Rappel Accident at Bridge Day 2002

By Tim White, Bruce Smith, and Wm Shrewsbury

On Oct. 20, 2002 Bridge Day saw it's first rappelling accident in the 25 year history of the event. Below is the internal report from Bruce Smith, along with his follow-up. The first report appeared Monday, Oct. 21, 2002 in TAG-NET DIGEST #2989 and the follow-up was posted in DIGEST #2991- Oct. 23, 2002

Along with Bruce's report(s) is an archived post from Wm Shrewsbury submitted to TAG-NET #1262, back in Nov. 1997 and a follow-up titled "Belaying Long Drops" that posted in TAG-NET DIGEST #2991. Wm's testing, opinions and conclusions are not necessarily those of the Editor or Officers of the NSS Vertical Section. The reader should understand information presented here may be of an experimental nature. The reader should exercise good judgment and use common sense when attempting any vertical technique or using new equipment.

As Wm says, "If we had only learned from it..."

Tim White
Editor, Nylon Highway

Posted to TAG-NET on 10/22/02
Subject: Serious rappel accident at Bridge Day
By: Bruce Smith (onrope1@bigfoot.com)

It is regrettable, but as all those on the bridge over the New River (876' high) know, a rappeller from Washington, PA, Greg Clark, a paramedic firefighter, lost control of his rappel and landed on the railroad tracks at a great rate of descent. He was treated and transported by helicopter to Charleston Medical where he was diagnosed with Fractured Lumbar vertebrae, possible cracked pelvis, kidney damage, spleen damaged and liver failure.

It was his first rappel on the bridge and was observed having great difficulty from the start with six bars. Somewhere on down the rope he figured out to remove one of those bars and was able to descend at a controlled rate of speed. Just above tree line he was observed accelerating to a high rate of descent and landed on his back with his feet in the air. He was 220 lbs and his wife 115 was bottom belaying him ran with the rope sideways but as he fell, he simply pulled her off her feet and yanked her backwards. He was found clutching his rack with only 4 bars on the rope.

I am guessing when he dropped the sixth bar, 2 actually dropped and he was left with 4 engaged on the rope providing friction. This probably worked fine at the upper altitudes but as he got nearer the ground he was unable to reengage the necessary bars to provide the needed friction. He was also observed fighting his top heaviness, as he did not have a chest harness to keep him upright and again surmising that he was forced to fight not only the friction problem, but the upright problem at the same time, loosing both battles during the crisis.

This is the first rappelling accident at Bridge Day that has ever occurred.

This is all I know at this point.

Bruce Smith

Posted to the TAG-NET on 11/12/97
Subject: Deep Pit Belays
By: Wm Shrewsbury (taglite@bigfoot.com)

Before I begin, please note: Some of the following article contains practices that I do not condone. They were done under very controlled circumstances, and should not be repeated in your tree outside. They were done solely for the purpose of research, and trying to find an effective method of bottom belaying deep pits.

Send any "hate mail" to me directly at the above e-mail address. This is posted as research, not personal accomplishments. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a very responsible caver who has helped many people out of jams and dedicated years of my life to rescuing cavers and "locals".

A subscriber of TAG-NET writes:

>> Are bottom belays effective on vertical drops of 400+ feet. I was of the understanding that they were not. When I attended Bridge Day this year I was chuckling at people bottom belaying these 900+ foot drops theorizing that by the time you'd pulled all the stretch out of the rope to stop your out-of-control buddy he or she would land on you. Any answers? <<

Well, research will have to be more thorough than this, but here goes:

While doing Fantastic Pit with a group from Missouri once, I went down first. The rope was rigged to the new bolts in the ceiling, thus no lip debris. As each person got on rope, I waited about 2 minutes till they had cleared the upper chimney area, looked up to verify their light position, and then walked out into the pit.

My attempt was to bottom belay them with against the rope bounce/stretch from this virgin piece of PMI - 11mm (7/16) Max. I weigh about 175 pounds with full vertical/cave gear on, which I was wearing at the time.

What I discovered:

- Running out to the bottom of the rope (panic position) and pulling straight down on the rope had almost no effect. Too much stretch and bounce. The belay will cause the rope to 'zip' through their rack in short bursts. Yes, this may slow them down from "terminal velocity", but it was a far cry from preventing a crash&burn. It also prevented them from taking control of the rappel again. I would prefer that they didn't crash into me in the process....

- Taking the part of the rope currently at floor level (NOT the end of the rope) across the pit (about 50 feet) caused them to have a pretty nice rappel till about 100 feet up. If they were under control, this led to them rappelling diagonal near the bottom and slowed them somewhat.

