RedRocks: Accident with some analysis-- read & learn


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Trad climber
Topic Author's Original Post - Mar 31, 2011 - 04:30pm PT

My partner and I were closest to a near-death in RR on Solar Slab last week. Here's what happened and what we thought about it.

We climbed Beulah's to the SS terrace, and then did the first pitch of SS, intent on Heliotrope. At the bleay on the big ledge above the black varnished corner, we ran into a partyof 3 women, doing SS, and a party of 2 doing Sunflower.

In the party of 3 their leader, the oldest, was not comfy with simul-belaying her two seconds, one of whm was saying that this was a bad idea, since they were moving at the speed ofr anaesthetised snails (they had started Johnny Vegas at 7 AM and now at 2 pm were one pitch up Solar Slab).

The party of 2's leader reached the bleay atop P1 of Sunflower, and, seeing a party ahead of them, decided to try the equally easy (but much more runout) Heliotrope. It took him about 15 min to set up his belay. We were in the sun still, but it was oddly cold. I was pretty much up the second's ass as she climbed up, and then the party of 2's leader launched into the cruxy runout traverse of Heliotrope, which, along with having to build a gear belay atop P1, must have taken him another hour.

When I arrived at the belay atop P1, their leader was still fiddling around and soon launched into the very runout crux pitch. His second was shivering and said she had no other clothes, so I gave her my shell as their leader hemmed and hawed. At this point I suggested to her (politely) that since they had 5 raps, darkness in 1.5 hours and no clothes, they should bail. The second suggested this to the leader, who said he wanted to keep going, but he traversed off right onto P3 of Sunflower, which has more gear. I got my jacket off his second and my partner and I finished Heliotrope. The sun hid behind mt Wilson and the wind picked up. High haze. Cold.

We traversed to the SS raps, hooked up with another party of 2, and as i reached the end of the 60m rap, looked over, and saw the leader of the party of 2 climbing. I pointed at the sun and my headlamp, not quite on, and the girl yelled over "we're gonna finish."

Two pairs of simulraps later we were back on the black-ledge of SS and there were the 3 glacial women, setting up their rap onto the terrace. At this point I asked them if they were simulrapping and heard a "no our junior member is not comfy with that" and with that the world's slowest rappels began. You could have poured ketchup down the rock quicker than these ladies slid down their ropes.

Above us in the wind and darkness, we saw two headlights, far far away, and finally we reached the SS terrace, where another 3-lady clusterf**k of tangled ropes and endlessly slow rapping awaited.

As the snails inched down their lines we saw the party of two, way above us, clearly penduluming around, looking for the stations. They finally found them but seemed to take forever to move down.

We finally got 60m down the descent gully after the snails, at which point the snails rappedthe wrong way and clusterf*#ked the rap station. Fed up, I slung a tree and we rapped past them into rain and snow and total darkness. My partner was shivering as he had given his jacket to one of the girls we were rapping with, and we knew we had to bust it quick to our gear or hypothermia would come our way.

Two of us dirted, scrambled for the bags, and within ten minutes the SS gully was a torrent-- I mean, a raging full on waterfall.

We heard faint cries of "help" from above and on walking a few meters away from the base saw two lights atop the SS terrace. They looked like they were heading for the JV raps.

The snow and wind got worse, so I called 911 and got the ball rolling. After 45 min on the phone the SAR guy said "not much we can do with this weather," and we booked it for our car. Looking back, we saw lights on JV and the 3 snails dirting in the SS gully.

The next day a chopper flew out, and picked up the party of 2 from the base of JV. They went straight to hospital with severe hypothermia (girl had a body temp of 81 degrees we were told) but both survived, thank God.


The party of 2 did the following which contributed to their near death

1) Not bringing wind and rainproof clothing and hats.

2) Attempting a new rap route, which was unknown to them, after dark.

3) Being over-ambitious/moving too slowly: given that the rap route and the route were new to them, and that the grade was daunting to them, they should have left themselves enough daylight to get off (which they could have-- they had 2 ropes and bailable-from belays)

4) Lacking any kind of emergency plan-- no cell phone, bivy sack, etc.

