Rappelling Incident in Cascade Creek, Ouray, CO

(c) 2012 Imlay Canyon Gear LC I have a tendency to make things more complex than they really need to be.  Sometimes this gets people in trouble, like in this case. Fortunately, BIG trouble was avoided.

The setting: Cascade Creek in Ouray, last rappel - every bit of 300', down a couple of steps, from an awkward anchor. Thursday, Aug 16, 2012.  Flow level lowish, more of a splash than a flow. Some of the rappellers wore wetsuits, some did not.

I was hoping to do the canyon that day with these guys, but had the usual trouble shaking free so I did not get to Ouray for the morning start, however casual. So they went and did the canyon without me, "they" being Rick Fetters, Alane Urban, R J Banat, Kevin Vincent and Wayne Burns.  In June, some of these characters had coreshot a rope on the last rap, and some of them had spent the night at the top of the rappel, before being escorted off in the morning by local good-guy, Greg Foy. They were partly here to redeem their lost honor.

There had been a lot of talk about the core-shooting tendency on this last rap.  I arrived in Ouray about 3 pm, chatted with the fine folks at Ouray Mountain Sports, then drove the difficult 1/10th mile to the Cascade Creek Parking Lot.  I grabbed some gear and my cell phone and hiked the 10 minutes up to the bottom of the falls.  The idea was to set up a guided rappel on that last rap, to avoid the rope-cutting ledge. On viewing the falls, I could see that the rappel would come down over several steps, and one of them about 100 feet down from the top looked like the culprit.  There were plenty of big rocks in the streambed to use for a bottom anchor, and I brought my harness and hardware, a bunch of sling and a 300 foot rope (figuring they probably only had one).

After relaxing for about an hour, I got the call from Rick at the top of the falls.  I explained that I wanted to set up a guided rappel for them - go ahead and toss down a rope.

Rick has done a fair number of canyons, mostly with Ram; he is kinda a techy person (thus the name "Doc Science"); and he exhibits a high degree of confidence in canyons - but he has had little to no technical training in the craft of canyoneering. This combination, plus me jumping to conclusions that were not called for, lead to mis-communications that were bad. Cell phone communication was hampered by moderate ambient water noise on both ends.

They tossed down a rope, the yellow rope. They did not have rope bags, so they put a small weight on the end of the rope, and tossed the coils. It almost made it down, lodging on a ledge about 50 feet up from the bottom.  So I could not reach THAT to set up a guided rappel.  But they had another 300' rope, the green rope.  Wayne rappelled down on the green rope, bringing the tail of the yellow rope to the ground with him. (Method of deployment? I don't remember.)

Okay. Now we can set up a guided rappel for the rest.

Normal guided rappel at the same point

Normal guided rappel at the same point

The rope just reached the ground, so I tied on my red rope to the end of the yellow rope, so we could bring it out away from the wall to use as the guideline. We set up an anchor off a rock about 30 feet from the base of the rappel. But if someone guidelined down, they would come to the knot in the guideline (and probably the end of the rappel line) while still up in the air. So we set the bottom anchor as a contingency anchor. In this case, it seemed the easiest thing to do was to run it through a re-direct biner on the anchor and have Wayne sit and provide a meat anchor through his rappel device, so we could drop tension on the guideline when people got close to the ground.

I called up to Rick to start walking him through the steps of setting up the guided rappel.  His memory of this conversation and my memory are at odds on some of the key details. The overall result was that I did not talk him through setting up the rope for a retrievable guided rappel because I was under the impression that he had already set it up correctly - ie, with the yellow rope, the guide rope, blocked.  The normal guided rappel rig would be with the guideline blocked, and the rappel line safetied off to the anchor. Complications at the top include that the anchor was in a difficult to reach spot, that the place to go on rappel was also in a difficult to reach spot that required a belay to get to; and that if we had the guide line tensioned, then the rappeller would be unable to reach the guideline to clip in.  Thus, we started with a slack guide line so the rappers could clip into it.

The actual rigging was for a normal single-line rappel on the green rope, which was blocked.  The yellow rope was ready for retrieval, neither blocked nor secured.

The Peanut Gallery - Judy Seybold, Wayne Burns, Tom Jones

The Peanut Gallery - Judy Seybold, Wayne Burns, Tom Jones

Next rappeller down was RJ, who rapped through the water to the ledge at 100'.  As a result of the geometry at the on-rappel spot, the rappel line crossed over the guide line below the rappeller. RJ made note of this at the 100' ledge, unclipped from the guideline, and reclipped with the lines uncrossed. He then descended the guided rappel to near the bottom, we slacked the guide line and he completed the rappel to the ground.

