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Fall in Shenanigans canyon

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by Michael W, Nov 7, 2019.

  1. Michael W

    Michael W

    Fort Collins, CO
    We've all read accident reports that conclude "always check your rappel anchors". I never thought I would get to write one of them, but here it is.

    On Saturday, Nov 2, 2019, we descended Shenanigans canyon (in southern Utah) as a solidly intermediate group of four. We hoped to link Shenanigans with one of the Leprechauns, which meant there was no time for dawdling. We left our car at the bottom, at Sandthrax campsite.

    Saturday dawned cold and beautiful. The approach was very pleasant: a cool breeze, beautiful views, and minimal aimless desert wandering. The beginning of the canyon and the first two narrows were great as well; the group was moving well, not burning too much energy, and passing around the "large" pack with the rope in it. We entered the third narrows about three hours after starting the canyon.

    Shortly into the third narrows is a feature called the Grim Crawl of Death. The canyon drops ~30 feet without an obvious rappel anchor, but there's a deep pocket where someone can sit as a meat anchor. From there, a narrow, sloping ledge along the canyon right wall offers an exposed crawl to a narrow spot with a (spicy) downclimb. In some groups, everyone does the Grim Crawl and downclimbs; the more common approach is to have most people rappel off of the strongest climber, who crawls and downclimbs alone.

    Approaching the Grim Crawl, we came across a chockstone that had been slung as a rappel anchor. It was a long way back from the edge, and it looked like a previous party had used all their webbing to try to extend it. The chock was slung with a length of bright red webbing, which led to a length of bright yellow webbing that ended 15 feet short of the lip. One member of our group remembers seeing the webbing tied together with a single flat overhand (like an EDK, not a water knot) and thinking that the tail was much too short.

    Another party member said that the slung chockstone was in poor form and wanted to chop it, but he wasn't carrying a knife. We discussed the best way forward and decided that rappelling off of the slung chockstone would be fastest if un-stylish (and we were burning daylight!).

    I rigged the rappel from the existing webbing, with a Smooth Operator to make the pull easier. I double-checked my work, and asked one of the others to triple-check. The webbing was in great shape and looked practically brand-new: bright, supple, undamaged, and barely even dirty. I don't remember what the knot between pieces of webbing looked like, so we must not have checked that part. This isn't a good excuse, but it was around the corner and out of sight.

    I rappelled first, reaching the bottom uneventfully. I called "off rope", then started moving the rope and release cord down canyon to make the pull cleaner. The next person started rappelling. I glanced up as he crossed the lip, saw him move a little to his right, then turned around again.

    The next thing I heard was screaming, a thud, and more screaming.

    Running back up canyon, I found the second rappeller lying on his back on slanted ground, with a pile of rope, release cord, and webbing on top of him. He had fallen 20-30 feet and landed on a rock slab on some combination of elbows, feet, and backpack. He was wearing a helmet, but says it didn't come into play.

    Nobody saw what happened to the webbing at the time. Looking at the evidence afterwards, the flat overhand must have rolled off the end of the webbing. The only sign that there had ever been a knot was that one strand was a little wrinkled at the end.

    A recreation at home of what the knot must have looked like:

    Through an enormous stroke of luck, our injured canyoneer had no fractures, dislocations, or spinal injuries. One knee was in pretty rough shape, both elbows were quite scraped and bruised, and he was in a lot of pain. He later discovered a rib injury as well. After a healthy dose of ibuprofen (and treatment for shock), some water, and some rest, he was able to limp unaided. I don't know how pleasant walking was, but he was moving on his own.

    Extrication proved easier than we all feared. The two at the top of the drop lowered a piece of webbing, we tied the rope on, and they pulled it back up. Our injured person used his good leg and better arm to ascend the rope (on a meat anchor) with a belay (from the chockstone). This was his first time ascending, so he got to endure some on-the-spot training with the usual floundering. It probably would have been a good thing to practice somewhere outside of a canyon first, but his learning to ascend against a wall while injured is one of the more impressive things I've seen lately. We knew he was okay when he asked for pictures of the process (for the 'gram, you know).


    From the top of the drop, it was an awkward squeeze-y walk/crawl up canyon, followed by the third-class bail route above the third narrows and a long limp across the desert. Our car was still 6 miles away; I started to run to get it, but quickly met a nice group from Provo who offered me a ride (thanks, Mark!). While I was off to get our car, someone else from the Provo group picked up the rest of the group with another car, and fed them hot chocolate at their fire (thanks, Mark's friends!)