5) lacking speed in belay-building (or not planning their time around this). 15 min/belay x 3 pitch route = 45 min extra time...that's the diff between a rap in late afternoon, and a rope epic. if you ca't build a beay in 5 min, don't go multipitching.

6) Ego? Nothing wrong with running away. All our heroes have done it...and lived to climb more.

The party of 3 snails nearly got us all frozen. If I am again in the situation where somebody is holding me up, I will simply rap past them. When things get weather-nasty, your mission is MOVE FAST or get out of the way. If a beginner in your party doesn't like simulrapping, send somebody down first and fireman them down, but for God's sake move your butts!

Broadly, I would also warn folks that the rap route on SS is no guarantee of a fast descent...that it's easy just means gumbies will be on it, and the best-laid plans can be foiled by people who lack experience.

Anyway, thank God nobody died, and I hope we can learn from this story (again) that the mountain bats last.

Trad climber
Somewhere halfway over the rainbow
Mar 31, 2011 - 04:39pm PT
susan peplow

Mar 31, 2011 - 04:44pm PT
Seems like I've read this story before and sadly I fear I'll read it again all too soon. Glad you made it back safe and same to all other parties.

Today is a day to seek the shade, it's sunny and on the way to 90 degrees in J-Tree.


Trad climber
Sun Coast B.C.
Mar 31, 2011 - 04:53pm PT
WOW! Just another day in Vegas, eh?

Sounds like you were the most together dude out there. Good job.

Wydinthcha just EAT everyone in your path?

Not into l'escargot?

Mar 31, 2011 - 04:54pm PT
Gnarly. If they actually had a core temp of 81 degrees, though, they wouldn't be walking (let alone rapping), talking or shivering. They'd just be laying there.

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
Mar 31, 2011 - 05:06pm PT
wild! thank goodness nobody was killed.


Mountain climber
Mar 31, 2011 - 05:08pm PT
I've been in that gully, wow!
Poor choice of places to work on your multi-pitch technique. They need to go do laps on something else with a mellower consequence.

I wonder when does the more experienced and competent climber just up and say, "you need to get the hell off this route, now or you are going to be in bad shape"

I know as climbers we try to be chill and cool with each other, but if you see a situation unfolding that looks dire, would you speak up for the sake of others safety??

btw... good post and pretty spot on analysis.

Social climber
san joser
Mar 31, 2011 - 05:54pm PT
When I first climbed SS BITD, there were no rap anchors. You basically had to top out and descend the upper gully (included some raps). I wonder if the addition of rap anchors to SS has encouraged more novices since retreat is easier... or maybe the novices would just be leaving tons of gear trying to get down.

I recall coming down the upper gully in a rainstorm many years ago. our rope was super drenched and got hung up on some plates. I basically had to free solo sketch terrain to retrieve the rope. That could have easily been the end of me. But so could staying up there and freezing to death. We were the only ones in the canyon that day and cell phones only existed on Star trek.

At the very least, the experience described in the OP will be a good lesson in mountain time management for the folks affected. Thankfully no one died learning it!


Trad climber
New York, NY
Mar 31, 2011 - 07:08pm PT
Isn't having a rappelling epic in Solar Slab Gully a rite of passage for budding multi-pitch climbers these days? It certainly was for me a few years ago. It's where you learn how slow parties ahead of you + short days + long red rocks pitches + rapping through bushes + long approach = everything takes a lot longer than you think = rapping in the dark.

It sucks that these people chose a bad weather day to learn that lesson. Glad they ended up OK.

"The mountains bat last." Like it, and appropriate for Opening Day.
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
WA, & NC & Idaho
Mar 31, 2011 - 09:28pm PT
Thanks for the world class write up.

Glad they survived intact!
I use to be a gumby (and still have many gumby characteristics), so this is a good reminder!

Be careful y'all!

Gym climber
Mar 31, 2011 - 10:41pm PT
Well? Did they finish?

