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Incident in Central Arizona - Lessons to be learned.

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by ratagonia, Jan 3, 2018.

  1. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    There was a recent incident in Central Arizona that the canyon leader involved was kind enough to provide substantial detail about. Rather than flood the other thread with critique, I thought it would be more polite to discuss the mistakes made and lessons to be learned over here on a separate thread. Here is the report from the canyon leader:

    Ok, this is going to be a long post but it's about the scariest moment of our lives so.......here goes! On Monday Kristy and I planned on doing a couple of canyons in the Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix. We researched a ton and decided on ZigZag canyon and Headdress Canyon. We packed our gear including two 230' lengths of rope and rescue equipment, food, and water and took off. We parked at the end of ZigZag canyon and hiked 2.5 miles to the trailhead. Off we went and found what should have been the drop in point for ZigZag and trekked our way through the bush and over the boulders and found the mouth of the waterfall. Looking down there was our car so everything looked good. It was supposed to be a multi-stage rappel of 650+ feet and that looked about right. The only problem was, there were no anchor points anywhere. Checked all over and nothing. I figured that someone had probably removed the anchors for a safety reason. Ok, so we hiked out and back to the trail.

    We talked about either going to Headdress or a little further down this trail was Minnow canyon. It was only 1 rappel of 170' but we're here and it's supposed to finish near our car as well. So that's where we went. We hiked about another half mile and found the canyon drop in point. In we went, lots of thick brush, boulders, and scrambling up and over things. Finally we came to the washover point of the waterfall, looked down and there was the car. And, there was the anchor we were looking for to start down. I looked down and it seemed to be much more than 170' but I because of sloping I couldn't tell just how far we'd need to get to before we could climb down. I tied in and over I went.

    As I cleared the slope I saw multiple anchor stages and realized that this was actually ZigZag. Fine, we planned for this canyon. I got to stage 2 and tethered my daisy chain to the anchor and called Kristy down. She met me at the anchor station and carabinered in. This is where the problems started. Now is where we would simply pull our rope down and rope into this anchor and continue down. Problem was I pulled on one of the ropes and nothing. Try the other one, nothing. Try shaking them loose and put my full weight onto each one and nothing. Oh crap!! Now I've got to get the ascenders out to rescue climb up and try and free the ropes.

    Ascenders are grips that you attach to the rope that slide up the rope and bite in so they don't go down. You then attach the top one to your harness and the bottom one to your harness as well as a foot strap. You then sit in your harness, lift your strapped leg up with it's ascender, bite in, stand up with that one leg and reach with your top hand as high as you can so that ascender bites in. You then sit in your harness, lift your leg, stand up, reach, and repeat. Again, and again, and again.

    I was able to rescue climb up about 75' above Kristy but here I was free hanging as the rock caved inwards and my top ascender was blocked by 9" of a ledge that I can't get over. I couldn't get any leverage with my feet to try and pop my ascender over the ledge. Now I'm stuck tied onto my ascenders hanging there 500' above the ground and I can't go any higher because of the ledge but I can't go down because well, ascenders don't allow you to! Now I panic. I've gotta transfer to the other rope and if I undo one wrong connection, I fall to my death. I looped the rope through my belay on my harness, lock tied it around my thigh, and tried to figure out how to get off of my ascenders. I couldn't get any slack on the rope because of my weight so I had to cut away the slings that connected me to them and leave them there and pray I didn't drop. Cut. My thigh lock held and I was good. I unwrapped the rope from my leg and rappelled down to Kristy. Now we're back to square one. Anchored in and can't get our ropes down.

    BTW....yes we checked and neither of us had any cell reception. Our only option now is to cut our rope and pray we have enough left to allow us to continue down. I cut them, tied them together giving me about 120' total and we were able to rappel down to the next ledge and anchor station. Now there's a car at the bottom watching us. I yelled down as I looped the rope through this anchor and asked the guy if my rope was close to the fourth stage anchor. Nope. I looked and saw a ledge down 100+ feet and asked the guy if we got to that ledge did it look climbable from there. He said it looked possible. Difficult but possible. I kept looking and saw a single anchor bolted about 10' below us and at this point every foot counts. I rappelled down to it and anchored in and Kristy followed. I pulled our rope and the plan was to permanently tie into this anchor and get to that ledge and hope it's climbable. It's freezing cold and we're highly stressed and panicking, and I'm trying to feed my rope through while trying to reassure Kristy and next thing I know the rope is gone! F^(K ME!!! I look around and it dropped and is sitting on a rock 30' below with no way of getting it.

