Canyon Tales
Plunging 15 Feet
by Rick Ianniello

Over the past summer those of us reading canyoneering accident reports have become aware that it is indeed possible to fall from great heights and sustain relatively minor injuries. However, I have recently become intimately aware of the fact that you can severely hurt yourself by falling from much smaller heights. Not that I wasn’t already aware of this fact but, let’s be honest, how many times have you been cruising down a canyon, come up to a fifteen–foot rappel, and said to yourself:

“That is some seriously ratty janked up webbing, but—whatever—it’s only 15 feet.”

I know I have. Actually, on one of my first canyoneering trips a friend’s sister lost control of that first, super chaucey Birch Hollow rappel that everyone walks around from about 30 feet up, coming out with no real injuries other than very burnt fingers (fingerless gloves). This started a running joke of us saying that if we fell off of anything less than 30 feet we should be fine. Interestingly enough, I was canyoneering near Tuscon with this same friend and, this time, his brother. At the top of a 60–foot rappel into a deep pothole, he refused the offer for a fireman’s belay and proceeded to (I guess) attempt to break some kind of speed record for descending the slick algae covered face. From about 45 feet up, he slipped and released with his break hand, relying on his poorly done autoblock to catch him. It did not, and he fell all the way into the pool, leaving nothing damaged other than his ego which probably deserved it.

My recent misadventure began on September 3rd, at an Albertsons in North Vegas waiting around for three canyoneers I had never met to meet me as arranged with the local canyoneering meetup group. I gave everyone about 40 minutes and, when no one was drawn in by the shiny (dirt sparkles) canyoneering gear laid out on my car, I figured I had been bailed on. Undeterred, I threw my gear back in my car to continue on alone. Oh, and don’t judge me for canyoneering alone. If you’re that opposed to it, it’s your fault for not going with me. I had friends who knew exactly where I was going, which is good enough for me.

The plan was to head up to Mount Charleston where I had recently found some really fun, if short, canyoneering routes. I have been somewhat systematically exploring canyons near Vegas over the past months and have plans on writing a guidebook for the area. The approach for this particular canyon was a well–used hiking trail, so I geared up and started charging up the mountain. I made short work of the approach and found a quick path off the trail and down into the gully.

Ahead of me there were several short chaucey limestone cliffs in the gully before reaching the actual canyon. The first two were downclimbed, but the next couple seemed best rappels. They would probably be considered nuisance rappels, but since hiking around them seem obnoxious, and I was expecting a short canyon anyway, I figured it would be worth it.

I looked around for an appropriate anchor for the first rappel and settled on a rock that jutted out of flat ground, two feet tall, two feet in diameter, and appropriately angled for slinging. My favorite part about this rock was the clean flat ground around it that would allow me to set up a retrievable anchor, which I would do by using a chain link on one end of webbing and a locking carabineer on the other. Tying a knot to the end of your rope before pulling it will then bring your anchor back for you.

I set this up. Everything seemed appropriate. So I got on rappel and ready to go. The first four feet or so I downclimbed on rappel to get the rope set on the lip of the drop, then leaned–back to rappel down the next 15 feet to a 20–foot wide ledge with a second stage after it. As soon as I was leaned back—standing perpendicular to the wall—my anchor failed. Why? I’m not sure. In retrospect, I’m certain I did not test it enough. Maybe the rock fractured. I personally think it shifted in the earth downcanyon to allow the webbing to slip off. I simply saw the webbing, chain link, and carabineer flying straight out towards me as I accelerated downwards at entirely too close to 9.8 meters–per–second–squared. It happened so quickly I didn’t even change position. My hand, still clutching the rope, was smashed in between the rock and my tailbone.

I lay still at the bottom. I brought my wrist up to look at it. It was already extremely swollen and had kind of a strange kink to it. I wasn’t really too worried about that though. How was my back? Was I going to be able to stand up and walk back to my car? Was I going to start losing sensation to my toes soon? I wiggled my toes, moved my fingers, motion was fine. I used a pine needle to see if I could distinguish sharp from blunt sensations. Everything was fine, except for the fingers on my right hand were tingly and kind of numb which, considering the size of my wrist, seemed normal. Still, the pain in my lower back was unbearable. If that didn’t let up, I wasn’t going to risk it.

