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Injury/Fall on Ticaboo Mesa

Discussion in 'Accidents and Near Misses' started by EvergreenDean, Nov 26, 2014.

  1. EvergreenDean

    EvergreenDean OK with what happens

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    On Friday, November 1st 2013, authorities received an emergency call from the North end of Lake Powell in the Ticaboo Mesa area. Search and rescue was dispatched from Flagstaff, Arizona to respond to the call and located the victim, 38 year old Heike Noller of Denver, Colorado. She had fallen while rappelling down a 260 foot drop during a canyoneering trip, free falling for the final 40 feet and landing on the rocks below. She was stabilized at the scene and a second helicopter from Bryce Canyon National Park was called in for transport. She was transported to St Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, CO in critical condition. There, doctors say the only reason she survived was her strong physical condition before the accident. She suffered from numerous injuries, eventually leading to the amputation of her left leg on November 22nd, 2013.

    Ms. Noller, born in Germany, had been in the United States for approximately ten years, and had recently achieved U.S. citizenship. An accomplished multi-sport athlete, she excelled in diving, cycling, skydiving, kickboxing and other sports. She had been introduced to canyoneering in 2010 when she and an ex-boyfriend joined a meetup group called “Spectacular Adventures”. The meetup group planned high level weekend adventures, including technical climbing, back country skiing and canyoneering. The meetup group event details implied that rappelling is easy and anybody can do it. “If you have never rappelled or have little experience, try to get out and practice a little bit before we go.” It stated that experienced members of the group would take care of the technical work, including anchors. It seemed like a natural fit for a woman of her athletic ability.

    In a recent interview, Heike was asked if she had any prior experience or training before joining the meetup group. “My ex-boyfriend had some rappelling experience. He had a harness for working on roofs.” The boyfriend loaned her a harness and shared what he knew. On the initial trip, she asked lots of questions and paid very close attention to what the experienced canyoneers were doing. “I am not a baby. I do not need someone to hold my hand. I have cycled all the way to Canada, to Mexico and across the country. I was also a professional kick boxer” she goes on to say. “In the meetup group it is clarified that there is no leader, you don’t pay anything, everyone is on his own…that’s how it is.”

    A few years later, Heike signed up for another canyoneering trip with the same meetup group. The ex-boyfriend no longer in the picture, she had to find her own gear for the upcoming trip. The organizer of the trip happened to have a harness he was willing to sell. Combined with her ski helmet and some old clothes, she put together a canyoneering pack and headed out. She has no recollection of the brand or model of harness, but witnesses say it was a “European style” climbing harness, with a vertically oriented belay loop and a small piece of fabric or webbing running horizontally below the belay loop, keeping the leg loops in proper position. “After the accident, I just threw out all the evidence. I just wanted to move on.”

    This harness was very different than the one she had used previously. When asked if she received instructions on proper use of the harness, she replied “Well, we were over at his house. We went over a couple of things. That’s about it”. The trip went off without a hitch, and Heike quickly signed up for another canyoneering trip with the group two weeks later. She says that by this time, she was becoming comfortable on rappel. The beginner’s habit of checking everything “ten times” and asking others to double check her setup was starting to relax. “I felt like it was nothing special anymore…and that’s, you know, the danger”.

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    On the first day of the weekend trip, the group entered Montezuma canyon, which promised something special. The crux of the canyon is a 260 foot free-hanging rappel. She had been on a big rappel once before, and it was no big deal. Again, feeling relaxed and confident, Heike approached the rappel, clipped in and weighted the rope without a second thought. Part way down, things started to go wrong. “I was rappelling really really fast and I was turning 360 several times. I stopped to reorient myself and next I was free falling. I screamed and then I lost consciousness. When I awoke, I couldn’t breathe. They were worried about my spinal position but I told them to roll me over so I could breathe.” Free falling for approximately 40 feet and landing on large boulders, her left leg sustained the worst damage. It was “completely…destroyed…nothing left”. She also suffered from a shattered hip, broken vertebrae, broken ribs, broken sternum and a broken middle finger. “Anybody that falls 40 feet off a f***ing cliff should be dead, you know? I am lucky to be alive. I am lucky just to be in a wheelchair.”

