Richard Connors posted this on supertopo.com:
On May 21st I was descending with my friend Ross from Spaceshot on the Leaning
Wall. During the last abseil Ross fell to his death.
Ross and I are from the UK and were on a trip visiting various crags in the
There is a lot of stuff spinning around in my head as I write this, but my
main thought is to let people know what (it seems) was the cause of this
accident. The main factor in this has surprised a good number of the climbers
I have talked to.
I know there has been some discussion of this on the web already. Hopefully
by telling the whole story - however irrelevant some of it might be - all
of the various questions might be answered. I will try to reply to any questions
where I can tell you something vaguely useful.
==== The long story [skip ahead for the facts] ====
On Monday we climbed the first four pitches and returned to the ground, leaving
ropes in place to jug the next day. All the anchors we used were fixed, except
maybe for the one at the top of the first pitch.
Pitch 1 is slightly grotty 5.6 climbing. Pitch 2 is a pretty nice 5.7 flake
and ends at the left end of a large sandy ledge. We fixed a 60m rope ("the
blue" 60mx10.5mm) to this anchor, having got beta saying this would just
reach the ground. Pitch 3 is a mixed bag of sandy 5.5 and ends at the base
of a huge smooth clean red wall, the stuff we came to do. We fixed "the green"
(55mx10.5mm) to this anchor and chucked it back down to the sandy ledge (top
of pitch 2). Pitch 4 is where it gets fun. I lead the pitch (C2 aid) and
Ross followed, cleaning the gear. We fixed our 60m lead rope ("the yellow"
60mx10.5mm) to this anchor and abseiled down. Then down the green to the
sandy ledge. Then down the blue (carefully checking it reached) back to the
ground. It didn't quite reach the dirt, but left us with maybe 20ft of trivial
down-shuffling to get back to our bags. We left the 3 ropes in place and
headed off for a beer.
Tuesday morning we jugged the ropes. Amongst all the other crap you take
aid climbing, we had a 9mm rope. We planned to lead on the yellow (the top
fixed rope) and take the 9mm to deal with the double-rope abseils on the
descent. We would chuck the green down to the big sandy ledge as we went
past it, and then could retrieve the green and the blue by jugging just the
blue on Wednesday and abseiling down.
I set off first, Ross followed. I got to the top of pitch 4 as Ross arrived
at the top of pitch 3. Ross had got some two-way radios earlier on the trip
and we chatted on the radio: the weather forecast had been slowly deteriorating
for the last 3 days, today was 50% chance of afternoon rain, there were a
lot of gloomy clouds brewing above us, the sandstone is all bad in the wet,
we were not super fast aid climbers...there were a lot of reasons for continuing,
mostly that I didn't want to have to lead that C2 pitch again!! A brief spot
of rain actually hit us and we decided to bail.
I pulled up the 9mm rope, tied it to the yellow, stripped the anchor and
descended to the top of pitch 3. Meantime Ross had been untying the green
from this anchor and getting ready to set up a double-rope abseil. I got
down to him, chucked him the end of the yellow to tie to the green and started
pulling the ropes down from above.
Ross headed off down to the big sandy ledge as I coiled the 9mm and put it
on my back. He radioed me to say "rope free" and I headed down. I arrived
on the big sandy ledge about 10-15ft away from the anchor - Ross was off
to my left, already clipped into the anchor and sorting out the blue rope,
ready to set up the last abseil. I chucked the loose end of the yellow to
Ross and started pulling the ropes from above. I was unclipped at this point
- being a very bad boy, even though it was a huge ledge. This was actually
the only thing that struck me as unsafe about our whole day. As the knot
came down, I stopped and untied it to free the yellow, which was now all
tangled up in plants and rocks on the ledge. Ross fed it over the edge as
I untangled it from everything on the ledge. I started pulling the green
down as Ross sorted himself out over at the anchor. I was coiling the green
rope as Ross called over to say "see you at the bottom in a few minutes",
he saw me coiling the green and offered to carry it, since I had the 9mm
already on my back, but he already had our daysack on so I said I was fine
taking it down. I turned to just finish up coiling the green and at that
moment he fell.
I rushed over and there was nothing there - our ropes had gone, Ross had
gone, the anchor was fine, untouched. Everything floated for a moment, slipped
sideways and turned unreal - then I started shouting...I knew I had to get
down in case by some impossible chance there was something I could do to
help him. I was yelling down to the road and got someone’s attention,
they flagged down one of the shuttle buses and shouted that help was coming.