I then jumped a bit, astonished to find that my pocket was vibrating. My phone was ringing?

“Hello?” I picked up the phone.

“Hi Rick, it’s Mom.”

“Oh hey,” I was actually almost laughing at this point.

“What’s up?”

“Not much, just, you know. Doing some hiking.”

“How is it?”

“Oh it great. Beautiful day out. I should probably go now though.”

“Oh, okay, I love you Rick.”

“Love you too mom, bye.”

I hung up the phone, wondering what her reaction would have been if I had said:

“I’m in the woods alone, and I just fell off of a 15–foot cliff. My wrist is definitely broke, and I think I hurt my back.”

I think I probably made the right call. After giving the pain another minute or two, I conceded defeat. I picked my phone up to call 911 for myself. I was going to need Search & Rescue to get me out of there. I felt like a complete idiot. Although soon enough that feeling subsided and I could mostly only feel the sharp pains in my wrist and lower back. After providing adequate directions, I lay there waiting face up with my back on the rock and my head resting on my helmet, humming. Apparently that is what I do in times of duress—lots of humming.

After, I think, three hours, a smiling local police officer came down. He introduced himself, assured me that everything would be okay, and began assessing my situation. I don’t think there were many times that I was concerned that things would not ultimately be okay. However I was often acutely aware of how, at that precise moment, things kind of sucked. This was of course my fault though, and I was determined to continue humming and get over it.

Soon there were more people there. It seems that there were eventually around 12 volunteers who had come up. I am extremely thankful for all of them, particularly the ones who were carrying med–packs, backboards, and whatever else up. They laughed and told stories and jokes while strapping me down to the backboard and stabbing me a few times with an IV. This was completely understandable since I was shaking a lot, feeling rather cold probably from shock. The presence of these many energetic, cheerful, intelligent and well–trained individuals brightened my mood substantially, despite the fact that the backboard was no more comfortable than the rock. I said goodbye to them, and offered to buy them beers at some later point once I got out of the hospital as I closed my eyes to keep dust out of them when the helicopter descended.

I’d like to note that there was not one condescending or rude word to me from any of the Search & Rescue team. While it would have perhaps been warranted, they all seemed to understand that I did not require advice on my canyoneering technique at that time. It was not until I was later being wheeled through the ER to get a CAT scan that a nurse there informed me that I should always use three pieces for every anchor. I told him that canyoneering did not really work like that, to which he replied I should do what climbers do. I think I told him that he should descend canyons in front of me. I would have my own trad rack in no time. Being short–hauled into a helicopter is kind of a treat. I mean, I kind of feel like a douche for having needed the rescue, but being pulled up into a helicopter, spinning around in circles with no real view of what’s going on, was pretty incredible. Don’t go hurt yourself just to try it but, if you are ever sitting there at the base of a cliff waiting for a helicopter rescue, just remember you have a hell of a ride to look forward to.

I was down on the ground and into an ambulance in what seemed like no time. The ambulance had a solid supply of morphine which kept me infinitely happy as I was carted off to the UMC hospital. After some X–rays and CAT scans, it was determined that I had a fractured radius in my wrist that would require surgery, along with a bilateral fracture in my sacrum and a fracture in my pelvis, both of which were not associated with any displacement and would heal on their own with some serious discomfort. All that from falling 15 feet, yet I still feel pretty lucky. I’ll be out of it for the next month or two, just enough time to get excited about all the new places to explore.

You might all enjoy comparing the actual story to what the local news came up with. There are a few differences:

MT. CHARLESTON, NV (KTNV) – Las Vegas Metro Police Search and Rescue rescued a climber who fell at Mt. Charleston.

Officials say the man plunged from the Cathedral Rock area of the mountain at around 10:45 a.m. Saturday.

The climber kept in touch with officials via cell phone as they worked to reach him.

Rescuers were able to eventually reach him and he walked down the mountain with them at around 2 p.m.

The climber was flown to a local hospital by helicopter with unknown injuries.

My favorite was probably the use of the word ‘plunge.’ Also, walking down the mountain to the helicopter seems inefficient.

So next time you get to that ratty webbing at the top of a short rappel, consider replacing it. Or at least throw on a backup for the first person to go down. Because, unless you’re comfortable falling down the rappel directly onto your butt, you should be really confident that everything is going to hold.


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© 2011 Rick Ianniello