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Fall and helicopter rescue in Not-Water Canyon, Capitol Reef 27May2017

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by Ira, Aug 22, 2017.

  1. Ira

    Ira

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    Location:
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    Abstract:

    On Saturday May 27, Scott Smith fell approximately 25’ while rappelling on a knot chock in Not-Water Canyon near Capitol Reef. In terms of possible outcomes, Scott was incredibly lucky in his fall and only fractured his sternum and metatarsal bones in his right foot. Ira Lewis, a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), provided an initial assessment and basic medical care and helped Scott exit the canyon into the main wash area under his own power. Lisa Purdy activated the personal locator beacon, exited the canyon and ran to the trailhead to coordinate search and rescue efforts. Scott was picked up in the main wash by an emergency rescue helicopter and received treatment that night in a Cedar City hospital. Round trip time was about 3.5hrs from the accident in canyon to the hospital. Because the professionals said we were well-prepared, made the right calls and did the right things, we wanted to get the story out, albeit later in the summer than originally planned.

    Events:

    Scott: I rounded a corner and saw a knot chock of 9/16” webbing with a single overhand knot in a thin crack protecting a challenging downclimb/rappel. The knot chock location was about 10 feet off the canyon floor and difficult to inspect. A rope was rigged double line through a rappel ring with both ends lying on the ground 25’ below. The previous 4 canyoneers were a little ways ahead and they had discussed the directionality of the chock among themselves and its marginal use. I rigged the rope to my harness and commented on the lack of desirability of the knot chock but rappelled on it anyway. I realized that the angle that I was rappelling on was too large and just as I was getting ready to make adjustments, the anchor popped out of the crack and everything slowed down to a crawl. As I watched the rope spring out of the anchor, I thought that at least Kelley would get a good payout on my Accidental Death and Dismemberment and Life insurance. I was very curious to know if it was going to hurt and was thinking that this was stupid.

    NotWaterCanyon_KnotChock.JPG

    I nearly fell on another team member, who had just a fraction of a moment to probably be the biggest hero of the day and slightly redirect my fall to a better landing mostly between rocks. I landed on a big rock on my side and the first thought was that I was still alive, and second, my ribs were broken. Turns out, I had the wind knocked out of me and was sucking air to try and get it back! The effort of breathing made for some very bad, disconcerting noises for those who witnessed the fall.

    After a while, the breathing noises softened and I was told not to move -- but I had to move as the rock was uncomfortably digging into my side. While waiting for Ira to get down, I was doing a self-assessment and realized that I did not break any ribs that might have punctured my lungs and the only thing that was hurting was my right foot. Ira immediately rappelled off Deeps above and soon got to the bottom of the drop. He used his wilderness medicine training that he just recertified in to assess my condition.

    Ira passed the GPS-enabled PLB (ACR ResQLink+GPS) to be carried forward to Lisa at the front of the group. She powered on the PLB at the top of the last rappel, rappelled to the bottom, drank some water, then left her pack grabbing the PLB, truck keys and an emergency layer and ran approximately 2.5 miles to the trailhead while the device transmitted. She wanted to get to the trailhead, which offered more open and less obstructed terrain, to enable the PLB signal to transmit more effectively and because the trailhead was road accessible and a good location to coordinate with emergency personnel.

    Lisa: Just as I arrived at the trailhead, approximately 30-40 minutes after activating the PLB, I spotted a truck backing out. I called out to the driver who I recognized from the campsite that morning and told him the details of the accident. I had not witnessed Scott’s accident and had only been told that there had been a fall and that Scott could have broken his ribs or his leg and could also be bleeding internally. The driver of the truck agreed to call 911 once within cell range and to pass the information on to a mutual friend who was familiar with the canyon and might be able to provide additional information and/or support to search and rescue (SAR). I then repositioned the truck next to the road, placed the PLB on the roof, and waited for help.

    Scott: Ira did an assessment of my condition and the conclusion was that my right foot was the only real complaint. There was a slight pain in my sternum that we would find out later was cracked.

