I was perched on top of a 150-foot rock pillar in the dark. My climbing partner Andy, who had rappelled over the edge of the cliff a few minutes earlier, was now screaming in pain from below.
“Cut the rope!”
Andy and I often went rock climbing in Texas Canyon, near a place called Canyon Country, North of Los Angeles. The crag is a fairly new climbing area so many of the routes are untamed. Beta for this area is also extremely difficult to find and most of the routes require a lot of delicate footwork as good jug holds are rare and most climbs are pretty vertical as opposed to overhangs.
That day we decided to try a sport route called Middle Earth, a two-pitch 5.9 that is 120-feet tall with 13 bolts. It is unique in that to get down you have to perform a multi-stage rappel, unless you have a rope longer than 60 meters. On that day our plan was to head to the top, drink some beers, and then rappel 120 feet down the face of the rock.
Getting to the top was a breeze. In fact, I belayed Andy while anchored halfway up the rock, just for fun. He then belayed me from the top as I climbed up. We chilled out on the summit and watched the sun set with beers in hand.
Our plan was to build an anchor on fixed bolts we had found at the top. At the time, I had no concept of contingency anchors, which is a method in canyoneering that allows you to lower someone who is on rappel in case there was trouble. I also didn’t know about carabineer blocks or knot blocks or any kind of block that would have been more time saving and preferable. Instead I stuck with what I knew and tied a follow-through figure 8 knot directly onto the anchor. There was no contingency, but it was safe and it worked.
We decided that Andy would rappel down first. The sun was already behind the mountains and it was beginning to get dark. As Andy lowered himself down the crest of the rock, he disappeared from view, leaving me alone on top.
Ten minutes had passed and I heard nothing. It only takes a couple of minutes at most to descend from the crag, and this wasn’t out first rappel. I yelled into the dark, “What’s taking so long?” Silence.
Then the air was broken with Andy’s screams. I yelled again, asking what was wrong, but he only responded with more painful screams. My body pumped full of adrenaline.
Then came the order: “Cut the rope!”
This was a situation. Andy was using the only 60-meter rope we had, and the only way down was on that rope. Even if I yelled at him to explain, he couldn’t hear me well enough, and he was constantly screaming and yelling to cut the rope. I had no idea what was wrong, and cutting the rope would have marooned me on a rock 120 feet up and possibly kill Andy in the process. This was a shit situation.
I needed to keep the rope intact and anchored on top of the crag. I still had 80 feet of unused rope left over, so decided to build a new anchor, attach 20 feet of the untensioned rope to it, and then remove the first anchor in the hopes that 20 feet was enough for Andy. This way I would still have the rope and Andy, hopefully would get what he needed. I figured worst-case scenario, Andy would fall 20 feet and that wouldn’t kill him. Maybe break a leg.
Executing this plan was difficult. I wasn’t building the anchor in a calm state of mind, but with Andy screaming at me to cut the rope. I had to ignore him. I couldn’t let emotion get in the way of making decisions.
After what felt like forever, I had built a solid anchor and attached a figure-8 knot on a bite for my rigging. Everything was set. I ran to my pack to get my knife, but the knife wasn’t there.
Without it, there was no way I could remove the tension in the rope. Andy was fucked and I was fucked too. It was dark and sucky. I started running around the top, searching for the damn knife. I always brought it with me. I panicked. I started cursing. I tore apart our bags and scattered our crap everywhere in search of the tool that would save Andy. At the depths of my despair, hope returned when I found the knife in Andy’s pack. He had used it to open our beers earlier.
With the knife in my hand, I realized the seriousness of what I had to do. Setting my plan in motion was one thing, executing the final act was another.
Andy was telling me to cut the rope. Was he even rational at this point? I had no idea how far he was off the ground. But I only had one option. And so I started to cut the anchor. It was a standard cordelette with a big overhand knot at the apex creating redundancy with two separate anchors. I cut one side. My heart sunk. I started on the second and it felt weird cutting a tensioned anchor. The anchor was severed and the rope fell, stopping once my second anchor caught it.
The screams finally stopped.
I repelled down using my new anchor. When I got to the bottom, there was Andy—without a scratch on him.
As he’d begun his rappel, everything had gone smoothly. When he was about two-thirds of the way down, passing through the mouth of the giant cave on the face of Texas Canyon, the tail end of the rope he was rappelling on wrapped itself around a sharp horn jutting out of the rock. As he lowered, unaware of this, eventually he got to the point where the tail end of the rope no longer continued down to the ground, but up and over the horn. Attempting to unstick the rope around the horn with one hand proved ineffective. He decided to continue rappelling in the hopes he would make it to the bottom before the rope became a problem.
Andy was three feet from the bottom when his weight started to pull on the strand of rope that went about 50 feet up the wall and around the horn. There was so much friction that his own weight and attempts to pull the rope failed to move it.
Only being three feet from the floor, he decided he would undo his harness and drop down. He removed both leg straps first. The waist belt of his harness lifted up onto his torso so that his entire body weight was supported by his ribs. It was painful and he found it impossible to remove the harness. He was desperate for me to cut the rope and release him from the torture – which I eventually did.
Obviously we didn’t have the best training at the time. If Andy had known to look for places where the tail end of the rope could have gotten stuck before he rappelled beyond that point and if he knew how to tie off midrappel, he could have easily fixed the situation. And if I knew how to make a contingency anchor, I could have lowered him in just a couple of seconds.
This event was just another example of what happens when you do something without the right training or enough training to avoid problems and deal with them when they arise. Then again, what doesn’t kill you often makes a good story…