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Mar 31, 2011 - 10:47pm PT
I think people (including me) underestimate desert climbing. The coldest I've ever been on a climb was on a mid-March ascent of Black Orpheus. The temps were in the upper 40's to low 50's, the sun was out, but there were very high winds, and I was getting hypothermic by the time we topped out. I wasn't just climbing in a t-shirt either, but I didn't have enough clothing for that day.

Now, for long climbs in mid-march, I wear long underwear and carry a light insulated jacket. I've had to climb fully clothed in this outfit on numerous mid-March ascents.

I've also had the apparently obligatory rappelling epic coming down the Solar Slab raps---the story is in my trip report at

In our case no one slowed us down, we hung a rappel and by the time we retrieved it and reached the lower gully it was dark. Fortunately, there was no bad weather, but rapping that lower gully in the pitch black (over ground which in daylight I have downclimbed unroped) was an incredible pain and a little scary in one or two spots, since there was some danger of rapping past the anchors. I can imagine how nasty it would have been in a downpour.

Heliotrope has run-out 5.8 and I recall a belay that requires a gear anchor built from small cams, in a place where the leader can't get anything in for a while on the next pitch and so is facing a factor-2 fall onto that belay. This is not a place for climbers whose multipitch experience consists of clipping bolt anchors, which may be becoming a new "trad" norm...

Trad climber
Mar 31, 2011 - 11:45pm PT
I was caught in a torrential hailstorm-downpour on the middle of Eagle Dance in April. The skies that morning were completely bluebird. We had full cotton regalia / no synthetics at all. Completely idiotic on our part.

My partner had multiple Himalayan ascents on his resume (including Everest)... he said he was colder that afternoon / evening in Vegas then in his entire career.

We had 2 foot wide geysers pounding us during the raps, getting off the Lev-29 / Eagle Dance terrace was ghastly, and then we had a multi-hour waist deep slog back down the canyon through the raging now seemingly-Class IV rapids wash. The icing was the ticket secure in its baggie waiting on my windshield.

Don't underestimate RRs.

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Apr 1, 2011 - 01:20am PT
SS - trouble magnet.
SS raps - trouble funnel.

Trad climber
Topic Author's Reply - Apr 4, 2011 - 11:38am PT
The other thing I noticed was that when sh*t happens, it often happens when a bunch of small things go pear-shaped. Ok sometimes you take a whiopper, break a leg or whqatever, but often the little things add up into somethig nasty. Slow + cool + lack of experience + lack of jackets + weather change = near-death epic.
Greg Barnes

Apr 4, 2011 - 11:51am PT
4) Lacking any kind of emergency plan-- no cell phone, bivy sack, etc.

After 45 min on the phone the SAR guy said "not much we can do with this weather,"

Even after this kind of experience, "cell phone" is first on the emergency plan list...
Slabby D

Trad climber
B'ham WA
Apr 4, 2011 - 12:10pm PT
I had my own sort of mini-epic rapping down from Solar Slab years ago on a Thanksgiving Trip. Wrong gulley, weather crapping out, small waterfalls pouring down, darkness approaching. But it remains one of my best memories from 20 years of climbing. To recall it makes me mourn the passage of years and youth. Get out there and epic youngsters while you can!
The Guy

Trad climber
Portland, OR
Apr 4, 2011 - 01:58pm PT
So....did anybody retrieve a purple C4 from Johnny Vegas? Lost it there
1 1/2 months ago. Walked on me. Anybody...?

Trad climber
sacramento, ca
Apr 4, 2011 - 06:42pm PT
I had an epic rap experience on there last May. We ended up doing double raps w/ a nearby party of 3 from pitch 4 of SS. It started snowing and raining on us. Everyone had rain jackets, but we were still freezing. We moved fairly fast. It was my first time doing double raps but the party of 3 gave us great instruction on how we were going to do it quickly and safely.

Trad climber
Apr 4, 2011 - 06:55pm PT
Another normal spring break at good old Red Rocks.....

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