Canyon Tales
Near–Miss Report
Zion, Sept 2004

by Tom Jones

•  September 2004 •

We descended a canyon in Zion’s backcountry in September and had a near–miss when a natural anchor pulled.

Trip Participants:
Tom Jones, Kip Marshall, Larry Halford, Ron Hudson.

A rarely descended canyon in the Zion backcountry, currently considered ‘under the radar’ and therefore not named here.

The Story:
Kip had done the canyon a couple weeks earlier and was in the lead. In the middle of the canyon, there are a number of short rappels intermixed with pools that can mostly be avoided. This particular rappel was down a low–angle slab that rolled over into a short drop to the edge of a pool in a narrow portion of the canyon. The total drop was about 25 feet with the last 10 being vertical.

When we arrived at the drop, there was a sling in place. It was draped around some rocks stuck behind a chockstone partially buried in the mud. To me, it looked very marginal at best, and we started looking around for alternatives. Kip assured us that they had rapped off it a few weeks ago and it was fine. He repositioned things a bit, set up the rope, climbed past the anchor, and put himself on rappel. I believe I stepped forward and put my foot on one of the rocks to help keep the rock and sling in place. Kip rapped to the bottom without difficulty.

Next up was Larry. He stepped past the anchor, set his butt on the slab to hook up, and rigged his rappel setup. He gave the rope above a small shake (as is normal), and this may have moved the sling just slightly. Then he slid down the slab and went on rappel. At this point, I had my foot on one of the rocks that the sling was around.

When Larry got near the bottom, I was satisfied that the anchor was pretty much OK and stepped to the side to pick up the big rope in its rope bag to toss down to Kip. After I turned, I heard a whumph sound and a yelp from below. I turned back to see the sling and rope gone. Larry had fallen the last four feet or so and, thankfully, was not hurt.

Analysis: the sling was draped over some rocks stuck behind a solid chockstone. The sling was just barely in place over the rocks. Any small change in the configuration would result in the sling pulling. Perhaps Larry’s small shake of the rope before leaning back made that small change. Perhaps the little bit of force being applied by my foot was enough to keep the rock from rotating, and removing my foot caused a slight shift.

•  Conclusions •

1. Rappeling is a serious business and even short rappels must be taken seriously. Any injury in this deep–in–the–backcountry place would be very, very serious.

2. If an anchor stinks, don’t use it. I had a bad feeling about this anchor and did not push it. I should have. After Larry pulled the sling, Ron and I spent 5 minutes to dig the mud out around the chockstone and establish a solid anchor.

3. If you’re going to use a stinky anchor, at least back it up correctly for all but the last person. I should have sat down and clipped to the sling, providing a sitting–anchor backup that would have worked. My placing my foot on the anchor was particularly ineffective—if the sling had started to go, I was not in a position to catch it.

4. Going out with ‘the boys’ can be dangerous. While this was not an overly macho crowd, why did none of us say, “Uh, let’s make a better anchor?” Partly we were cold and moving quickly—an example of haste makes waste. And the obvious anchor to use was to dig the mud out from around the chockstone—an unpleasant task. We blew it, and I know I blew it especially because I was very clear that the anchor stank but did not insist on fixing it.


Oct 22, 2004

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© 2004 Tom Jones