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    Looking for the cause of the fall, the group inspected her setup and made a grim discovery. She had not been clipped into the load-bearing belay loop on her harness, but rather the small piece of fabric that orients the leg loops. It failed, releasing her from the carabiner and rappel device into a freefall. Upon further review, it is evident that she had most likely been set up like this for the entire trip, as well as the previous trip. She states that she kept the device attached to the harness and had no reason to take it off or move it, so most likely that is the way she set it up after purchase. To make matters more complicated, she was using a “twisted D style” locking steel carabiner, commonly used on ziplines, which witnesses say gave the illusion that she was clipped in properly. “The trip a couple weeks before I had done several rappels with it this way. I could have fallen on any of them. I just put it on and went”.

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    Canyoneers know that spinning is common on big, free hanging rappels due to twisting of the rope from certain rappel devices. Increased braking force or increased friction is often required to control speed on a long rappel, as the weight of the rope hanging below acts as a “fireman’s belay”. As you descend, there is less rope and less weight below you on the rope, decreasing the “belay” effect, causing increased speed if no adjustments are made on rappel. It is unknown what type of rappel device she was using, but witnesses say they believe it was a traditional style “ATC” which does not have features to add friction mid-rappel.

    Although the fabric strip she was clipped into was not intended to be load-bearing, it apparently supported the weight of the canyoneer and pack through several rappels, only failing when a hard brake was applied with full body and pack weight on a free hang. When asked about her knowledge of applying additional friction on big rappels, Heike stated that she was aware that you could rappel with two strands of rope, which adds friction, but this rappel was far too long to do that. We talked about techniques to add friction mid-rappel, such as leg biners, z rigs and utilizing the horns on a Pirana or ATS. She acknowledged that these techniques were unknown to her, but that she thought that she had seen someone use the horns once.

    Heike insists that she blames no one else for the accident and takes full responsibility. “I should be more curious about my own life and invest in better equipment, you know? I wish I had bought that new harness I saw at REI. It wasn’t that much, and you are trusting your life to it. I also should have understood my equipment. Now I have to settle for the rest of my life with that fact.” Although she blames no one but herself, she goes on to say that she doesn’t understand why canyoneers don’t make it a habit to double check each other, as they do in skydiving, diving and other sports. She says that in her experience in canyoneering, you are on your own. She encourages “newbies” to get some training from professionals before they go out and try it or jump into meetup groups. “I appreciate you writing this article. Maybe it will help prevent someone else from doing something stupid, you know?”

    Heike is no quitter, and her recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. This has been a mere setback for a woman who has taken on huge challenges her entire life. Going through her photos, I notice that her infectious smile is present in every one of them. Continuing her rehabilitation in Germany, she is back on her bike, skiing, diving and even climbing again. She plans to return to the U.S. next year and continue her adventures, with the Appalachian Trail being just one of her goals. She also wants to return to Montezuma canyon to complete the descent that changed her life last November, and to get closure. I have no doubt that she will.

    Dean Brooks

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    Last edited: Nov 28, 2014
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  2. Ram

    Ram

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    What a remarkable women. Kudos on her comeback, toughness and resiliency. I heard about this accident within a few weeks of this happening. The owner of this Meet-Up group and I have names that differ by just one letter, so several people called and wrote asking about the accident that they thought had happened on one of my trips. Early on, it was made known that the group wanted the accident to remain quiet. Not knowing the gal, it was a natural to honor that request. With time and after Dean had made contact with her, the story has come out, in a most respectful way.

    So many lessons to gather and learn, within this well written piece. Dean, in the name of everyone, I thank you for this gift. May another layer of SAFE PASSAGE be the result for everyone
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2014
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  3. Mountaineer

    Mountaineer Is that an X slot?

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    Fantastic write up Dean. These stories make a difference on so many levels.

    Inspiring Ms. Noller! Thank you for sharing. I personally have internalized and have taken some lessons here on leadership, training, and renewed respect for the sport. You have given me pause on some routine habits. I'm confident your story will indeed help others.

    Amazing pictures and story on your recovery. Your positive attitude is contagious.
  4. Ram

    Ram

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    The times on the pictures tell a compelling tale too. The 1:05 PM up on top of the drop, rich smile, with the world about to turn upside down, is chilling. That is her at 2:03 on the rap. A helicopter is there at 3:54. Man that seems FAST. I wonder how they made contact so quickly? Sat phone, spot 911, ELB what? The bulk of the wall on the right would block cell reception I think? I think Dean shared another picture of the copter having landed? I think it was on the ledge below and a little further away than the copters position. If so, it would take a bit of time to get over to the accident site. Looks like she is ready to transport at 5:54. That seems mighty quick too...and fortunate. Would jthey ust lift her from right there?