- Repeating the above with someone who rappelled faster proved fruitless as they had way too much momentum and darn near made me into an impression in the wall.

- Taking the part of the rope currently at floor level and climbing up on top of the rock at the entrance to TAG Hall put me about 15 feet off the floor and about 50 feet to the side. I took some webbing and slung a couple of knobs on top of the rock, put in a figure 8, and clipped the rope into this. A normal rappel was stopped easily by the "loop" effect. I had to lower him to the ground.

- Repeating the above with a controlled 'speed rappel' did the same thing with one exception. As he came into the 'loop', his rate of descent pushed him closer to me. In effect, he was redirecting his downward force into a lateral force. This started about 30 feet off the floor for him. Since I was about 50 feet away, he did not swing all the way to me, and I had to lower him.

- One last 'test'. After conferring with a hefty guy I knew could be trusted to stay focused, I climbed back up and got on rope myself. Nothing like being on the other end of the rope....

I started with a descent rate that should have put me on bottom in about 30-45 seconds - five stainless bars spread on a 6 bar rack, with upper spacers. Bruce Smith calls this rate of descent "about 2 octaves above middle C". I would not call it an uncontrolled rappel, since this rate of descent has been done before without injury. It is, however, a pretty good way to get killed without a lot of years of caving under your seat. I do not recommend this rate of rappel to the smart caver. On to the report.

When I was about 50 feet off the floor, my downward descent started to turn into a diagonal Tyrolean. About 30 feet off the floor, I had reached the point where the top rope was stiff, and the slack was out of the rope from my belayer, creating this wide 'V', or maybe closer to an 'L'. At this point my momentum carried me toward him. As I swung closer, the rack moved along also. I got about 15 feet from the rock when I stopped. He had to lower me.

Now, all of the above stipulates that the bottom belayer remains alert, effective and does not get pulled off the rock. My belayer used the sling with the figure 8 in it. That way, he could feed out a little to keep me away from the rock should I come in too quick.

What does all this mean? Well, as I mentioned above, it means we need more testing - highly controlled!

- Pulling on the bottom straight down is not only ineffective, but dangerous - ask a guy who tried it in Ellison's a few years ago. His girlfriend (I don't think they were married, but forgive me if they were) came down on top of him. His body probably saved her. Sorry, but I will not throw my body under you so soften your fall....

- Pulling across the pit helps, but they will still 'touch-down', even in a controlled rappel. This will help slow descents though.

- Sitting up off the floor a short distance seems to be the most effective. You can stop a reasonably out of control rappel. Don't make yourself part of the system. Wrap the rope once around some knob or put in a sling and a use a hitch through a carabiner or a figure 8 (hey! great use for a figure 8 on a long drop!).

I pulled rope in on the straight down rappels. We did not try pulling in more rope on any of the diagonal rappels. We made the assumption that the belayer would not have effective control of the rope when the force finally hit. Also, had the rope been pulled in before the rappel began, it would have been one crummy rappel. We merely held the length constant, with the ability to feed out a little more on the "loop" belay.

More needs to be done. The difference between 200' and 400' is a lot. We often forget the difference in rope weight. We compensate for wet rope near the bottom of the drop from mist, and less rope weight. It becomes second nature for us.

Keep the less experienced in mind while caving. It will let a lot of us sleep that night...

Wm Shrewsbury

Posted to the TAG-NET on 10/22/02
Subject: Belaying Long Drops
By: Wm Shrewsbury (taglite@bigfoot.com)

More tests have been done since the first article appeared in Nov. 1997, and basically agree with its findings. In short, if you can't be above the landing area 20-25' and off to the side by around 1/10 of the drop it doesn't work very effectively.

What does this mean at Bridge Day? Well, some drops allow for a sideways pull, which helps, but few allow even that due to the trees in the way. Some drops allow for an uphill belay, but the other ropes, being strung along the same catwalk, are in the way. The 'clear' drops, which land on the railroad buffer zone and road, can be pulled sideways but have no height elevation.

There is an answer in the above, but it means more work on the part of the people attending Bridge Day, and probably some permission from the Park Service that owns the land down below (at least, I think it's the Park Service that owns it...)

1) Those who are in the 'tree zone' could climb a tree off to the side, set up a belay point, and park a belayer there. This would give them the elevation needed, the side distance needed, and work.

2) Those on the 'hill zone' could walk uphill until they were the needed distance, and stagger themselves each way so that one walked East of the next rope, the next one West, etc. This would give them the needed height and side distance.

3) Those on the 'flat zone' don't have a lot of choice except to walk way off to the side. A long piece of rebar, driven into the ground off to the side and angled away from the drop, with a Figure-8 or similar belaying device attached, would assist in pulling the rope over. Not quite at good as the J-belay, but reasonably effective without worrying if the belayer weighs enough to be effective.