    To offset the post-adrenaline chill and lack of movement in the bottom of the cool slot, I put on my wetsuit top to keep warm.

    After the initial assessment, I moved out of the small room at the bottom of the drop around the corner to a place where it was more comfortable to sit. We removed my FiveTen Canyoneer from the injured foot to make sure there was no significant bleeding or other injury and we decided to leave the sock in place to keep any wounds protected from infection. After wrapping the foot to give it some stability, I found I could walk on it if I just walked on my heel. I was able to work my way out of the canyon without being carried and using assists to execute the downclimbs and made it to the last drop.

    The final rappel is 165’ and anchored using a single webbing loop off a chock stone at the back of a pothole around the corner from the last rappel. Rather than use the single webbing strand as an anchor to do our two-person rescue rappel, Ira and I rappelled together off three people standing in the pothole.

    Lisa: Approximately 1 hour after arriving to the trailhead, the local sheriff appeared. I described the accident, the patient, the likely injuries and then worked with the sheriff to identify on his maps the location where the accident took place. The sheriff had picked up 2 locations from the transmitting PLB: the first signal appeared to have ricocheted off the canyon walls and identified the top of a nearby mesa; and the second signal identified the trailhead. I was able to correct for the errant location, although did not have printed beta for our particular canyon (which would have accelerated the rescue process), and advised that a ropes rescue may be required. The sheriff coordinated efforts with the rescue helicopter and EMT crew that had been dispatched.

    Scott: Once on the ground, we sent two people ahead to tell Lisa that we would not be needing a technical rope rescue. I walked out at my own slow pace while the remaining group scouted ahead. We heard the helicopter in the main canyon and moved ourselves into the more open stream so that they could see us. The adept pilot backed the helicopter into a narrow space. The flight paramedics brought a portable AED and their kits for their initial assessment and then loaded me into the helicopter.

    NotWaterCanyon_Helicopter.JPG
    Lisa: Once I received word that the helicopter was able to land and pick up Scott, I drove the truck into cell range to call Ira’s parents, who are the listed emergency contacts for the PLB, and provide the reassuring news that all was well.

    Scott: The helicopter ride over Bryce NP landed in Cedar City in about 45 minutes. I was wheeled into the emergency room where they did an upper torso CAT scan and a CAT scan of my injured foot.

    The orthopedic surgeon on call determined that no immediate surgery was required, so they wrapped up and stabilized my foot and released me from the hospital. They were really great. I didn’t have my wallet, which meant I didn’t have my ID, insurance card, or any money besides the few 20s Ira handed me before I got on the helicopter. They put me up in a room they have available for relatives visiting patients in the hospital.

    Ira and Lisa picked me up the next day and we spent the evening at Dean & Amy’s wonderful house.

    Debrief: We talked a lot about how the rescue went among those immediately involved and with friends, debriefing with each other over the next several days. Here are a few of the key points we identified:

    Ira:
    WFR: I’m happy I prioritized a two-week Wilderness First Responder (WFR) class during a break from work in 2008 and I’ve kept up with my recerts every 2-3 years; the last recert being just a month before the accident. I can’t express enough how having a pre-determined mental checklist and knowing the priority order to go through helps deal with such a possible panic-inducing situation more calmly. If you can’t spare 10 straight days, look for a local class taught over evenings and weekends or the short 5 day version where you do the book work beforehand.

    Marginal Anchors: Scott is incredibly lucky. Other stories involve falls of lesser distance and more severe consequences. This is a reminder to us all that anchors, marginal or not, should always be treated with a high dose of consideration and assessed by every team member prior to rappelling. Request backup if an anchor is questionable and adjust technique accordingly.

    Get Help Mobilized Early: The flight paramedics agreed that getting help mobilized early was the right thing given the potential for injuries we couldn’t have fixed in the backcountry, specifically brain and spine injuries resulting from a fall of that height that may have presented themselves hours after the event.

    Insurance: Don’t let costs dissuade you from calling for help. Scott saw on his insurance statement that the helicopter flight was $44,000, but he ultimately didn’t incur any of the costs. Before going out, make sure you have an insurance plan, even a catastrophic plan, in place and make a call to better understand exactly what it covers. Carry a copy of your ID and insurance information if you are accustomed to leaving your wallet in the car.