    Now we're both clipped into 1 anchor on the side of a mountain hanging 250+ feet up in upper 30s temp with no rope and the sun is down and darkness is coming quick. I yelled to the guy to go get Mountain Rescue, we're stuck and have no rope. We're on ZigZag at Fish Creek Bridge. He leaves at 6:15pm. After about 30 minutes real panic and shock is a real concern so I look up and see the anchor on the ledge 10' above us. I took all of my slings, daisy chain, and carabiners and connected them all together to gain about 8' of tether. I rock climbed up to the ledge and was able to pull Kristy up.

    Now we're on a good sized ledge with a solid anchor, some food and water but we've got 2 long sleeves, pants, rappel gloves and that's it for a temp that keeps dropping. We checked later and the temp in the canyon was going down to 35. We wouldn't survive the night if nobody comes. A couple of cars drove through and I tried signalling with my headlamp to no avail. We're huddled up against the rock wall using our packs as windbreaks to try and conserve heat. Yes it crossed our minds about what to say to the kids in a video in case we didn't make it. 2 Hours later, at 8:15pm 2 cars came zipping around the bend and down the road. I flashed my headlamp and the back vehicle shut his headlights off and shined a spotlight on us. YES!!! It was the Sheriff Dept and the guy who went for help!!!! He stopped at the bottom and yelled to us asking if we were ok, any injuries, secured and in a safe spot. Yes, no, yes, and yes. Just FREEZING!! He said that he has called and Mountain Rescue is on their way with a chopper.

    Outstanding!! We're getting out of here. Thank GOD!! Now we remember everything that we read when we did the Grand Canyon - "If you get yourself into a situation where we have to come and get you we will bill you for it and it will be for tens of thousands of dollars." So be it. We're alive. Sore, battered, bruised, and lost some gear, but no major injuries and alive. The chopper flew in, made several passes, dropped to our level, took off, came back, left, came back, again, and again. Eventually the Sheriff yelled that they were dropping 2 rescuers off at the top and they were coming down to us. Around 10pm they started coming down. We cannot say enough good things about Spencer (not my baboon from South Africa) and Russ from the Mountain Rescue Team. They were amazing. Russ brought Kristy down the remaining 250'. While they were on their way down I was talking with Spencer and said "I'm so sorry we got you out here this late. I've been replaying everything trying to think of what we could have done differently." He said that there was nothing we could have done. We were exactly what their team was created for. "You guys obviously know what you're doing, you're experienced, we saw your gear, your anchors. You just caught some bad luck. It happens to us all. One of the guys up top right now had to get rescued and then he joined the team. What we hate is people that do 1 rappel on an excursion in Mexico and think they can tackle this." It set my mind at ease a bit but it really relieved me when he said "When we get down the Deputy is going to take down your information. Don't worry, there's no citation or charge for this." I almost fainted!! Eventually Russ and Kristy got down and Spencer and I followed. At 11:45pm we were both at the bottom safe with the car. It was a long, scary night but we will get back out there again. We probably won't do any multi-stage rappels for a while but we will get back out there. We've learned a few things, like no matter how long you think you're going to be, pack for cold just in case and will take this info to heart moving forward. We're eternally grateful to the good Samaritan that went and got help for us. Sadly he wasn't there when we finally got down to thank him. We're grateful to Kristy's sister Lesa and her husband Griff who knew where we were going and when we didn't return at a reasonable hour started calling 911 to initiate a search. Thanks to Maricopa Sheriffs Deputy Kelly who kept us updated and under a spotlight. And a huge thanks again to the Maricopa County Mountain Rescue Team for coming to get us off the cliff!! And finally, I have a feeling that dad was watching over us so thanks dad!! So there you have it! Our brush with death!!
  2. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Perhaps it would be best to FIRST point out all the things these folks did RIGHT...

