Accident Report: Rappelling Near Misses

Yosemite has seen a tremendous amount of rappelling related injuries, fatalities, and near miss rescues. Of the 6 climbing related deaths in the park between 2015 and 2016, ALL were related to rappelling. Although 2017 has seen no fatalities, we have already had three rappelling related rescues, one of which resulted in serious injuries. We cannot stress enough how preventable all of these situations are, and the importance of not leaving the ground until you are fully trained and competent to get yourself back down safely.

Rappelling Error – Monday Morning Slab, Glacier Point Apron


At 6:59 p.m. on June 10th, Yosemite dispatch received a call of a climber fall at Glacier Point Apron. Reports were of a ground fall after a climber rappelled off the end of her rope while descending Harry Daley.

YOSAR responded emergent to the scene and discovered Barbara (mid-30’s), on top of the 4th class pinnacle that marks the start of the climb. By the time YOSAR arrived on scene, Barbara’s boyfriend Tommy (early 30’s) had rappelled the second pitch, pulled their ropes, and rappelled down to Barbara on top of the pinnacle. Barbara did not have on a helmet and had suffered major head trauma, but was alive and able to communicate with SAR personnel. Tommy told the responders that she had lost consciousness for several minutes after the fall.

Once the SAR team stabilized and packaged Barbara in a litter, they extricated her from the pinnacle using a rope lower. While her injuries warranted being short hauled via helicopter, YOSAR was unable to do so due to after dark flight restrictions in the park. Once she was on the ground, YOSAR personnel performed a litter carry out to the Happy Isles parking area where she was then transported via ground ambulance to the hospital.

From the best of her recollection, Barbara was rappelling from the second pitch of Harry Daley. She had rappelled about 10-15’ past the tree that is typically used for the first pitch anchor, when she swung left to pick up some equipment that they had dropped while climbing. She retrieved both pieces, clipped them to her harness, and moved back right. She stated that after this, the last thing she remembers was noticing that there was not very much rope left below her ATC.

Barbara did not have any knots tied in the end of her rope, and did not have a hands free back up. The Supertopo guidebook description states that the rappel is 100’ to the tree, or 120’ to a chain anchor to the right. On the internet, comments related to Harry Daley state that a 70m is “just barely enough to make the first rappel.”

Barbara had 6-7 years of climbing experience, 5 of which were outdoor lead climbing. In further interviews, Barbara stated that she used to always tie knots in the ends of her rope while rappelling, but stopped due to friends making fun of her.

Barbara had 6-7 years of climbing experience, 5 of which were outdoor lead climbing. In further interviews, Barbara stated that she used to always tie knots in the ends of her rope while rappelling, but stopped due to friends making fun of her.

In the end, Barbara was extremely lucky, she came out of the situation with multiple spinal and skull fractures, a broken nose, simple pneumothorax, a broken rib and a number of more superficial injuries, but lived.


BACK UP KNOTS – If there is any question about your ropes reaching the next anchor, tie knots. If this action was taken, this accident would not have occurred. Another option is to tie the ends of the rope together so that it is difficult to forget to untie one and get your rope stuck.

WEAR A HELMET – Modern helmets are light, affordable, and not cumbersome. Barbara’s head injuries may have been less severe had she been wearing a helmet.

USE A HANDS-FREE BACKUP – While a hands free back up may not have prevented this accident, it would have given Barbara more control during this rappel. Because she has no memory of her fall we don’t know whether she simply rappelled off the end or lost control of the rope.

Rappelling Error (Near Miss) The Nose, El Capitan


On the night of May 15, at approximately 12:00 a.m. Yosemite dispatch received a call from stranded climbers (Travis, Male 30’s and Erin, Female, 30s) below Dolt Tower on El Capitan.

The climbers had attempted an alpine style ascent of the Nose, planning to bivy once at El Cap tower with minimum gear, but had turned around just short of the Great Roof at 5:30 pm on their second day of climbing. Moving more slowly than expected, and with a storm forecasted, the team made the decision to retreat. After a number of successful rappels, the climbers found themselves stranded on a ledge without anchors below or the ability to climb back up.

The team had rappelled from El Cap Tower and arrived at an anchor 50 feet right of Dolt Tower. From here the team rappelled to the next visible anchor, the top of pitch 7 of the Central Scrutinizer, a hard aid climb adjacent to the Nose. From here they continued for another rappel down Central Scrutinizer, but due to the traversing nature of the that route, eventually ran out of bolted rappel stations.

Their last rappel of the day took them to a large ledge system where they built a gear anchor and pulled their ropes with the hope that they would find rappel stations below. Unfortunately this was not the case, and the team became stranded on the ledge. Luckily they were well prepared for an emergency bivy with food, jackets, and water.

The next morning at approximately 7:30 a.m. YOSAR arrived in El Cap meadow with a spotting scope. Once they located the climbers they realized that they had rappelled down the wrong side of Dolt Tower and ended up on the “Central Scrutinizer.”  Using the scopes, YOSAR determined that the climbers would be able to reach a large corner system midway up pitch 5 on “The Real Nose,” and that from there, a rappel route existed to the ground. They advised the team to build another gear anchor in this corner, and continue their descent from there.

YOSAR watched the team descend from the meadow until they were on the ground.


PLAN AND RESEARCH YOUR OBJECTIVES AND DESCENTS – There is a tremendous amount of information available for The Nose route and rappelling from Dolt Tower – including multiple guide books, web pages, and local knowledge. Just a bit more research may have been ample to get these climbers on the correct rappels.

RAPPELLING INTO UNKNOWN TERRAIN – After hours or even days of climbing, you are anxious to be down. Haste may have contributed to the climber’s decision to commit to their gear anchor on what should have been a bolted rappel route. YOSAR could see the next day that if they had ascended back to the last bolted anchor, they could have reached a rappel route to their right and avoided leaving gear on the wall.

Rappelling Error (Near Miss) – Royal Arches, Yosemite Valley


On March 3rd, at 8:24 p.m. Yosemite dispatch received a call from two climbers, both males in their early 20s, stranded midway up the Royal Arches climbing route in Yosemite Valley. The climbers had moved slower than they expected, and attempted to rappel the route from a point after a pendulum traverse on pitch 10. After 2 rappels, the team found themselves without rappel anchors. They had only a single rope.

Cold and tired, and with bad weather moving in quick, the team decided to call YOSAR. They were instructed to stay put and continually exercise to stay warm. The climbers had food, water, and jackets. By the time the SAR team had mobilized, rain began falling in earnest and it became unsafe for them to conduct a rescue that night.

Once the storm cleared, a team of two SAR personal climbed to the stranded team, reaching them at 11:00 a.m. and successfully rappelled with them to the ground. No other injuries were reported.


ALWAYS HAVE A PLAN FOR RETREAT – There are abundant opportunities for building gear rappel anchors on Royal Arches. Be willing to leave equipment. Two ropes decrease the amount of gear you may have to leave in a retreat and increase your chances of finding anchors.

KNOW THE WEATHER FORECAST – In our modern age there are a multitude of resources for getting up to date, reliable weather forecasts. If the weather looks questionable, and you are not completely sure of your ability level and time it will take you on route, wait to climb until another day. The route will still be there. These climbers got very lucky, a Sierra storm in March has every ability to quickly give someone hypothermia.


All of these incidents could have been avoided with better planning and basic safety precautions. Knowledge of your chosen route’s descent should be an element of every climber’s pre-climb preparation.

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