DATE: February 5, 2014, San Josecito, Costa Rica, 4:15 pm EST
I was climbing alone in a fig tree that had a line set in it from the day before. Colleagues knew where I was, and they were in the vicinity, but they were not watching me.
I accessed the tree using SRT with an aerial choke at 60 ft, using my 60 ft, double-ended lanyard. At 40 ft, I used the bottom end of the rope to set up a DRT system. I set up a hammock while tied in to both DRT and SRT systems for triangulation. Eventually, I unclipped from the SRT and enjoyed myself in the hammock for a while.
As I was making my way back to the SRT line, somehow, my DRT system failed and I fell 40 ft to the ground below.
I was horizontal when I fell and landed flat on my back in the sand. My head and neck were uninjured, but my left wrist was broken, and my back took a wallop. I positioned my back against the tree and called an onlooker over to get help. My hips were being held off the ground slightly by my harness. My hitch had engaged about 3 ft from the ground and my rope and harness had absorbed most of the energy from the fall (and oriented me in the perfect fall position). I explained to the man how to open the carabiner so I could unclip from the rope.
While the man was loosening my clothes and keeping me conscious, I had him send people running to Guaria de Osa to get help. My wife showed up within 5 or 10 minutes. Other climbers arrived within 15 minutes of my fall.
60 ft, double ended lanyard on 11 mm Fly rope. End knots were bowlines w/ Yosemite tie offs. Each end had 2 ft Dan House Rope Sleeves. Each end had a six-wrap “autoblock” hitch, tied with prusik loops made from 5/16” Bee Line. Carabiners were AMD Ball Locks. Saddle was a Mammut mountaineer’s harness. Attachment points to the saddle were 22kN nylon runners.
Somehow I became disconnected from my end knot, Either I clipped into the Yosemite tie-off and not the bowline loop, or my carabiner gate wasn’t fully closed.
1. Don't climb alone.
2. Always do a thorough B.A.C.K. check and load test your system before climbing on it.
3. Travel insurance is a good idea.
The following user(s) said Thank You: tengu12, Tree-D, Bushwhacker
Thanks for the report Andy, takes humility and courage to talk about mistakes made! So much to be learned from reports like yours, thanks. Heal up and hope to see you in the trees again at some point in the future.
Thanks Andy, for telling us about what happened, and my best wishes for your complete recovery. your story gives me pause to reflect, since I climb alone almost all the time. What I love about climbing trees is the state I get into when I go up. Treetime. Immersed in the beauty, being. And at the same time intensely aware of my position in space, and my climbing system. I hope I always remember that latter part, as I let go into being there.
I have been giving a lot of thought to this climbing accident. Here’s what I think went wrong with the climbing system. I am guessing here, so everybody needs to think about what they think happened, especially you Andy.
I am not familiar with an “auto block” hitch but I assume it is a friction hitch of sorts because you said it was six-wrap.
1. You used both tie ins (SRT and DRT) to set up hammock for triangulation purposes- moving between two points of attachment.
2. You settled into hammock and unclipped from SRT line and settled in to the hammock.
3. You slacked the friction hitch. You are using Bee line, a rather stiff line as opposed to some of the softer lines, like Tenex.
4. You are ready to go down. You are still attached to the friction hitch as you move your way over to the SRT line. Maybe you unclipped and clipped back in.
5. You slip out of the hammock or stand up and put the full load on to the friction hitch BUT you bypass the B.A.C.K check.
6. Bee line is rather stiff. I use Bee line for my foot loops. If one wrap crosses over any of the other wraps on the friction hitch, it does not grab. The knot you are using is not dressed because it was slacked.
7. Full load is placed on the knot. You immediately fall as the knot free runs.
8. By some luck, the friction knot seats itself 3 feet above ground. Lucky you! This proves you had a functional system after all, just not set.
9. If you had clipped into any other part of the system, like the Yosemite tie-off the system would not have worked in a predictable way.
10. Carabineer gate not fully closed would mean you were completely off the system, which you were not because the system functioned 3 feet above ground.