    ready
    set
    go
  3. Rapterman

    Rapterman

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    Uhhhh
    When the dude was climbing 10 feet above a single bolt anchor with sling for a belay...
    He DIDN'T fall off!
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  4. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    While there is a lot that they did wrong, it is helpful to realize that there are many things they could have done, such as attempting to traverse off, that could have resulted in death. Sometimes when people make mistakes, they add more mistakes to the mix to try to rectify the situation. For instance, climbing above a single bolt anchor using static slings as a safety line... this he got away with by NOT falling off.

    He did bring ascending gear, even if he did not actually know how to use it well enough to correct the situation.

    With very little training, he was able to execute a transfer from climb to rappel.

    Tom
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  5. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    @Mike Zampino said: "They had ascending gear and I heard both ends of the rope were secured before he ascended."

    He did not mention it in his writeup, but if you have a source for this, then this is something they did right which is not an obvious thing to do. One COULD depend on the ropes both being stuck, but this is unreliable = dangerous. Since he ascended on one rope and descended on the other, it is clear that both ropes were secured, either deliberately or my happenstance.

    T
  6. Brian in SLC

    Brian in SLC Brian in SLC

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    He didn't accidentally cut the rope he was hanging on...
  7. Brian in SLC

    Brian in SLC Brian in SLC

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    Now I'm stuck tied onto my ascenders hanging there 500' above the ground and I can't go any higher because of the ledge but I can't go down because well, ascenders don't allow you to! Now I panic. I've gotta transfer to the other rope and if I undo one wrong connection, I fall to my death. I looped the rope through my belay on my harness, lock tied it around my thigh, and tried to figure out how to get off of my ascenders. I couldn't get any slack on the rope because of my weight so I had to cut away the slings that connected me to them and leave them there and pray I didn't drop. Cut. My thigh lock held and I was good. I unwrapped the rope from my leg and rappelled down to Kristy. Now we're back to square one. Anchored in and can't get our ropes down.

    Wow...this coulda been really bad...

    Makes me wonder what kind of ascenders he had...

    Of course you can descend on two ascenders...amazing that he didn't know he could just unweight and move it down.

    "Rescue climb"? Weird terminology. No wonder he didn't know what he was doing. Probably little to no experience ascending a rope.

    Did they get any idear why their rope got stuck? They don't try a rope pull prior to the last person descending to make sure the rope can be pulled down?
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  8. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    The ropes were released by the SAR team, but no report on why they were stuck was shared.

    Tom
  9. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Perchance we have exhausted the "what they did right" part of the thread, and can start in on the "what they did wrong" part. Perhaps one item at a time??? It is winter... perhaps we can stretch this out until there is skiable snow.

    Tom
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  10. Brian in SLC

    Brian in SLC Brian in SLC

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    I think if you're a party of two doing a late season, low daylight and frosty night type wall descent with multiple rappel stations, you best have your descent method worked out. Making sure the ropes pulled between the first and last person descending would be prudent. Making sure the last person doesn't twist the rope (etc) helps too. I'm guessing this was done as a single rope rappel? I always wonder if its best to do a double rope rappel in terrain that could hang a rope up to make sure the ropes aren't twisted...or, have the last person bring down the other strand and deploy out of a bag to ensure no snags.

    When pulling ropes down, if the terrain is pretty steep, I'll feed the pull side through the next anchor then put a figure eight on a bite on the end (big enough knot/loop that won't feed through the rappel anchor). Or, clip the bottom end on a bit to me or the anchor prior to pull. That way, you never lose the rappel line(s).

    If you're going to bring ascending gear, know how to use it.

