Garden of the Gods – Rappelling Accident

I’m writing up this accident report to analyze what went wrong and what steps I need to take in the future to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

The day before Eric asked me if I’d like to go climbing so he could get some adveture photos.  The weather was great, so of course I said yes.  I got to the parking area about 10 minutes early so I could put on my gear, but those plans changed when I saw the bighorn sheep. They were quite sociable today, sitting/standing/grazing just off the trail.  I quickly called Eric and told him to meet me at the sheep.

I noticed while the Bighorn Sheep were fine with humans, they tensed every time someone walked by with a dog.  There were park rangers there to make sure no one got too close.  I think it’s funny how when you’re at Waterton Canyon or Garden of the Gods the sheep will stand 10 feet away from you as if you aren’t even there, but if you see one while on a mountaintop they bound away as soon as they see you.

We didn’t stay long because we had some climbing to do.  We went back to our cars (we’d unknowingly parked right next to each other) and got out our gear.  Eric told me all I needed was a harness and my rope.  I asked him if my 60-meter rope was enough?  Oh, more than enough he assured me. 

Together we walked through the pathways towards West Point Crack.  Here’s the entrance


On the south side there’s a gully to climb up

Here’s looking back from the top of the gully

At the top of the gully is a class 4 climb of about 8 feet

Eric went up first and took a picture of me upclimbing


From here we staged our gear.  There were two bolts in the wall we were going to use to do the first rappel.  Eric told me we’d rap onto a rock, then again to the bottom.  He wanted to counterbalance each others weight and have each of us go down on one side of the rope.  I’d never done this before, but he assured me it was quick and easy and we were only rappelling about 10 feet or so onto a ledge the size of a kitchen table (it ended up being more like 20 feet).  From there we’d clip in, retrieve the ropes, and rappel the rest of the way down.

Here’s Eric setting up the gear

It was a beautiful day, so I took a selfie

I went over first and Eric stayed at the top (even though we were going to go together?).  We rapped off the back side so our ropes wouldn’t get stuck.  Here’s looking down

All was going well, until I realized there was a gap in between the rock I was rappelling off and the one I was supposed to land on (which was really more of a spire).  Also, the wind picked up and started swinging me around. I ended up rapping further into the gap than I’d intended and more to the west, and since I was only on one side of rope I couldn’t tie off to climb back up.  I needed my breaking hand to make sure I didn’t fall, yet I needed two hands to climb. 

At this point I knew I had to manage my adrenaline, because if I didn’t I was going to fall and die, and I wasn’t going to allow that to be an option:  The rope didn’t go all the way to the ground.  It took me a solid 5 minutes (which felt like an hour), but I was able to get a slight grip on the rock (with my street shoes:  my climbing shoes I’d been assured hadn’t been necessary were in my pack on my back).  I managed to turn myself around and upclimb about 6 feet to the top of the rock and clip myself in.  This rock was the size of a small dining room table. I’m guessing 4 feet across. There was snow where I needed to clip in.

I clipped in and calmed my nerves as Eric rapped down, easily pushing himself off the rock and landing on the spire.  I was a little jealous:  He had the advantage of height and he knew the route.  Eric didn’t overshoot the ledge. 

Here I am sitting on the ledge; in front of me, past the rope, is where I’d originally rapped too far and had to upclimb.

Here’s looking up from the ledge

Eric was practicing ghost anchors, and using paracord to retrieve the rope.  This ended up getting messy, and I wouldn’t recommend this technique.  We retrieved the rope and set it again, to rap off the back side of the rock again.  Eric threw the ropes, and they looked a bit jumbled. He asked me to untie them when I got down to them and throw them down again.  I couldn’t see around the spire below, so I asked if he was sure the rope was long enough?  (not like there was much we could do about it now) and he assured me they were.  I tied knots in the ends.  Eric looked at me like I was crazy.

Once again, I went first, but this time with both strands of rope.  I immediately felt safer.  Eric got some pictures of me on my way down.  Unfortunately, his go-pro stopped working (which was kind of the reason we were doing this in the first place) so we don’t have a lot of pictures. 


As I went down, I noticed the ropes were tangled more than I’d anticipated.  I came to a place I could sit and untangle the ropes.  I didn’t need to re-throw them, as their weight drew them downward. 