I had the 55m green and the 50mx9mm ropes with me. I couldn't get to the
ground in one go but I knew there was another anchor (top of the Alpine Start
for those that know it) that I would be able to reach. I set up the double
rope abseil and set off down. The ropes tangled around everything - it was
a complete shambles. I saw the rangers and the ambulance arrive; the rangers
were racing up the hill to Ross. I set up the second abseil, it was all taking
so long...as I reached the ground one of the rangers came over to tell me
what I already knew.
%%==== Some stuff that I do know ====%%
Ross was found with the two ropes correctly through his belay device. The
ropes extended about 10feet "above" him (the other 190feet being "below"
his belay device) and the ends were not tied together.
Throughout this trip we had always been tying ropes together using a fig-eight
knot (more below).
The only other abseil Ross set up that same day (from top of pitch 3 down
to the big ledge) he had used the fig-eight knot with no back up knot on
the tails. The knot was neat, I don’t remember exactly how long the
tails were but they didn't cause me a second glance.
I could not see exactly what Ross was setting up on that last abseil - he
was 10ft or so to my left and was sitting (while clipped in) so that he obscured
my view of the anchor.
The fig-eight I refer to is tied as follows: The two ends you want to join
are held parallel with the ends "pointing" in the same direction. You grab
both ropes together and then tie a regular single fig-eight knot in both
ropes at once.
What we did NOT use: The only other way that might be confused is when you
have the ends pointing in opposite directions. Tie a single fig-eight in
one rope then follow this through with the other rope - we did NOT do this.
%%==== The important bit ====%%
Some guys that were helping me out played around in their yard with this
fig-eight method, tying it and trying to pull the knot apart. They found
some worrying things.
-The way the ropes pull on this knot on a double-rope abseil deforms the
-If the knot is not perfectly "dressed", in particular if there is a single
slack loop anywhere on the fig-eight, they could pull the knot through even
with 6 INCHES of tails, just pulling the ropes apart as happens naturally
on an abseil. 6 inches of tails is NOT ENOUGH. If you use this knot, tie
a back up knot and leave LONG tails. It scares me to think that I could have
innocently/ignorantly made this same catastrophic mistake.
%%==== My thoughts (not facts) ====%%
The only plausible explanation of this accident I have come up with is that
the knot slipped off the ends. I won't go through all the alternate scenarios
and my objections to them here. I hope it doesn't sound contradictory to
say that Ross was a safe climber. I never saw him rig a belay that I thought
was unsafe, never saw him do anything that made me think "does he realise
that's pretty dodgy".
We were not in a big rush getting down. We were moving quickly and efficiently
but with no sense of panic or anything like that.
Ross knew that the last abseil was a long one and we would be a bit tight
on rope. I can imagine that would make him want to keep the knot pretty near
the ends, but I do not believe he would only leave something ridiculous like
one inch of tails. I think he must have tied the knot with something like
6inches of tails, thinking this was plenty (go tie the knot - it looks good
with this much rope sticking out of it) and maybe he didn't make it all neat
and snug. I think when he set off he was happy with his set-up, not thinking
at all that the tails were dangerously short.
The first 30feet of this abseil are a little slabby - and with two 60m ropes
you do have to feed armfuls through your belay device at the top - the first
few feet of such an abseil are always a bit jerky. I guess he fed through
a couple of armfuls of rope and hence bounced the knot just a couple of times,
which caused it to fail.
While I will never know for sure what happened, I do know what any of you
can prove to yourselves - that you can get this knot to fail even with 6
inches of tails. I did not know that the necessary margin for safety was
so wide for this knot, I am sure Ross did not realise this either.
The ropes involved (the blue and yellow) have been sent to one of the testing
guys at Black Diamond who is going to run some relevant tests involving this
fig-eight knot. I will post anything they find that might be of interest.
%%==== Last words ====%%
Thoughts of Ross are vividly etched in the minds of almost everyone he met.
We miss him terribly.
The only other thing I want to say here is that the Rangers at Zion were
incredible; the way they dealt with the incident, the diligence of their
investigation and the compassion that they showed me...I have only praise
for everything they did. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of so many other
people in Springdale - it's a small town of wonderful people. Despite everything,
I have some very fond memories of Zion and the people I met.
It is a beautiful place - you should go there and climb those amazing walls.