    Still, they had two 230' ropes. I'm guessing he didn't want to cut the other rope loose 'cause he needed to transfer to it for a rappel...and, he didn't know why it was stuck. Still, with one side blocked, and, the knowledge of being able to transfer to rappel on the same line he ascended, he could have harvested that pull cord near the top. Better yet, know how to pass a lip on a steep fixed line.
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  11. Fiona

    Fiona

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    I'm intrigued by the pull problem. With two 230' lengths of rope and a 170' rappel, I think he must have either 'biner blocked or joined the ropes with a bulky knot. In either case, it's unclear why he needed to try pulling both sides, unless he lost track of which side was free to pull and which was blocked. We tend to keep track of that carefully, and the last person to rappel makes sure that the end we're pulling is free of the other end and of any constrictions, etc. On what we anticipate to be a tricky pull, we tend to send the bag down with the second-to-last person (in this case, that person is also the first person) so they can test the pull before the last person goes and we can adjust as needed (extend the anchor, etc.). I really hate wasting time ascending ropes when it's avoidable, so I'd love to hear any improvements anyone has on that system!
  12. Rapterman

    Rapterman

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    Either experienced climbers (as in WALL climbers), or experienced canyoneers would probably have the skill set to avoid this epic.
    And, are there not GPS pts for the drop in?
    Locking off mid-rappel, transferring to ascend, transferring from ascend to rappel, ascending over bulges/overhangs, correctly setting anchors to
    pull, checking the pull, not twisting the ropes while rappeling, carrying basic emergency gear (space blanket?), having appropriate
    winter clothing, etc. are all skills that need to be practiced to be effective.
    As in
    Practice
    Practice
    Practice
    Practice
    We have a nice practice crag in Vegas- come practice with us!
    :)
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  13. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Kudos to the rescued for sharing in such exquisite detail. It allows all of us to learn. I've certainly made plenty of stupid decisions in the past and gotten away with most of them. And I've come back to the car after dark in the Superstitions in the middle of Winter with a less than expert team. Now, on to the criticism:

    1) Inadequate clothing to spend the night. Lots of us make this mistake all the time and get away with it.
    2) Inadequate extra rope. I've certainly made this one and gotten away with it. It's a lot easier to avoid this problem with a larger group where carrying more rope isn't a big deal.
    3) Inadequate navigational skills. I've certainly made this mistake too. Worked out okay in this case, but certainly contributed to the delays.
    4) Inadequate team skills. The leader was the first one down instead of last. That's typically not the way canyoneering is done. Presumably it was done because Kristy didn't have the experience to recognize the next anchor, clip in, ascend rope etc. But maybe Kristy, coming second, put the ropes in a bad place to pull them or twisted them or whatever and that contributed to the stuck ropes. Again, a mistake I've made.
    5) Not doing a test pull. Again, a mistake I've made many times.
    6) Inadequate ascending skills. He couldn't slide the ascender past a 9 inch ledge. This can actually be pretty tough. The solution is to attach harness to both ascenders, take the ascender off, reach up above the ledge, and reattach it above the ledge. Sometimes that's out of reach, but 9 inches shouldn't be if you can get the other one right up to the bottom of the ledge and get yourself clipped in closely to it.
    7) Inadequate ascending skills. You can descend a rope with ascenders too, which would at least have put him back where he started without undue risk.
    8) Inability to transfer to other rope. Ideally, upon transfering his weight to the second rope, he should have then been able to unweight the first one and remove the ascenders without cutting the slings which probably would have come in useful later. This all assumes that both ropes were safe to weight due to being secured either at the top anchor or the bottom anchor, which is not at all clear.
    9) Not cutting the rope from 75 feet above. If you're going to cut ropes, might as well get as much as you can. If you're only ascending/descending one of them, then other is available to be cut. This again assumes the weighted rope is still adequately secured after cutting the other rope.
    10) Anchoring/rappelling off a single bolt anchor. We've probably all made this mistake. We usually get away with it.
    11) Stressing/panicking. Always a mistake. Easy to say, hard to do.
    12) Dropping the rope. You can actually keep the rope tied to you. Few of us ever do this, but it is possible. Probably a good idea in a panic situation.
    13) Risking both lives by climbing on the 8 foot tether. Better to untie completely. At least if he had fallen, Kristy wouldn't be dead too when that bolt pulled out. Hard to know how big a mistake this was. I mean, if it is fourth class, perhaps not a big deal to go free soloing, then bring Kristy up on a static tether.