    Rope Rescue: While Scott could have arguably rappelled himself over the last drop that day, this might not have been possible had his injuries been more severe. Knowing how to rig and perform a rescue rappel of an injured party got Scott out of the canyon and avoided the need for a technical SAR team. The ATS with both horns looped on the bottom provided sufficient friction for the estimated 400 pounds combined of both Scott and Ira and their gear.

    Beta: Bring a copy of the relevant beta (including maps), if any, into each canyon. In the event of a rescue, give this to the lead runner to assist search and rescue efforts. Provide trip plans, including canyon beta, to an emergency contact.

    Emergency Gear: Bring appropriate gear into the canyons every time even on short days: including a first aid kit, headlamp, and an emergency warm layer that can also be used to cushion damaged body parts under an ACE wrap. Accidents turn short days into long days.

    PLB: Consider investing in a personal locator beacon (PLB). I haven’t used the PLB before and it’s reassuring to know it works as well as it did. PLBs operate internationally on the same frequency. My parents are usually home, so they are the emergency contact listed on my PLB registration. I usually forward the last coordination email for trips to them for reference just in case.

    I have an ACR ResQLink+GPS: https://www.rei.com/product/843146/acr-electronics-resqlink-gps-personal-locator-beacon. The ACR does not have a subscription fee. FYI: It cost $110 to have the 5-year battery professionally replaced by an ACR dealer after use. I’m sure there are many threads on pros/cons of using a device such as a Garmin inReach that has two-way communication capabilities. The inReach (which has a subscription fee for two-way communication through satellites) can be recharged via USB. In considering a PLB purchase, weigh your choices between satellite subscription fees and the cost of professional battery replacement.

    Summary: When we as a community talk about our sport, I’ve often heard and personally commented that canyoning/canyoneering is usually fun and free of issues, but when this sport goes wrong, it can go wrong pretty quickly and severely. Build and practice a good skills toolbox, be safe out there, and by all means make good choices to return to the tailgate for the post-canyon beer, guacamole and chips.

    -Ira, Lisa & Scott
  2. Canyon Monkey

    Canyon Monkey Useful Idiot

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    Location:
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    Thanks for the thoughtful writeup.
  3. spinesnaper

    spinesnaper

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    Scott-Make a speedy recovery.

    Generally the dedicated PLB will more reliably ping out of more locations. Devices such as the spot have less powerful transmitters. Both devices require some thought in their deployment. The more open sky, the better.

    Very interesting report.
    Ken
  4. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Thanks for sharing.
  5. Melanie Neale

    Melanie Neale

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    So glad you recovered. More importantly that you all gave a full digest of the situation so others can learn -that's one of the good things about these forums. We all learn from this

    Best wishes

    Melanie



    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
    ratagonia likes this.
  6. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Some thoughts on this after pondering it overnight:

    I think you guys did great after the accident, so my only comments are regarding prevention.

    Rappelling off a knot of sling is a marginal anchor, but it is a bit unique among marginal anchors in that it is a little tougher to test and back up compared to something like a sandtrap, a fiddlesticked stick, or a water pocket. Nevertheless, the marginal anchor process applies and that process is what keeps you as safe as possible. What is that process?

    # 1 Nobody rappels on it without back-up except LAPAR. There was still someone above the fallen rappeller, which means this accident was entirely preventable for that person. Now LAPAR on the other hand....

    # 2 Lightest person last and have someone else take your pack. Minimize weight on the anchor.

    # 3 Soft set and maximal friction and smoothness on the rappel. Again, minimize weight on the anchor.

    # 4 Recognize that just because you find an anchor, that doesn't mean it will hold you. You have no idea how long it has been there, how the environment has changed since it was placed, how much that LAPAR weighed, what rappel technique that LAPAR used etc. Maybe it was an 8 foot rappel into a 10 foot deep pool for him and now it is an 18 footer onto rocks for you. Big difference if that anchor fails.