Of course, the most important part of belaying has not even been mentioned above - The rappeller should be capable of doing the drop in a 'reasonable' speed.

Bruce Smith, along with others, and myself noticed that quite a few people on the bridge this year had to be talked into doing the drop by their teammates. Once they got on rope, they inched their way down by feeding the rack until they were well below the superstructure of the bridge. By 'inched', I do mean inched! You could see that they were moving between two and 4 inches on each rope lift. One even fed till he was over 1/2 way down!

Folks, this is NOT rappelling. I have no problem with people being careful. And yes, the catwalk on the bridge is far different from walking up to the bluff at Whiteside Mtn. or the lip of Fantastic. But once someone is on the rope, taking 20-25 minutes to rappel an 876' drop (at the highest - it drops to 625' at the last rig!) means that they do not know how to control their rack. And no, they were not "taking pictures along the way" or "enjoying the view". Their vision was deadlocked onto their rack - no head turning side to side to view the gorge was observed by several of us for a couple of the rappellers.

There are some things that a person should know how to do on long drops. Dropping a bar, adding a bar and knowing how to spread your bars should be considered a minimal skill. It has also been argued that they need to know how to change over should a problem arise. Sitting for that amount of time in a harness can lead to blood pooling in the legs, along with lactic acid buildup. Not a good thing, as shown by several studies that the NCRC has seen and talked about during their week long sessions.

'Experienced' rappellers often shift around while going down, mainly as a way to shift our weight from one leg to the other to keep us comfortable. Our harnesses are also adjusted better since we simply know when it's too tight (or too loose). 'New' rappellers were observed to sit perfectly still, clutching the rope and rack as if they were trying to stop their descent into hell (no religious reference here, just a hot place...)

Now, back onto subject... Having someone who is not experienced in rappelling long drops means that they will take some time. Having someone who is not experienced in belaying long drops means that they probably wouldn't take the best method available to ensure maximum safety of the rappeller. Not to forget, a long rappel will also let the belayer's mind wander after a few minutes, thus adding to the problem since they would not be 'alert' at the moment of danger. Seconds count once a problem occurs, especially if it happens within the last 200' or so. 20+ minutes is a long time for someone to look up and watch for signs that the rappeller is out of control...

Setting up a J-Rappel doesn't give the belayer an OK to forget about the rappeller, but it does work even if they only catch the rope at the last second.

In summary, the best method of bottom belaying is to have the rappeller be able to control their rack. Kind of like having a seat belt in the car, but never needing it. However, if the rappeller should lose control, I would hope that some sort of J-belay would be in place to arrest their fall.

Food for thought...

Wm Shrewsbury

Posted to TAG-NET on 10/23/02
Subject: Bridge Day accident update.
By: Bruce Smith (onrope1@bigfoot.com)

In the final analysis, Greg Clark was not hurt as badly as previously thought. He is home now and was transported by ambulance from Charleston, WV to Washington, PA on Monday (I believe). His final injuries were a torn bladder and lumbar vertebra damage. All the other organs are fine.

The original report that the bottom belayer was his wife was incorrect; rather it was a member of his team. Many feel the little bit she did probably saved his life.

Some comments and thoughts about Bridge Day.

1. There were 115 people scheduled for 1st time bridge rappels on Saturday. About half of the total of all scheduled to do the bridge. This alone is not a concern. The concern arises from the incredible number of these folks that were more or less talked into rappelling, coerced, convinced they would regret not doing it on Monday, shamed into rappelling, etc., etc., etc. I feel we should provide positive encouragement, but allow folks to make up their own minds and give them an open out to walk off the bridge if they are not comfortable.

2. I saw more folks than usual pulling themselves down the rope 2-4 inches at a time. This is not rappelling... rather survival in a crisis. If I fall down a mountain or scoot down a mountain on my butt, am I going to brag later that I skied down the mountain? I am concerned that too many people were not trained or given the proper long rope experiences prior to Bridge Day.

3. Bar control: Start with a lot of bars and then remove them as you feel necessary; descend under control while sliding down the rope; spread out or push up bars as necessary; add bars as you need them. This skill is necessary and critical to long rappels.

4. If you cannot sit in a harness with your arms extended and remain upright, you need a chest harness on a rappel of this length to keep you upright. Attach a cord from that chest harness to the top of your rack. Horton Hobbs explained the Hobb Hole years ago and it is valid even today.

These are my thoughts and the thoughts of others shared during numerous discussions I have enjoyed lately.

Bruce Smith



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