A improperly rigged ATC belay device likely caused the 300-foot fall that killed a New York professor who was descending a popular route on Storm Point last week.
Grand Teton National Park climbing rangers have not finished their investigative report into the death of Marco Dees, and say they’ll never know with 100 percent certainty what happened. But signs point toward Dees having made a rappelling mistake familiar to many seasoned climbers, but one that they were able to detect before there were catastrophic consequences.
“We think that he accidentally only clipped one of the strands through the device into his carabiner, and didn’t notice it until he leaned back,” said Jenny Lake climbing ranger Ryan Schuster, who was the “on-scene” investigator for the accident.
The result would have been that the loose strand of rope pulled out of belay device and through the anchor, causing Dees to freefall and take the rappelling rope with him.
This type of rigging mistake, Schuster said, is elementary, but at the same time is the type of thing that could happen to anyone.
“Standing around the rescue cache with a bunch of other climbing rangers, this gave us the shivers,” Schuster said, “because we’ve all made the same mistake or came close to making the same mistake before, but were lucky enough to able to catch it before we leaned back or we leaned back and were in a spot that wasn’t consequential to us.”
Dees, 33, was climbing with a partner, Grace Mooney, who was stranded while clipped to the anchor, but without a rope after the fall. The pair were using a single 70-meter rope, instead of the more customary double 60-meter ropes for the route, and as a result were not at a standard rappel station on the Guides Wall. They had already completed the first rappel down the wall.
Mooney, who was a less experienced climber, was able to successfully descend 30 feet to a narrow cliff band using her lanyard and gear she had with her. Around 9:30 p.m., her yells for help caught the attention of hikers who were headed out of Cascade Canyon, and they in turn notified authorities.
Rangers soon headed in her direction, but it wasn’t until early the next morning that they were able to make verbal contact. A cascade in the area made it difficult for the rangers to hear the stranded Mooney, who said she was safe and able to spend the night, but did not communicate her climbing partner’s fall.
“She never conveyed that to anybody until the next morning, when the guides actually climbed up to her,” Schuster said.
Climbing rangers had her safe and down from the wall shortly.
Mooney was unable to be reached for an interview, but she told her hometown Madison, Wisconsin, paper that she planned to return to Grand Teton National Park this week to climb in remembrance of Dees.
“I want to go back up,” Mooney told the Wisconsin State Journal. “And spend some time just thinking about Marco.”
Dees, 33, was a professor of philosophy at New York’s Vassar College.
His fatal accident, Schuster said, is a reminder that the simplest of climbing mistakes can happen to anybody.
“It’s not the type of mistake that anybody’s above,” he said. “This guy was experienced. He’s probably has done hundreds and hundreds of rappels in the eight years he’s been climbing, and he just probably didn’t notice it.”