    # 5 Just because an anchor held other members of your party, doesn't mean it will hold you. I know of another accident where a canyoneer was like 9th in order in his group when the anchor failed (it had been rubbed back and forth on the rock with the previous 8 rappellers and broke on the 9th guy.)

    # 6 Canyoneering is dangerous, but so is life. I still think road biking is my most dangerous hobby.
    Bootboy, Jolly Green and spinesnaper like this.
  7. spinesnaper

    spinesnaper

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    I personally think the 8 hour drive to Zion is among my highest risk activities. But biking on the streets of West Los Angeles must be right up there: distracted drivers.
  8. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Yeah, but...

    I've used marginal anchors and regretted it more than once. This is a stupid sport and a stupid way to die or get hurt. While we "experts" often congratulate ourselves on the use of clever anchors, sometimes they are clever but stupid. Let's not be the party of stupid. Pat yourself on the back, take pictures of what a clever boy you are; then go work up a REAL anchor that is actually safe.

    And just to be clear, I sometimes actually do this.

    Knot chocks in particular CAN be good in limestone and other hard stones. They are good less often in Sandstone.

    Tom
    ScottM, Mountaineer, Bootboy and 2 others like this.
  9. kariann.hibbard

    kariann.hibbard

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    Thank you for sharing not just the story of the accident, but the individual steps that were taken, and thank you for writing up your analysis as well. I'm still new to the sport of canyoneering and reading these accident reports usually helps me learn how to avoid accidents. Even when we do everything right, something can still go wrong. Your post helped me learn to prepare for the "what-ifs" and some steps to take if an accident does happen. I think I'm going to look into that WFR class.

    Sent from my SM-G930T using Tapatalk
  10. Dan Ransom

    Dan Ransom Staff Member

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    File this under "posts I didn't expect to read today..." :)

    But seriously, sketchy anchors are sketchy.
    Kuenn likes this.
  11. MrAdam

    MrAdam

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    Myself and two others descended this canyon the day before the accident. As far as marginal/sketchy anchors go, this knot chock is one of the sketchier anchors I have used.

    Unfortunately, backing up this particular anchor is not a great option. The knot chock is set in a crack roughly 10-12' off the ground on a near vertical slope right above the 20' drop. Just getting the rope thru the rap ring was a challenge. In order to back up the anchor, a meat anchor would need to be set 30' back from the anchor and around a corner. If the anchor were to fail, the person on rappel would drop 10-12' before shock loading the meat anchor.

    However.... this rap can be downclimbed, although it is a difficult down climb with some exposure. So a meat anchor and sequencing is a possible solution.
    ScottM likes this.
  12. a.c

    a.c canyonhermit

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    Location:
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    When I placed this culprit anchor (about one year ago) I never intended to fully weight it, but simply to ease the sketchy down climb because I was alone. Previously I'd built a respectable cairn anchor at that place but of course the materials aren't always available. I no longer solo canyons (for obvious safety reasons). This was a good, albeit unfortunate learning experience that I'm glad wasn't any worse.
    Dan Ransom likes this.
  13. hank moon

    hank moon lovely ligatures

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    Possible to extend the knot-chock anchor webbing to place the rap ring in a more favorable location?
    Mike likes this.
  14. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Confirming exactly the point I was making above, straight from the original anchor builder. It was never intended as a rappel anchor. He downclimbed it with a back-up/handline. He knew it was total sketch. But those who come behind assume someone else has actually weighted the thing.
    ratagonia likes this.
  15. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    So apparently the best solutions were to either do what Tom suggests and build a "real anchor" (deadman or cairn anchor etc), or have everyone else rappel on meat and have the best climber downclimb it with a spotter and a handline placed on the sketch anchor.

    Ahhh....the retrospectoscope. Always so accurate.
    ratagonia, Mountaineer and hank moon like this.
  16. MrAdam

    MrAdam

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    Yes, it would be possible, but the actual crack which the chock was placed in is still dang near impossible to get to, even with a spotter. I am amazed a.c was able to place the knot chock solo.
    a.c and hank moon like this.
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