; 1,000 feet) in the Yellowwood Amphitheatre, Western Cape, South Africa. 

Cunnane left the fifth belay, roughly 400 feet off the deck, and traversed hard right beneath a roof. He pulled it and continued up the slightly overhung face, placing two cams before engaging the pitch’s crux at 5.10+. “Because of the nature of the crux, [Cunnane] was unable to place any gear as he moved through it,” the filmer, Larsen, wrote to Climbing. Cunnane ran it out about 13 feet, through the crux, before reaching a jug and an opportunity to place gear.

The video picks up as Cunnane snatches the jug. Williams, belaying, pays out slack in anticipation of a gear placement, but Cunnane greases off the good hold and whips past the belay—slamming Williams into the wall.

It is all too easy to be critical of climbing accidents like this. After all, the route’s combination of traditionally protected anchors and runout pitches, matched up with a cramped belay stance and an unassisted braking device, means there are many opportunities for disaster. Larsen agreed, and kindly provided a breakdown of what exactly happened up on Armageddon Time, and what he’d do differently next time. Larsen:

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The Belay

  1. The belay only takes large cams. No. 3 and 4 (Black Diamond Camalots) and we only had one of each. 
  2. The fourth pitch approached the belay from the left, so the belay had to be able to take forces from the left and the right. (As illustrated in the fall.)
  3. The wall overhangs beneath the belay; extending the belay would make for a very uncomfortable stance.  

Taking these factors into consideration I built a quad anchor (refer to point 2) and to belay pitch five we couldn’t add an extra cam opposing the direction of the fall on pitch five because we didn’t have any other cams (refer to point 1). We didn’t extend the stance, which would have helped prevent the belayer from slamming into the wall, because of the lack of feet. (refer to point 3).

The belayer during the fall

When the climber had made it through the crux, the belayer assumed all was safe and well and began to give slack. Despite this, when the climber fell Oliver was ready. There was no need to take up the slack (no risk of the climber hitting a ledge) so Oliver locked off his belay device and did his best to brace for impact. However, due to how awkward the stance was, when the climber loaded the ropes at the base of the fall the belayer was launched into the rock above and to the right. He hit his head quite hard (without a helmet he may have been knocked out) but managed to hold onto the ropes below the device. 

What could be done better?

Given the nature of the belay stance and climb, the best improvements would be made to the belay, not to the leader as placing gear in the crux is just not viable. To improve the belay we have three options: 

1: Extend the belay and just make do with how uncomfortable it would be.

2: Bring an extra No. 4 Camalot to use as an opposing piece in the anchor.

3: Belay off the anchor using a munter so that the load would be directly exerted on the stance. Next time I head out to Armageddon Time I intend to use option No. 3.

Also read: Use This Belay Technique When a High-Impact Force Factor-2 Fall Is Possible

(For the record, Climbing thinks belaying from a munter is an excellent idea when faced with high-impact falls—but we’d consider bringing the extra No. 4, too!)

Happy Friday, and be safe out there this weekend.

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