    Anyway, a moving tale that somehow seems appropriate on this Thanksgiving day.
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  5. EvergreenDean

    EvergreenDean OK with what happens

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    They flagged down a houseboat on the lake that had a Sat phone from what I understand. Yes, there were more pics that showed the chopper a ways off on a small flat ledge. I suspect they rapped down from there and came to her aid, then did a short haul after they had her stabilized.
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  6. Ram

    Ram

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    WOW! It is not a trivial distance down to the pool. At least 20 minutes and that is to the small bay. That is not a spot that a house boat would be drawn to. Not much room to maneuver and no place to get on shore easily, so I am guessing they had to flag a boat in the channel. The travel along the shore of the bay is loose and dangerous in places and I would think they had to travel that part too. Makes the quickness of response even MORE impressive.

    From the ledge where the copter landed, one could traverse over and up a bit to the accident site, but it would take15 minutes and I am not sure what they could carry. I wonder how they worked all this.

    This is the big rap from the bay
    [​IMG]
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  7. EvergreenDean

    EvergreenDean OK with what happens

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    There was no house boat anywhere in site when I was there last month. That was a big stroke of luck too. The hike out is 3+ hours out, and no view of Navajo (for a Verizon signal) until you reach the rim. I highly doubt she would have made it if they couldn't have placed the call for that long.
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  8. Ram

    Ram

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    Chilling to contemplate. November 1st? The vast majority of houseboatrers store their boat, for the winter, a month earlier. There is almost no traffic on the pool then and this is over 20 miles from Bullfrog no less. You said it! BIG stroke of luck.
  9. Red Cloud

    Red Cloud

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    So many dimensions to this tale. A year or more later though, a grand bravado to the human spirit and passion of a very brave and strong human/woman; that is without the better part of one leg?

    Others have asked the question: "What to do". If it relates to "Meet Up" groups in the Colorado Plateau Region then it seems a change of mind set, programs, and training should introduce. Or, let accidents happen and then the unplanned consequence of SAR costs, increased radar by land managers and possible regulation? And more accidents?

    Some canyon travelers pay attention to these sites and have a ideal of skill, technique, experience/training and risk. Cold water canyons, hypothermia, insulation; rope work, anchors and personal skills when on rope. And then for experienced folk, dealing with others - that may be more experienced or (often) less experienced than ourselves.

    In the last decade I've had countless encounters/discussions with newbies who have been in the arenas of Zion, North Wash and Arches for example and "did canyons" with person A or B (casually guiding) that had "who knows what" type of experience. They told me of a multitude of scary and dangerous experiences. And if one tracks accidents/deaths in Zion - Birch Hollow/Pine Creek for example, it's often person A (who has been through a canyon once/twice) taking persons B and C into a canyon for the first time. Person A experienced the process, finding it mentally and physically easy and (without conveying years of dues in training to others) invites folk along for a "stroll" through a canyon. Thinking of course that they (B & C) are (also) going to have a (physical and mental) easy time in the canyon. But then B catches her hair in the rap device, C catches his hand under the rope as it goes over the edge - and D, E and F, put on harnesses upside down, use figure 8's on 8mm ropes (when they are 200 lbs on a 100 free hanging drop) or don't have a fire mans belay as they scream down a rope.

    Too many folk entering the canyon arena with little or no training and (and little sense of humility or sense of risk). Folk in their 20's-30's charging into canyons and then yahoo, next week taking newbie friends on the same ventures. And these folk taking others out - some provide meticulous training and warning, while others put on a charismatic smile and say "come on, you can do it", with training to come later (or never).

    Attaching blame or negligence in these cases? Pretty academic a year later, particularly when the victim is breathing and vital. To me, the genie is out of the bottle. Canyoneering is not climbing, it's not caving....to so many it's just (as they start out) so easy...just slide down the rope, and then they "attach a friend" to the next trip, and it's going to be easy for them too.

    And all of these legions of folk I've heard about re near misses/accidents; they still don't look at canyon sites like this. and most don't seek out more training. They are casual participants that will most always be "guided" by someone else. And so likely, more of the same accidents are going occur, like it or not. (OK practically, some do seek more training, and some do lodge themselves within the walls of these canyons sites, and pick up pieces of information and informal training along the way.)

