50 Foot Leader Fall on Concord Tower

As the climber was attempting to pull onto the summit, the alpine draw from his last piece of protection clipped onto his leg loop, preventing further upward progress.
David Shema David Shema
Safety Committee Member
May 13, 2020

As Mountaineers, we are committed to learning from our experiences. We examine every incident that happens on a Mountaineers trip for opportunities to improve the ways we explore and teach. Our volunteer safety committee reviews every incident report and picks a few each month to share as examples of ‘Lessons Learned’. The trip report below describes what happened on this trip, in the leader’s own words, and outlines the lessons the leader has identified. In some cases, we offer additional key learnings from the incident.

Sharing incidents creates an opportunity to analyze specific incidents and also identify larger incident trends. We appreciate every volunteer trip leader who takes the time to share their incidents and near-misses so that others can benefit. We ask that readers engage critically and respectfully in the spirit of sharing and learning.

South Face of Concord Tower, North Cascades – 12 August

FROM THE INCIDENT DATABASE: LEADER INCIDENT REPORT

LEADER

40-50 ft leader fall

Our party of 4 was climbing the South Face of Concord. The belayer of the accident rope was anchored at the base of the shark fin on the south side. The rope leader was leading the third (final) pitch, and was ascending the 5.8 awkward flaring crack. The rope leader was out of view from the rest of the party.

According to the rope leader, he was attempting to pull onto the summit of Concord Tower, when the alpine draw from his last piece of protection clipped onto his leg loop preventing further upward progress. While attempting to unclip this carabiner from his leg loop, the rope leader fell, pulling with him the protection piece (pink tri-cam). He had placed another tri-cam into the same horizontal crack, but he had not yet secured his rope to this piece before he fell.

ROPE LEADER

I placed a brown tri-cam in the wall after I could not remove the pink tri-cam as a backup and fell before being able to clip it.

LEADER

As the rope leader fell, he screamed loudly enough that the whole team heard. As he screamed, his belayer moved backward as much as his tether to the anchor would allow, and braced for the catch.

We believe the rope leader fell approximately 20 feet to a ledge, the location of his last good piece of protection, a runner around a small tree. It is here that we believe the rope leader landed on his wrist and back, then continued to fall/slide/roll down slabby ramps another 20-30 feet until his rope became taut. The time was approximately 3pm.

After the belayer felt his rope leader’s fall to stop, he pulled rope through his belay device while moving upward to the crest of the shark fin. The belayer called to his fallen rope leader (now will be called the injured climber) to ask if he was okay. The injured climber replied that he had broken his wrist.

A party across from the route on Liberty Bell called over and said that our injured climber had landed on his back. The belayer yelled back, acknowledging the injured climber’s probable broken wrist.  

The belayer shouted to the injured climber, asking about any other injuries he believed he might have sustained. The injured climber seemed lucid and is a trained EMT. At this time, his belayer could not see the injured climber.

The injured climber requested to be lowered a few feet so that he was resting on a ledge, and his belayer lowered him.

The party on Liberty Bell asked if they should call 911; Our injured climber responded to them and declined their offer. The belayer asked our injured climber if he would be able to ascend on a fixed line. He answered that he would be unable to ascend without assistance.

After a few minutes, the second rope team (the leader’s rope team) arrived; they had heard the injured climber’s scream but were otherwise unaware of any situational details. The injured climber’s belayer joined them and described the situation as was known. The three formulated a plan of action – raise the injured climber to a spot where he could be assisted down on a rappel.

Rope teams were reformed and the climb leader and partner prepared to climb up to the base of the summit block, a bit above the injured climber. They called to the injured climber letting him know they would be there within ten minutes.

Soon, the climb leader arrived at the base of the summit block and slung a tree for an anchor (the same tree that had become the injured climber’s last protection). The climb leader’s partner climbed quickly, joined the climb leader, and took over the belay of the injured climber.

Fixing one end of injured climber’s climbing rope, the injured climber’s partner rappelled down to the injured climber, and began administering first aid. Meanwhile, the climb leader set up a haul system.

The injured climber's partner checked their torso and back for injuries. The injured climber complained of some rib pain. Their were many abrasions on the back, but no deep wounds or bruising, and the spine seemed to be unaffected by the fall. The injured climber also said they did not believe a head injury occurred during the fall. The helmet appeared untouched.

At the injured climber’s request, their partner pulled a jacket from the climber's pack, and a cordelette, and created a sling for the injured climber’s arm. The plan was to haul them up to the tree anchor, and rappel down the South face of Concord. The injured climber was asked once again if they wanted a professional rescue and again declined. They did accept an offer for a splint, so their partner made a crude splint using two chock-pick tools and a length of perlon. The partner clipped the loop of the haul rope into the injured climber’s harness before climbing the slabby terrain back to the anchor tree.

The injured climber was pulled up the rock to the anchor tree using the 6:1 drop-loop haul system set up by the climb leader. The injured climber was able to stand and keep their feet in front/under during the haul, though it was clear that they were  in a lot of pain and could only move very slowly.  They were still being belayed on the climbing rope during the raise. Once at the tree anchor, they were secured to the anchor and given a jacket for warmth (now in the shade).

A tandem rappel was necessary to get the injured climber off the route. Not wanting to trust the current (small tree) anchor with the task, and knowing there were bolts on the summit, the climb leader was belayed up the short pitch to the summit block. While climb leader was setting up the rappel off the bolts, the rest of the team rejoined at the tree anchor.  The climb leader descended down to the tree anchor and began setting up a tandem rappel system anchored off the summit bolts.

The climb leader and injured climber were ready to rappel. Because they were not directly under the bolted anchor on the summit, we knew that a swing was inevitable. In order to control this as much as possible, the tail of the second rope was clove hitched with a locking carabiner to the climb leader’s extended rappel loop, and run through a belayer anchored to the tree anchor.

As the rappelers stepped off the ledge onto the South face, the belayer slowly let out rope to get them to a neutral hanging position. Once a neutral position was achieved, the rappelling climb leader removed the clove hitch from the rappel extension and continued the rappel.

Because of the indirect routing of the rappel rope, the climb leader and the injured climber eventually neared the end of the rope and could not reach the next rappel station. The leader yelled to the other two climbers, who had climbed to the summit for the standard rappel down.

The climbers on the summit finished setting up a rappel rope on the summit, and one rappelled down to the tandem rappelers. The injured climber transferred to the new rappel rope and the tandem rappelers continued down.

The climber remaining mid-route was belayed back to the summit on the original rappel rope by the climber at the top, and this team set up their own rappel and started down.

The group safely rappelled to the base of the climb. The time was approximately 5:30pm.

The injured climber took some ibuprofen and Tylenol. Party members assisted with changing shoes, creating a better splint, and getting ready for the hike out. The injured climber started down the gulley first, as the rest of the team pulled ropes and stowed gear, joining shortly.

Progress down the gulley was slow at first, but quickened as the ibuprofen/and Tylenol took effect, and the terrain eased.

The team got to the trailhead parking lot at approximately 8pm and Overlake Hospital (in Bellevue) around 11:30pm.

Report from doctor: Broken ribs, sternum, and wrist. Air in the chest.

Lessons Learned

LEADER

More protection (better protecting the crux), might have mitigated the fall.

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