    Well done to the canyoneers for not making a fatal mistake (and there were many that could have been made) and to the rescue team for a job well done. Much more quickly than I would have expected too. Contact within 3:45 and rescue complete in less than 6 hours? That's almost unheard of.
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  14. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Nice summary Canyonero.

    One other perhaps small item:

    SAR guy said: "You guys obviously know what you're doing, you're experienced, we saw your gear, your anchors. You just caught some bad luck. It happens to us all. One of the guys up top right now had to get rescued and then he joined the team. What we hate is people that do 1 rappel on an excursion in Mexico and think they can tackle this."

    It looks like the OP believed this. THAT is unfortunate. The SAR guy was just blowing smoke to relieve your anxiety. He is very much like the guy who did one rappel in Mexico and thought they could tackle this. I think it is a mistake on the part of the SAR guy, but understand that patient care is the priority at that moment. We still do not know if the OP believes it was just bad luck, or whether he realizes he is badly underequipped in the software department for undertaking such adventures.

    Tom
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2018
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  15. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Of course, since the other rope was just hanging there (and anchored), he could have tied a foot loop, stepped into that, moved his jugs past the lip on the original rope and continued to the top. EZ. Simple.

    Tom
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  16. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Hi Fiona - and welcome. Hopefully your CC trip reports will not be similar to this one.

    Your points are well taken.

    While setting up ropes so they pull consistently is a good skill to have, I kinda give them a bye on that. I certainly have stuck many ropes. Knowing how to deal with stuck ropes is an important skill, that generally includes knowing how to ascend a rope, even when it runs over an overhang. I believe this was the KEY shortage in the skill department... though obviously, if they had taken care with the rope in the first place, it shoulda pulled.

    Tom
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  17. The Dread Pirate Roberts

    The Dread Pirate Roberts

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    There have been a couple good solutions mentioned for passing the ledge while ascending but lets say the ledge is too big to reach over and you are on a single rope. How do you get past that lip?
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  18. Brian in SLC

    Brian in SLC Brian in SLC

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    Probably depends on the details of the lip/ledge configuration and how steep it is below it.

    Having some experience aid/wall climbing, getting over sharp breakovers after a long steep to overhanging section of rock can be "interesting".

    Most likely what I'd probably do is tie a back up bight and clip to a locker on my harness attach points, remove my lower ascender then stand high and reach over the lip and replace the ascender on the rope above the lip. Weight that, and, slide the now lower ascender on up...

    Sometimes you can kinda kick out or position your person onto the lip area and create some free rope space to slide the upper ascender up too.

    And, you can even free climb over a lip sometimes (or aid up off an adjacent crack, etc).

    To an experienced caver, this stuff is probably a snap...
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  19. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    I forgot to mention the good things they did:

    1) Recognized where they were eventually.
    2) Brought headlamps
    3) Brought a knife
    4) Brought ascenders and slings
    5) Realized when they were screwed and then stayed put and waited for help rather than really panicking and trying to climb or jump or something crazy.
    6) Communicated clearly to the person sent for help and the sheriff.
    7) Followed the directions of SAR personnel.
    8) Brought a cell phone (sometimes it works) and it has a light
    9) Used packs for insulation/windbreak (ropes work well too)
    10) Successfully converted from ascending to rappelling safely. Maybe not textbook, but no one can argue it wasn't safe.
    11) Recognized that even the ends of ropes have some value when you're desperate
    12) Wore pants and long sleeve shirts. Always wise in the superstitions just from abrasion, but those probably weren't necessary from a heat perspective at noon that day. The temp drops a long way from noon to midnight in AZ.
    13) Took extra food and water
    14) Didn't fall while on a static system. "The leader must not fall" indeed.

    There's still no decent snow. I just went up Lil Cottonwood tonight. Rocks everywhere still.
  20. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Practice.

    Find a place where you can set up the situation. Close to the ground, free of stress. Bring some friends. Figure it out. Practice a couple times so you will remember.

    This is a Problem Solving 101 type thing.

    Among other things, it will teach you the utility of having good ascending tools.

    Tom
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