    • Check rappel anchors thoroughly. Every part of them. It was the part of the anchor we didn't check that got us, and several people had used it after it was tied.
    • If you're going to fall and get hurt, it's a good idea to be young at the same time. Our injured person bounced really well.
    • A first-aid kit and emergency ascenders were good to have, even in a tight canyon that punishes you for every little bit you carry.
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2019
    ratagonia, Eroni, stefan and 2 others like this.
  2. Sonny Lawrence

    Sonny Lawrence

  3. Kuenn


    Thanks for sharing another "very fortunate" experience. Even good luck has its bad days.

    That is amazing! was he on day two?? ;)
    Ram likes this.
  4. stefan

    stefan wandering utahn

    wow (scary!) thanks for recounting the experience and the takeaways. happy to hear the injury wasn't as bad as it might have been. reading your account made me think of this story Rick Innaniello wrote.

    Plunging 15 Feet - Rick Innaniello

    reinforces your point about checking the anchor (and replacing questionable webbing etc) and being lucky. and kudos to his learning to ascend while injured!
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2019
    Ram likes this.
  5. Canyonero


    I find these stories most terrifying because it wasn't the first person who the anchor failed on (as is the usual case.) I know of another case where the webbing cut on the 7th of 10 or 12 canyoneers. Scary stuff.

    Glad it was on a relatively short drop.

    One more reason to avoid using sling when possible- one less link in the system that can fail. Sure, downclimbs have risks of their own, but not this risk. Having now used meat hundreds of times, it has gotten to the point where I prefer to rappel off of it, especially when compared to sling I didn't tie on things like chockstones that tend to fail quickly with disastrous consequences.
    Ram, EvergreenDean and ratagonia like this.
  6. Ram


    When we found our way to that spot in the early 2000's, and then over the following years, those that did NOT want any part of the grim crawl, would rap off of meat and a LAPAR would go last. A simple thing, but not always obvious. Michael, come on over soon and regale me with more of the details!
    Good to be lucky. Very, very good.
  7. caboalta


    Thanks for the report. I was with a group that descended Shenanigans one week later. We had 8 people and for a few this was their first canyon ever. I was not the group leader, I got the invite the day before and only knew the person that invited me. At the Grim Crawl it was determined to not be very grim at all. Everyone belly crawled along the ledge to the chockstone and then down climbed the 15 feet from that. The stemming down is very straight forward and as of 11-9-19 there is a webbing sling on the chockstone for a handline for those that want. The grim crawl did not feel exposed at all in my opinion. Meat anchoring all but the last person would be the recommended way to do it for those still unwilling to do the crawl. Rope groves are extensive on the canyon floor in that spot so avoiding pulling rope across there would be ideal. Like you said its best to always check the knots and condition of all the webbing on existing anchors before rappelling on them. Recently we have encountered webbing that has been completely and near completely chewed through by rodents I presume. Even after evaluating an anchor and considering it sufficient yet maybe less then 100% ideal we will if possible back it up with meat for all but the last and ideally the lightest person.
    Ram, Austin Farnworth and ratagonia like this.
  8. ratagonia


    Mount Carmel, Utah
  9. Ram


    One thing that comes to mind is that perhaps, rather than an injured person learning to jug, that a 2 person haul might have been easier and safer. Great choice to retreat. Going up is never easy but in this case, a far superior choice. Nicely done!

    On another note, I named the Grim Crawl of Death (March 2002). It has been pointed out that it is not really a difficult or grim spot. More an insecure feeling. A tip for the uninitiated is to not start on the right edge, furthest from the drop. It is better to start on the left, near the drop and make it as much of a diagonal uphill crawl as possible. That eliminates the the feeling that you are going to roll over toward the drop. Fun spot as you can neither get up on your elbows or knees. It is a belly crawl.

    The name is stolen from a 1988 Sports Illustrated caving article that scared the poo out of me and I thought it was a cool name, in search of a canyon spot. The descriptions of the Grim Crawl in the article gave me the willies. I suspect the story will give them to you too. Enjoy

    Some choice passages..."the passage quickly deteriorated into a steep, frigid crawl in a streambed bristling with submerged velcro. They would struggle upstream for a few yards, their heads uncomfortably tilted so that sometimes just a single nostril could be held above the frothing water, only to hit a dead end."

    "Yet the tantalizing presence of wind suggested that the water level did not reach the ceiling somewhere up ahead in this maze, although they were about to discover that even in the through passage it came close. Shifflett could not shake visions of accidentally wedging his helmet between the uneven floor and the low ceiling, pinning his head facedown and drowning in three inches of water"

    ""It was a definition of hell. I had several holes in my wet suit, and ice water kept shooting in, ballooning the material out. Water got under my helmet and ripped it from my chinstrap. I lay there in the dark, hearing the helmet go tick, tick, tick as the water carried it down the passage ahead of me." Scheltens exited the crawl sharing a single fading flashlight with the four members of his group; each had entered the cave carrying three working light sources."
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2023
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