Accident Report: Two Ground Falls, Lowering
July 3rd, 2017 saw two climbing accidents almost identical in nature. Both were ground falls, and both resulted from a belayer lowering their climber off the end of a rope. These accidents were highly preventable and would have been avoided with some basic safety measures.

Climber Dropped While Lowering – Swan Slab

On July 3, 2017 at approximately 7 pm, Yosemite dispatch received a report of a climber fall at Swan Slab. The reporting party stated that the length of the fall was approximately 40’ and was on the Swan Slab Gully route. YOSAR and the Valley ambulance quickly arrived on scene. Due to the reported length and nature of the fall, an air ambulance was requested by the SAR units while en route.

Upon arriving on scene, the first responders found a mid-20’s male lying on the ground face up, being held by his climbing partner. While the climber was conscious and alert, he was struggling to stay awake and disoriented. Furthermore, he was complaining of back and hip pain and witnesses stated he may have hit his head. He did not have on a helmet.

After the climber was assessed and packaged for transport, the rescue team only needed to do a small carry-out to the road. They then transported him to Ahwahnee meadow in the Valley ambulance, where they then transferred care to the Medical helicopter at approximately 8:10 pm.

Climbers in the area stated the climber was being lowered on top rope when his partner let the end of the rope through his belay device. It was determined in these interviews that the fall was closer to 25 feet than 40. The climber’s rope was measured by NPS employees who determined it was about 98 feet long. According to the information in the Supertopo guidebook, the route is 60’ long, which would require at least 120’ of rope to belay from the bottom. The patient was a beginner climber.

Climber Dropped While Lowering – Church Bowl

Immediately following the Swan Slab accident, Yosemite dispatch received a report of a climber ground fall at Church Bowl. The reporting party stated that the fall was about 20’ and that the party was on the route Black is Brown. YOSAR and the Valley ambulance responded to find a male climber in his mid-20’s at the base of the climb. He complained of hip and back pain, but had suffered no loss of consciousness. The patient did have on a helmet, which impacted the rock and cracked during the fall.

Do to Church Bowl’s proximity to the road, no SAR operations were required. After undergoing a more extensive assessment in the hospital, the patient was released that evening with no major injuries.

In interviews after the accident, it was determined that the climber was being lowered from a tree anchor after leading the climb. At approximately 20 feet off the ground, the end of the climber’s rope passed through his partners belay device and he fell. It was noted that the team’s rope was visibly cut at either end. Upon measuring the rope, SAR responders determined the rope to be about 62 meters. The patient believed his rope to be 70 meters. While one guidebook states that the climb is 80 feet tall, the anchor that the climber used was over 100 feet off the ground.

This was the first time the two climbers had met, and the patient’s first climb in Yosemite.


CLOSE THE SYSTEM – Always have a fail-safe in place. This could be a knot at the end of your rope, or the belayer tieing into the rope.

KNOW YOUR ROPE, KNOW YOUR ROUTE – Both parties were climbing on ropes that had been intentionally cut to a shorter length. If you do modify your rope, know exactly how long it is. Never blindly trust estimates in guidebooks. In the Church Bowl accident, the climber used an anchor that was roughly 30 feet higher than the guidebooks listed distance.

WEAR A HELMET – Both climbers impacted their head during their falls. At Church Bowl the climber’s helmet was heavily damaged by the fall. Without it the outcome could have been tragic.

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