I continued my decent.  That paracord was kind of a nuisance, but at least the ropes were straight


As I rounded the spire I now had a good look at the rest of the route, and to my shock, the roped did not go!!!  I wanted to scream!  I did notice however, that they landed just even with a very thin ledge (we’re talking maybe 6 inches wide).  I was so glad I’d tied knots in the end of the rope!!!  I rapped down as far as the ropes would allow, then unclipped and hugged the wall.  There wasn’t room for both Eric and I on this ledge, or to be attached to the rope at the same time. I looked around and noticed a goat trail to the left that went up; That route looked a bit sketchy, but safer than where I was.   I told Eric I was going to climb to the ledge while he rapped down, then we’d re-secure the ropes for a third time behind the rock I was aiming for and rap down a final time to the bottom. The circle is where the ropes ended, and the line is where I climbed for safety

Here’s looking back from my perch. I felt safe with this plan, because we’d rapped in this area before (after upclimbing to this spot).

Eric made his way down, and started to bring down the rope, but it got caught on something.  He spent some time going back and forth on the ledge, trying to dislodge the rope.

It wasn’t working.  The rope was stuck, but one side of the rope went all the way to the ground, so we decided to brainstorm. 

In the end we decided to have me rap down first, with Eric belaying me from above on the one piece of rope we had.  Then I’d fireman belay him down.  We had about 25 feet or so below us to get to the ground. Afterwards we’d go back to the car, get another rope, and retrieve the one that was stuck.  Eric wrapped the stuck rope around his waist and shoulder for good measure, and after saying “You’re sure you’ve got me?” and Eric replying “Yes” I went over backwards. 

Almost immediately we started tumbling.  As soon as I said “I thought you said you had me?!?!?” I noticed he was falling too.  We fell together, tumbling and sliding the 25 feet to the ground.  Here’s a picture of the line we fell

It all happened very quickly, and as soon as we stopped we both got up and did a head to toe check.  Nothing broken, but a lot of scrapes and what were going to be bruises.  I looked around, hopeful someone had seen our fall and tell us what had happened, but none of the dozens of park visitors so much as looked our way.

We both thanked God it hadn’t been worse, then talked about what had happened:  the rope that Eric couldn’t get unstuck by himself had dislodged under our combined weight.

I’m writing this to process what happened, and to try to prevent it from happening again.  Here are some of the things I did wrong:

I didn’t ask enough questions, instead relying on Eric’s experience.  I should have asked for more clarification on what we were doing before we started.  Had I done so, I would have seen the spire from below I’d be rapping onto, and noted the gap.  I most likely would have worn my climbing shoes (they were in my pack, after all).

I wouldn’t have rapped on both sides of the rope for the first rappel.  I still have no idea when he wanted each of us on different sides of the rope, since we never rapped together.

I should have put on my climbing shoes from the beginning, but definitely after the first rappel. 

I also would have brought two 60-meter ropes and tied them together, instead of relying on one rope and rapping several times.  Two ropes tied together would have made it from the top to the bottom, and we only would have needed to rappel once.  We had the ropes in the car, but I had only asked if one rope was enough, not if two would have been better (you need to be specific with Eric:  I didn’t realize we were rapping 3 times until we were done with the second).

When the rope had gotten stuck, I should have tried to dislodge it.  Instead, I never touched the rope and relied on Eric telling me it was stuck.  Maybe I could have found a different angle?

I should have insisted the ropes been thrown again, instead of untangling them myself.  If I had been solo, I’d have thrown them as many times as it took to get a straight line.  Also, the paracord thing stunk.  It just made things tangle.  Seems too risky to me.

Instead of rappelling down the last time with Eric standing I should have had him sit to belay me, or I should have put on my climbing shoes and downclimbed carefully (although, to be fair, I thought the rope was the safer option because I believed it to be stuck). 

I’m sure I’ll be adding to this list.

In the end, I figure I’m better solo because I do my research and go over safety over and over again.  When I go with someone, I rely too much on them being the expert, forgetting not everyone is as detail oriented as I am.

Here’s our overall route

Author: Laura M Clark

Laura has summited over 500 peaks above 13,000' solo, including being the first woman to solo summit all of the Colorado 14ers, as well as the centennials. After each hike, she writes trip reports for each one and publishes them on her blog, which is read by fans all over the world. Author of Wild Wanderer: Summiting Colorado’s 200 Highest Peaks, which is available to purchase on Amazon.

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