Date: Thursday, June 23, 2011
Quick Summary: A bolt failed while a climber was lowering off a sport route. The climber struck the ground and broke his leg.
Cause: equipment failure and lack up back up.
The accident took place at a crag along the Meadow River in the New River Gorge area. This location is not in a guidebook, but is used by local guides and climbers.
The victim is a gym climbing-team instructor. He has been climbing sport routes on stone for five years. He led several 5.10 routes over the course of the two days prior to the accident. The victim was belayed by a camper, age 17. The camper had several years experience and had demonstrated good belaying technique. He had belayed the instructor previously.
The specific route is an uncompleted tagged sport project of unknown difficulty. The climb, which is roughly 55 feet from ground to anchor, follows a steep slab for five bolts to a roughly horizontal roof that is approximately 6-8 feet horizontal. There were two bolts in the roof with another at the lip. From the lip of the roof, the route continues up a short steep face to a two-bolt anchor. The two roof bolts, the bolt at the lip and the two anchor bolts had draws in situ.
The bolt that failed is a 2.5” by 3/8” stainless steel wedge anchor. It is assumed that all the other bolts on the route are of similar stock.
Events of the Accident
The group had been climbing for most of the day on 5.8 to 5.10 routes, and the victim had already led several climbs. In the afternoon, the group was wrapping and cleaning routes to prepare to leave. The victim wanted to climb an additional route and selected this unknown climb.
The AMGA Rock Instructor questioned the victim on whether he was able to climb this route. The victim stated that he was capable of climbing the lower section and would lower off if he was unable to climb past the roof section.
At approximately 5 PM, the victim led up 5 bolts with some aid to the roof section, where he clipped the first fixed draw. He attempted the moves and fell, and his belayer caught him without incident. He hung on this bolt for approximately five minutes, before he decided to lower from it. As he lowered, he cleaned his draws.
At the second bolt from the ground, the victim unweighted the rope and stepped onto a ledge to unclip the draw. As he re-weighted the rope to continue his lower, the lone bolt from which he was suspended pulled out. Save that one bolt, none of the bolts above him were clipped to the rope. This created about 50+ feet of slack in the system instantly and the victim fell 8-10 feet to the ground.
Upon landing, he fell backwards down the slope about eight feet into a bank of rhododendrons. His feet hit first; he did not hit his back or head. He was in an upright but reclined position when he landed.
Bystanders called for help and the AMGA Rock Instructor was able to assist. He instructed the bystanders to ask the other instructors to also come and assist.
The victim was in pain and had a deformed left ankle. Upon receiving a description of what had happened, the AMGA Rock Instructor placed the victim in a hands on stable position and supported his head and back from movement. Approximately 5-8 minutes passed before additional assistance arrived.
The AMGA Rock Instructor told the group to clear an area and lay mats down, to which they moved the victim into a prone position for a physical exam. Two instructors and a camper assisted in moving the victim onto the mats while the AMGA Rock Instructor maintained a stable head position.
The AMGA Rock Instructor then asked the gym owner to take over the head position so he could conduct an exam. He conducted a full body exam, including head, neck, back, chest, abdominal area, pelvis and legs.
The AMGA Rock Instructor’s exam revealed a disfigured left ankle. The victim was not complaining of significant pain and seemed in better spirits after about 20 minutes. The full body exam revealed no tenderness on palpation. The victim’s spine was palpated without tenderness. He had full CSM in both hands and the right foot. He was able to wiggle his toes on his left foot. He was sensitive to sharp and dull sensation in both feet.
One of the instructors splinted the victim’s left foot and ankle with a SAM splint and bandages. The group improvised a litter and carried him to the parking area, approximately 75m downhill. He was taken to Summersville Hospital where an x-ray revealed a fractured tibia. Instructors monitored his CSM in the splinted leg on the way to the hospital. They stopped once to loosen the splint.
The victim engaged in a typical sport climbing practice of lowering from a single high point and collecting draws on the way down. The belayer made no errors while belaying. The injuries were a direct result from falling from about 8-10 feet above the ground. The second bolt was 12-15 above the ground, but the climber was standing on a ledge when he removed the draw. Therefore his feet were at most 8-10 feet up depending on his landing point.
When the high bolt failed, it placed too much slack in the system and the victim fell to the ground. It was not possible for the belayer to correct for this.
The bolt in question was placed directly in the roof, and failed under an outward pull directly along the shaft. The bolt had only been in the rock 9-10 months. The bolt had a fixed draw on it, the lowest on the route to be so equipped.
A visual inspection revealed damaged threads on the shaft that was in the rock. There were damaged threads on the shaft in several locations.
The nut on the bolt shaft was fixed and unable to spin. This is the location of the nut’s fixed position on the shaft. It will not turn in either direction. The collar is not fully engaged. This is the condition in which the bolt was found on the ground.
There were also significant hammer marks on the shaft, nut and hanger. Was excessive force used to drive the bolt into the hole? The cause could have been poor hammering technique or the hole diameter may have been too small, creating the need for more force to drive the bolt stud into the hole. The angle of the climb suggests it would have been awkward to strike a clean hammer blow, let alone several in a row.
The next day the AMGA Rock Instructor and a local climber went back to the accident scene. The local climber rappelled the route to inspect the remaining bolts and remove the remaining hangers. Due to the angle of the climb and the one missing bolt, he was unable to reach the two highest bolts on the face below the roof. He was able to inspect the anchor and two bolts below it (including one in the roof), plus the first three bolts of the climb.
Upon arriving at each bolt, all of them appeared and felt solid. None of the hangers were spinning and none of the nuts were loose.
Upon attempting to remove all of the hangers he could reach, however, the inspecting climber was only able to achieve, on average, one complete turn of his wrench, before the studs began to spin in their holes. One should not be able to rotate the shaft of a bolt in a hole simply by loosening the nut. One should be able unscrew the nut without turning the shaft of the bolt.
He was able to remove only the hanger from the climb’s second bolt. The remaining nuts were fixed in place on their studs. The conditions of those remaining bolts confirm what the failed bolt seem to suggest, namely that the threads were damaged and their collars were never fully engaged.
The two climbers left the stuck hangers in place, but wrapped with copious amounts of athletic tape around all of them. The route was later completely dismantled.
The excessive marks on the bolt, hanger and nut, plus the threads not working may have been an indication that the bolt had too much resistance while being driven into the rock. The damaged threads appeared to have caused the nut to lock down before the collar on the wedge was fully engaged. It appears as though the collars were, however, partially engaged, which might have added to the illusion that the bolts were solid.
There are several additional questions that need to be analyzed. The first of those should address the bolt installation. Was there added resistance with the bolt’s installation? If this is true, how old was the drill bit and was the bit’s diameter still acceptable enough to drill a quality hole? Was the bolt simply hammered too hard or too irregularly? What damaged the threads?
Second, we should address common practices with climbing. How many people lower off a single bolt when they cannot reach an anchor? Should there have been a back-up? Would a back-up have even been effective, what with the climber so close to the ground when the bolt failed? What are safer transitions when cleaning a sport climb?
Lastly, though a simple well-placed wedge anchor will often suffice in a roof placement in the dense Nuttall sandstone of the Meadow River Gorge, modern practices increasingly dictate other types of anchors, such as glue-ins, for such situations.