11. My conclusion (meaning my personal opinion, but subject to debate): B.A.C.K check would have probably solved the accident situation before it happened. TIE, DRESS, SET mantra would have been a soothing chant as you went through the process to make sure friction knot is seated correctly. Having a backup using another tie off, like a lanyard or other end of the rope as a lanyard would have served you well too if your knot went to running. It would have stopped you. Climbing alone is certainly not a good idea in unknown trees away from other climbers who might be either in you tree or within calling range. Whistles need to be in the pocket of all climbers. Always knowing that a fall from height is always a possibility, no matter how experienced you think you are, should put you on edge, especially before loading up a new system. In the profession of tree work, fatal mistakes happen in the first year (when you are new) or in the 15th year when you get lulled into thinking you know what you are doing.
I worked with my own tree company for 25 years. We had team meetings on a regular basis. At one meeting I asked the guys (and gals) to let me know when they thought they knew what they were doing and felt confident. “Hey boss,” one of my experienced workers asked. “Do we get a raise when we think we know what we are doing?” I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “No. I am going to fire you. Every day on the job should be your first day on the job. Never assume you know it all or it will kill you or worse, maim you for life. It might even get someone else killed.”
It is the same with recreational climbing. You are high above the ground. Any little mistake, like not dressing your primary knot system or going through a switch over where you are switching between climbing systems, like moving between different anchor points, carries extreme risk. One simple error can end it all.
Every climb is your first climb.
Waving from a treetop,
Peter Treeman Jenkins
The following user(s) said Thank You: hook, Tree-D, Bushwhacker, annieokie
I agree with Treeman that Andy's DRT system was intact, as proved by the hitch eventually grabbing.
Things get fuzzy as far as why the hitch didn't grab when initial load was put on the system. Clearly a BACK check would've detected a "slack" hitch.
Other things to think about in regard to hitch behavior:
1. Many DRT climbers who use prussik loops or eye-2-eye split-tails are used to "nudging up" the hitch to cause it to grab when they sit back on their system. It is worth considering configuring your hitch and cordage so it that it ALWAYS grabs hands off when you load up the system. SRT climbers who use hitches with devices like the Rope Wrench or Hitch Hiker are required to configure their hitch this way. There is even less forgiveness with hitches SRT, you will go down quite a distance if not hit the ground if the hitch doesn't grab on initial loading. Configuring a hitch so that it tends slack smoothly and grabs instantly is very doable, as proven by many hundreds of climbers currently doing so SRT.
2. In the case of Andy's accident there is a question as to whether some other part of his system or body remained in contact with the hitch and prevented it from setting. At some point in the fall his body position or system components may have shifted and allowed the hitch to grab just before Andy hit the ground. It takes very little side pressure to prevent the most well tuned eye-2-eye split-tail or prussik loop hitch from setting.
3. Andy mentioned that he used a backed Bowline to attach the carabiners terminating the static legs of his double-ended DRT system. This is a fairly bulky knot, it may have contacted the side of the hitch and prevented it from setting.
I've been using a Hitch Climber pulley with an eye to eye split tail for a while now, and I enjoy the way it performs. That being said, it gives me a new appreciation for the properties of the Blake's hitch; simple, easily tied, and very reliable. We go to an advanced hitch, like a VT, because it performs well, advancing easily, and it's self tending. But as Moss said, and as Peter has warned me, it's fussy. Switching over to a lanyard, and allowing the main climbing system to go slack, can alter how it functions. It's possible for that hitch to go slack and not grab. There are a number of subtle adjustments that can be made to make it more reliable, and Richard Mumford goes over some of those in detail on a video he did. Treemagineers specifies a spliced termination of the climbing line to avoid the problem of a big bulky knot contacting the hitch and causing it to release, as I've experienced. I set mine up as an O-rig system now to avoid that problem, because I don't have a spliced line. You mentioned a prussic loop with a 6 wrap. sounds like a prussic to me. If it was slack, it could have allowed you to drop without grabbing. Once again, what I have to offer is Tie Dress and Set (more fussy with an advanced hitch), and B.A.C.K. check, Belt, Anchor, Carabiner, Knots. I wish you a complete recovery Andy, and I hope you're back climbing soon. Thanks again for sharing with us.
