May 4, 2005: Jim Ratz, co-owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and former executive director of the National Outdoor Leadership Institute, rappels off the end of his rope while scouting a route in Sinks Canyon near Lander.
July 23, 2016: Gary Falk, an accomplished mountain guide, falls 2,400 feet after a knot fails while he attempts to free a stuck belay device on the Grand Teton.
July 23, 2018: On the Guides’ Wall in Cascade Canyon, Marco Dees, an experienced climber, falls from a belay station. Investigators believe he clipped into only one strand of his rope and weighted it, pulling the rope and stranding his climbing partner.
Though the circumstances and the exact cause of each death differs, the scenarios are connected by one important detail: Each man died after making a mistake while descending a climb.
Competent rappelling is an integral skill; mistakes made while descending can have dire consequences, even on single-pitch routes. With that in mind, Brenton Reagan led a group of climbers Thursday at the Teton Boulder Park through techniques designed to keep them safe while rappelling.
The clinic sponsored by Exum Mountain Guides, Arc’teryx and Teton Mountaineering reviewed three main things: extending a belay device, tying an autoblock backup knot and pre-rigging at a rappel station. The clinic, Reagan’s brainchild, is part of a series that will continue all summer.
“It came from the idea of ‘How can I get the safety and technical skills to the community, to people that need them most?’” he said.
Several dozen people assembled at the boulder park at the foot of Snow King Mountain, some carrying the tattered rope bags and chalky pants that denote experience and others sporting slippery Dyneema slings and stiff new ropes. They watched as Reagan demonstrated extending the device, which requires clipping it to a tether hooked to the climbing harness to move it away from the belay loop. Then he used a hollow block loop to tie an autoblock, a friction knot that loops around the rope below the device and clips into a carabiner on the belay loop.
The autoblock would, in the case of a rappel device failure, stop the climber from falling. Once Reagan had done that, he invited someone else to set up a rappel above him on the rope and clip into the anchor, a technique known as pre-rigging that gives the initial rappeller a second set of eyes on the gear.
These are all fairly simple skills that climbers should use almost, if not every, time they go out.
“I tried to use the 80-20 rule when deciding what things to teach for these clinics,” Reagan said.
The 80-20 rule, or Pareto’s Principle, comes from 19th-century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. That idea has been translated to many fields, and in climbing it simply indicates that you use 20% of your skills 80% of the time.
Basic skills, like anchor tying or rappel backups, are things climbers use a lot, while higher-level techniques like rope ascension or rigging systems for big-wall climbs are used occasionally. In planning the clinic and those to follow, Reagan focused on the things climbers need to understand the most, and those that would be teachable in a short clinic, rather than a complicated maneuver like a belay escape.
“That’s a really hard clinic. You’d need at least six hours,” he said of belay escapes. “I’d hesitate to teach those in a day.”
For the rest of the summer Reagan, who is an athlete ambassador for Arc’teryx and in charge of developing community events like this, wants to repeat the rappelling clinic (which shows how important he thinks this skill is) and teach some other introductory rescue techniques used mostly in multipitch climbing and mountaineering.
The next, slated for June 13, is how to set up an autolocking top belay, as one would do at the top of a pitch, and how to release the belay without dropping the climber, a crucial skill if a climber falls on an overhanging route or is knocked unconscious.
“If you don’t do it right you can open the dam,” Reagan said. “And once the river starts flowing you can’t turn it off.”
The clinic will also show how to set up a 3:1 pulley to raise a climber who is injured or has reached a section he can’t climb. Reagan wants to keep the other couple of clinics loose, both in schedule and content. Details will be posted to the Exum Mountain Guides Facebook page about 10 days to two weeks before each clinic.
Reagan said climbers have information sources other than giving up a sunny Teton evening, but he finds value in gathering like-minded people.
“Most of the skills you could find a video online, but I don’t learn that way,” he said. “I always think there’s a strong presence of learning together and shaking hands and meeting people.”