After RJ, we moved the bottom anchor out another 20 feet so the guideline would be clear of the suspect ledge at 100' when it was weighted. Next on rope was Kevin. I do not know Kevin's experience level, but he was presented to me as RJ's friend and a beginner. He came down to the ledge at 100' and we could see that the ropes were crossed. But he was not aware that this was a problem and continued down without changing their relationship. About 20' below the ledge, with the guideline effectively pulling him away from the wall, the problem with the ropes crossing became evident.  From here to the ground, from his rappel device, the lower part of the rap rope went up and over the guideline, then down to the ground. So to make progress, Kevin had to pull the rappel rope down, over the guideline, which required considerable effort. There was 150' of rope below him, and it was undoubtedly wet and heavy. Kevin's pace slowed a lot as he worked his way down by pulling rope over the line using both hands and a lot of core strength. As it became evident how much of a struggle this was, we relaxed the tension on the guideline, although I waited way too long to make this change.

About 60 feet off the ground, Kevin became completely jammed and could make no further progress. We relaxed the guideline completely and he could still not make any progress.  RJ went up to the base of the cliff and pulled down hard on the rappel line (like a bottom belay), but this did not help. Kevin was obviously very tired, and hanging on the edge of the waterflow and getting somewhat wet. Unfortunately he was hanging just below a small roof, so he was not actually against the cliff, but hanging free in space two feet away, which made his situation more strenuous.

Closeup of Kevin being stuck, showing the ropes crossed

Closeup of Kevin being stuck, showing the ropes crossed

I scrambled up some ledges to about 15 feet below him. He had an extra rappel device, and he attached this to the guideline, the yellow rope. We phoned Rick and asked him to secure the yellow rope, which he did.  I sent a foot loop up to Kevin, and he tried to stand up high enough to get the yellow-rope ATC tight, and his weight off the green rope, but hanging free in space he could not get this to work.  At this point, RJ was at the base of the waterfall with a bottom-belay on the green rope, and Wayne had moved up to provide a bottom belay on the yellow rope. After making really, really sure Rick had secured the yellow rope at the top, we asked Rick to CUT the green rope. Rick had to go away from the station to get his knife and come back, so there was some delay. In the meantime, Kevin started digging his knife out of his pack (on his back).  Rick got back to the ropes, and cut the green rope.

Several things happened simultaneously. Kevin dropped about a foot and a half onto the yellow rope, and 250 feet of green rope came tumbling out of the sky. Along with the rope came several rocks, one of which was the size of a toaster.  All the rocks missed the four people in the target zone. Kevin quickly rappelled the 15 feet to the ledge, rested for a few minutes, then traversed off to the side and down to the ground.  We got everyone out of the target zone, then asked Rick to drop the yellow rope, which came down with fewer side effects. Rick knew the traverse trail out from the top of the waterfall, so he and Alane went out that way.

Examining Kevin's first ATC: he had used two biners behind an ATC-XP to provide enough friction for the 300' rappel on a new(ish) Imlay 9.2mm Canyonero rope, the green rope.  His harness was an Alpine Bod Harness, which does not have a belay loop or extension of any kind. Thus, the ATC was tight-in to his harness. Pulling the rappel line OVER the guideline created twists in the rope. ATC-type devices are not good at dealing with twists. When we pulled the ATC off the rope, there was a full-loop (a turn) at the bottom point, where the rope runs under the carabiners.

While I had the tools to do so, I did not choose to go up and assist Kevin in person. I did not think that jugging either rope with it crossing the known-to-coreshot-ropes edge 150 feet above was a wise choice until we reached emergency status. I also did not have a wetsuit or other warm clothing, although I was pretty sure the effort of jugging and setting up a pickoff of some sort would have kept me warm in the splash of the waterfall.

I did not choose to send jugging equipment up to Kevin. I could have, but I doubted I could effectively talk him through how to set up and use the equipment I had (tiblocs and microtraxions) given his level of expertise, state of exhaustion and the water splashing on him that also made communication difficult.

I considered the possibility of running around to the top and effecting a lower from above. It seemed like this would take a lot of time, though if it had been done first thing, it might have been an effective solution.

It might have been wiser to cut the rope at Kevin's level rather than from the top.  I was concerned about Kevin having an open sharp knife in hand when being jostled from the green rope cutting, but I did not consider the poor rock in Ouray and the potential for the falling green rope to knock off potentially deadly missiles.

I should have slacked off the guideline as soon as it became apparent that pulling the rap rope over the guideline was a significant problem.  I did not judge it significant at the time, merely a pain in the butt.

And clearly, setting up a guided rappel by telephone with no trained people at the top was overly ambitious.

I am very happy that it all turned out as well as it did, because it could have turned out very poorly.

(c) 2012 Imlay Canyon Gear LC - this means, you are welcome to link here, but you are not welcome to copy this text elsewhere. All photos (c) 2012 Steve Ramras