Andy, I was in shock when I first learned of your accident, and am now above everything else, relieved to know that you are only injured, and not disabled or worse.
Thanks for sharing some of the details, for us to learn , and make positive out of this awakening.
There are mysteries regarding the details of the incident.
I read the scenario a little differently than Treeman.
Was there an investigation performed by the climbers that retrieved the rope, and hammock from the tree?
The way I am reading it, Andy accessed via a cinched limb anchor, and used the tail of the same rope to set his DDRT setting, unclipped from his SRT hitch on the cinched leg of the rope. When he exited the hammock, his DRT system failed completely, due to a foul clip in at the termination end, and he fell until his hitch from the DRT leg grabbed on the bottom of the cinched SRT line. (60' of rope would not allow a climber to reach the ground from a 40' DdRT setting)
Luckily the hitch was an autoblock, and not a more high performance friction hitch, such as a VT, Cooper's, etc. The nature of the autoblock allows it to grab, when loaded from either direction. I don't believe, from the description above, that it was a loose hitch, or something collapsing the hitch, but indeed a free fall on a single line, until the inverted hitch grabbed near the end of the rope.
I wish there were a detailed investigation, for clarity's sake.
BACK check, I am a repeat offender of overlooking this, sadly.
Diligence is always due, when on rope, and this accident has given me renewed focus on that critical detail.
I checked out the autoblock at Animated Knots. As you said, Hook, it's designed to be loaded from either direction; interesting hitch! Looks like a great way to set up a double ended lanyard for DRT, but it's still unclear to me how Andy uses this system for SRT. Is this hitch his only point of attachment? What I'm imagining right now goes something like this: the 60' climbing line is over a branch some 10' or so above the hammock. Andy is hitched in, but to the standing side of the line, which is a free running continuous loop.
Right about the fatigue factor, Moss. State of mind is everything up there. Would it be possible for you to come up with an illustration of what you think might have gone wrong? Perhaps Andy, you can give us a more detailed explanation of your system, and how you use it.
I goofed on my endless loop scenario. That would have left Andy dangling 20' in the air. At this point I'm thinking, his climbing system had been cinched up to the branch, but now the cinch is slacked off, and he's tied into the tail, with a hitch on a single line. He steps out, the cinch flies back up to the branch and he plummets in free fall. The hitch doesn't engage and it's stopped by a bitter end knot, leaving him at the bottom where he started. It gives me the willies just thinking about it! From what you've described Andy, there's someone looking out for you. Thank god it wasn't so much worse!
I talked in great deal with Andy regarding his accident. Duane has described it nicely. Please re-read Duane's post as it seems to be the most accurate, better than I could re-create. The only thing to add is that I don't know if the hitch caught him or his knot slid up against the cambium saver that was on that end, which had the bowline knot still in position as a 'stopper knot'. (the bowline did not come untied, the Yosemite Tie Off did.)
Would a safety knot tied below your hitch made any difference? Would it have stopped you?
Andy, I hope you are aware that there is some serious self reflexion going on here about safety. This incident has a lot of experienced climbers looking at their own climbing system and attitude. More than one person has made the comment about how they pass over the BACK check. So it's not entirely an issue of "what Andy did wrong." Experienced climbers do by nature often become complacent. This complacency issue is the undercurrent in play here I think.
So I will ask again. Would a safety knot have made a difference in this incident? Tying a safety knot is another tiny detail experienced climbers often pass up on. It is sometimes viewed as a "rookie technique." Something for the beginning climber.
Ok, reread everything. Duane definitely got it. So a safety knot wouldn't help since the the DRT system was never closed. Andy basically fell to the end of a single rope cinch anchored in the tree. Not quite to the end. As Tim and Duane mentioned, either the autoblock caught him or the sleeve and stopper knot did. If Andy had been on a longer rope it would have been a harder hit to the ground, unless it was the bi-directional autoblock that grabbed, then it's just a matter of how much rope length there was between the cinched anchor and where the hitch grabbed.