No contamination on Skinner’s harness
By Angus M Thuermer Jr.
September 15, 2007
An investigation of the climbing harness that failed and sent Lander, Wyo. climber Todd Skinner plunging to his death in Yosemite National Park last October found no signs of contamination that might have weakened the safety webbing.
The report by Yosemite ranger M. Faherty has been awaited by climbers worldwide who were stunned by the death of Skinner, a well-known pioneer, and the unusual failure of his safety gear. The Jackson Hole News&Guide obtained a copy of the report Friday through the Freedom of Information Act.
Climbers know that a critical part of the nylon webbing harness, a belay loop, broke and caused Skinner, 47, to fall 800 feet from the overhanging wall of Leaning Tower. At the time of his death, Skinner was descending the face after a day of climbing, sliding down a rope using a friction device linked to the belay loop.
Climbers also know that Skinner’s harness was worn, that his climbing partner, James Hewitt, commented on its poor condition, and that Skinner agreed the harness needed replacing.
Skinner was wearing an Arc’Teryx Targa harness. Tests of new belay loops similar to the one on Skinner’s harness, which were conducted by another climbing equipment manufacturer, showed them to be strong enough to hold body weight, even when cut most of the way through.
Climbers wondered whether Skinner’s harness might have been contaminated and weakened by a foreign substance. The Park Service report found no evidence of that.
Faherty wrote in his investigation that he sent the torn belay loop to Rhodia/Nexis Fibers in Switzerland for a chemical analysis. “On 06/15/07, I was notified by Rhodia representative Elman Ernst that ‘apart from the residues of the original spin-finish, no substances could be extracted from [the] analysed part of the loop’. ...” the report says
Also, Faherty’s report discounts the possibility that animals may have gnawed on the harness when it was cached. Skinner left his harness overnight at the base of the climb, stored in a bag. “There was no sign of tampering by animals or people,” Faherty wrote.
The report comes to no conclusion as to why the belay loop broke. Faherty makes several observations, however, that could lead climbers to a conclusion.
Skinner’s partner reiterated in interviews with rangers that he observed the loop “had been about 20 percent worn through three days prior,” to the accident. Faherty wrote that he, too, “also observed that the harness was extremely frayed and worn where the belay loop should run through the ‘swami belt’ and the leg loops.”
“The belay loop appeared worn near where it was torn,” Faherty wrote. “The actual torn section appeared frayed. I could see no fusing of Nylon fibers suggestive of a shock load...”
Faherty also found a sling girth-hitched to the broken belay loop, which Hewitt believed had been in place for some time and prevented the belay loop from rotating and absorbing wear evenly. “Also broken was the keeper strap on the leg loops,” ranger Faherty wrote. Loss of the keeper strap would free the leg loops to saw against belay loop, often in the same spot, given Skinner’s harness set-up.
Those observations support climber Will Gadd’s theory, published in a recent issue of Men's Journal magazine, that the sawing leg loops contributed to the belay loop’s failure.