Climbing is dangerous. Every time you climb you have to remember how dangerous it is—no matter how much fun you’re having. I just went out to the Garden of the Gods on the west side of Colorado Springs to evaluate a climbing accident that happened on the afternoon of December 30, 2008. I first heard about the accident in the evening when a local TV news station reported that a climber had fallen after “his spike had broken.”
A Rookie Mistake
An older man in his early 50s, apparently a novice climber, made a serious rookie mistake but fortunately lived to climb another day. He was out climbing with his brother, a total beginner, on The Practice Slab, a smooth 80-foot-high slab of sandstone on South Gateway Rock.
Two Sets of Top-Rope Anchors
On a ledge at the top of The Practice Slab are two sets of top-rope anchors. The first and older set is composed of two steel eyebolts, both at least 50 years old, which were hammered and glued into seams. One of the bolts is flush with the rock surface, while the other protrudes five inches and was bent over from repeated use. The other set is a new three-bolt anchor that Brian Shelton and I placed in 2007. This anchor is composed of two stainless steel eyebolts glued into the rock as well as a glued-in ring angle piton. All three were secured with an industrial-strength epoxy. We put the new anchors in because the two old bolts were totally inadequate, old, and appeared unsafe. We left the old anchors in so a climber could clip a daisy chain into them while arranging an equalized anchor with the three new bolts and for their historic value.
Climber Did Not Use New Bolts
This climber, however, disregarded the new anchors, choosing instead to thread his rope directly though one of the old bolts. He top-roped three routes off the single old bolt and then according to Josh, a fireman and climber who was on the rescue, he switched to the other old bolt “because he didn’t like the way his rope was running in the anchor.” He then began to rappel, but after descending 25 feet down the slab the bolt snapped off and he fell 50 feet.
Eyewitness Says, “It was really scary.”
Brandon D., an eyewitness I interviewed the day after the accident, said, “I saw the whole thing happen. It was really scary.” He reported that the climber slid on his backside for most of the fall. The last ten feet he tumbled over a steeper section and landed in a gully below the slab. I confirmed all this by rappelling down the face and looking at skid marks where the climber’s harness and shoes scraped the sandstone surface. He was lucky since his only injury ended up being a severely fractured fibula. Fortunately, since he wore a helmet, he had no head injuries nor did he have internal injuries. The injured climber was evacuated by firefighters and airlifted to the hospital.
Bolt Broke Off Cleanly
The day after the accident I scrambled up to check out the anchors. The old ½-inch eyebolt that the climber had rappelled from had broken cleanly at its juncture with the rock surface. A close inspection of the bolt indicated that the break was caused by the stress of rappelling and the single anchor being loaded with the weight of the 230-pound climber. The eyewitness could not remember if the climber had been bouncing on the rope, which would have further compounded the load on the anchor.
Bolt Failed From Cracks in Metal
The bolt failed, however, not because it was simply old but because of cracks caused by metal fatigue. The bolt, which stuck out from the rock about five inches, had been severely bent over from repeated use as a top-rope anchor. The stress of repeated uses over many years as well as the deformation of the bolt had caused cracks to develop in the bolt. A close inspection of the remaining bolt still in the sandstone revealed rust in the main crack in the bolt, which was worn through about half of the bolt. This bolt was an accident waiting to happen if it was used by itself.
Never Trust a Single Piece of Gear
The cause of this accident then is twofold—that of equipment failure but more importantly, that of human error. The inexperienced climber implicitly trusted the fixed gear in the rock, rather than doing what every experienced climber does—considering every piece of fixed equipment as suspect. The experienced climber never ever trusts his life to a single anchor or a single piece of climbing equipment. Redundancy, that is having two or more anchors, is a key ingredient to having a safe climb and to come home in one piece at the end of the day.
Accident Teaches 2 Lessons
This accident teaches two lessons to climbers:
- Always create and use redundant anchor systems.
- Never trust or rely on fixed gear like a piton to keep safe and stay alive.
Bolts and Anchors Can Fail
Bolts fail. That inescapable fact of climbing is evidenced by this accident. It doesn’t happen often but when it does the effects are usually dire. The reasons for bolt failure are many, including corrosion from sea air, improper placement, and if the bolt's diameter is too thin (bolts should have at least a 3/8-inch shaft). Experienced climbers, however, always back up any fixed gear, whether it’s a bolt or piton or tied-off tree or other natural anchor. Follow the two lessons above and you’ll have more fun climbing and come home safe.