    Still though, as long as climbing shops sell ropes and rap devices - or friends, neighbors, work mates lend out the same - inexperienced folk are going to continue to rumble through canyons. And, on the human side, some experienced folk will go through canyons with others and (because of emotion, ego, personality or whatever) never care to ask about their circumstance (fatigue, cold), or notice that they have a worn harness. a poor rap device or have rigged the rope/rap device incorrectly. Skill, technique, training....paying attention to oneself/others, caring?

    Kudos to those that have patiently trained and courteously corrected another (stranger) when she or he was in (potential) peril. There are mountains of thoughtful and insightful voices on this site, except that this "news" is hardly read by the masses. As to the Meet Up Groups though, maybe/probably someone should knock on their liability door; or rather demand a good sense vs nonsense state of mind; and participant training.
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  10. Rapterman

    Rapterman

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    A real punch in the GUT- just thinking about rapping on a piece of tiny leg-loop-keeper strap.
    A potent reminder to check, check, and double check everyone before weighting the rope......
  11. VillainousTurtle

    VillainousTurtle

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    It's pure luck that she fell as low to the ground as she did. It could have been much worse. Very happy to see she made it and is doing ok.


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  12. Lisa

    Lisa

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    This is a terrific story about the enduring spirit of an adventurer who will let nothing stop her from enjoying life. It's inspiring to hear about the sports you're currently doing, Heike!

    I hope this can be an inspiration for us to take the time to check our friends and to discuss friction as we wait at the top of a rappel. I've been to many fests where people who are "unknowns" just sail right up to the rappel and get on. As long as they act confident they are often not checked by others in the group. The last big Death Valley fest I attended on President's Day weekend comes to mind. I remember someone used low friction on the 200' rappel in Coffin canyon and had a pretty hot descent. Fortunately they did not get hurt. They were somewhat new to canyoneering and seemed confident so no one thought to check them.
  13. msmnificent

    msmnificent Moderator Staff Member

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    Wow, thanks for writing this up Dean, and thanks to Heike for being willing to share her story. There is so much to learn from this story, and Heike is an inspiring individual!
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  14. EvergreenDean

    EvergreenDean OK with what happens

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    carebear.

    The bear that cares has arrived.
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  15. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Amazingly fast rescue from a very remote location. Well done SAR and hope recovery is going well.
    Ram likes this.
  16. Asmith

    Asmith

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    When I first moved to Denver I found this same group called Spectacular Adventures and was quite amazed with how open they were to taking almost complete beginners on what appeared to be advanced trips. I almost fell for one of their mountaineering adventures as I was encouraged to a route I felt was beyond my abilities. I attended one meetup with them to climb in Boulder and didn't like the vibe and have never done another one. Fast forward a few years after getting into canyoneering, being lucky to find good mentors and taking an ACA course(Northwash outfitters with Jared Hillhouse who I can't recommend enough), I remember seeing another trip post for a canyoneering adventure. They were going out to Escalante for a "leisurely" 4 day itinerary of R and X canyons. Curious, I read through some of the comments and questions and remember thinking they were bound for an accident given the lack of experience, leadership and recklessness to take anyone out. People who stated they had rappelled a couple times were given encouragement to join as opposed to politely telling them this wasn't an appropriate trip. I kept an eye out on the forums for the following weeks expecting to hear of an incident.

    Another friend of mine once went on a backcountry ski adventure with them but bailed half way. He is very well experienced in avalanche awareness and said they were about to make a very unsafe traverse across a high risk area. He warned others of the dangers but the group carried on as he bailed with his GF. To paraphrase him, "they are a bunch of arrogant a-holes who are going to get someone killed." Anyone with any knowledge can quickly realize this group has a few very experienced people who put on these meet ups but take people along who have no idea of the risks and dangers they are in. They are likely capable of keeping people safe but from my one time experience, those who are skilled quickly become distracted into a pissing contest with themselves as they send the less experienced off to another corner.

    If you want to go on a spectacular mountaineering adventure without any experience for some great photo ops they will lend you the rope to hang yourself. I commend the woman for taking responsibility for her own actions or lack thereof but I worry for others who don't have the sense to realize the risks this group is willing to allow the untrained to walk into. I doubt this will be their last accident and quite frankly amazed they haven't had more, but it also appears they are spineless and play the cover up game. The fact she refers to any of them as canyoneers is a farce. Most of us look out for one another and take in the concept of not encouraging people to get into a canyon or situation that is beyond their ability.
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