Learning from Rock fall close calls

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  • #3306 Reply


    Greetings All:

    Following the recent accident at WCH I have been reflecting on close calls I have had with rockfall, and what I have learnt (and need to re-learn from time to time)

    I would be really interested to hear other peoples experiences, perhaps together we can learn and hopefully prevent potential accidents.

    A few of experiences that really stick in my mind are as follows:

    1. Warrumbungles 1992: We were on the 13th pitch of a 15 pitch climb. I was belaying. My mate was 40m out. He stepped on a fridge sized loose block which fell directly towards me. I just managed to duck my head under a small ledge as the fridge flew by, tumbling through the air over the 300m drop. The block was close enough to my head for me to feel the air whistling by…

    2. Warrumbungles 1993: There were two groups of climbing on two different spires, about 2km appart (Crater Bluff and Belogoury Spire). I was leading Cornerstone Rib on Crater Bluff (200m high narrow rib of rock) nearing the top. Suddenly a frantic call (more like a scream) rang out from the group on the adjacent spire (Belogoury Spire) “rock rock rock rock”. Over on Belogourey the leader had somehow knocked out a chockstone that held up a car sized series of blocks.

    The second somehow managed to swing clear to the side as the blocks gained momentum. The rockfall triggered lots of smaller rockfalls down the route – from our view the entire 200m face of the spire was shrouded in rockfall dust – the sound was incredible.

    3. Mt Maroon 1997: while leading a mate knocked a 2kg rock from 30m above. I was belaying and managed to swat it away but damage my wrist (soft tissue injury only ).

    4. Frog Butress 1998 (?) A fellow pulled off a rock while topping out which rolled down and almost entirely severed his foot.

    5. El Cap 1996: We were on El Cap tower settling in to sleep (and starting to relax) after a long days climbing. Suddenly there was a sound like a freight train in a tunnel displacing air. A large rock flew by (perhaps 4m from the ledge?) and exploded 300m below.

    6. Dangars Falls 1991: We were jugging fixed lines checking out a new climb next to the waterfall, when the leader knocked off a large rock (perhaps 500kg). The rock fell 40m and struck the second critically injuring him.

    #3307 Reply

    Steve Irwin

    Strewth Glenny Boy!

    Remind me not to climb with you!

    #3308 Reply


    The lessons I have learned over the years for reducing the risks of injury from rockfall are:

    1. Don’t climb at the Warrumbungles.

    2. Be very, very careful and conscious of loose rock at all times when around a cliff-face and particularly watch the rope dislodging loose rock onto your second or climbers below.

    3. Always wear a helmet when exposed to rockfall (even pebbles hurt if they fall a short distance).

    4. When climbing, be suspicious of all blocks (no matter how big, how well travelled the route or how glued-in they seem to be).

    5. Make it a habit to test any block, flake or other loose rock that you are thinking of pulling on or climbing over by giving it a hard whack with the base of your hand while holding another part of it – if you can feel even slight movement, it’s loose so avoid it if possible.

    6. Never abseil off a loose block.

    7. Be particularly wary of rockfall when pulling an abseil rope, where the falling rope can dislodge loose rock near an edge.

    8. Don’t climb at the Warrumbungles.

    9. Don’t climb at the Warrumbungles.

    10. Don’t climb at the Warrumbungles.

    Chris McGrath

    #3309 Reply


    Holy Crap….

    This raises a question for me, I’m new to outdoor leading and am lucky enough that my Fiance is happy to hold the rope at the bottom, Now I’m worried that if I kick off a decent size rock that she’ll be tied in and unable to dodge it, If it was one of my climbing mates I wouldnt worry so much as the risk is accepted by those that climb, but I am somewhat attatched my Girly…. Any thoughts ???

    #3310 Reply

    Steve Irwin


    Don’t tie her down so that she has a chance to escape Mr “Loose Rock Falling Very Fast”.

    #3311 Reply


    Here’s a sample of my more memorable incidents and stories I’ve been retold.

    1. Standing at the base of a 7 pitch 220m route, no-one above us, sudden whistling sound and the trees around us take a pummelling, turns out some bloke has decided to rap in so he can solo the last 3 pitches with a static as back-up. no one hit or hurt.

    2. guy and shiela climbing in sanetsch, guy on lead decides that dropping the block block he’s inadvertantly dislodged on his shiela isn’t a good idea, defends her, breaks thumb in process and they merci dash to hospital.

    3. On lead, whistling sound as a bar fridge sized rock whistles past, no-one above us, got lucky.

    4. mountain guide friend, finishing a tour of the matterhorn pre-crossing a rock bomb alley decides to give the clients a pep talk “…must run through here”. the exhausted group does the “yeh, yeh” starts onward at a slow pace. guide stops his running, turns around and says “hey, i meant…HIDE YOURSELVES!” and a couple of seconds later a car sized boulder pounds ’em. not 1 injured or dead!

    5. mountain guide, done pretty much everything dangerous known to climbing decides to go hunting for mushrooms on a day off…gets nailed small rock.

    its partially luck of the draw.

    #3312 Reply


    Falling rock, great subject.

    Bluff Knoll is notorious for tourists throwing rocks from the summit above the main climbing face. A small rock whizzes past, coincidence? Another whizzes past (start yelling). And another (yell and curse louder).

    Wilyabrup; whilst leading my rope dislodged a fist sized piece of rock from underneath a small overhang. It dropped down and rolled to a stop beside one of the bare headed people sitting near the base of the climb. Lesson: keep people away from the base of climbs.

    And with regards anchoring the belayer; if the belayer is lighter than the lead climber it probably is a good idea to anchor in. I know of one experienced climber who was knocked out cold when the lead fell and she had her head rammed into the roof above. Luckily, she was using a grigri so the climber is still alive.

    Get the fiance to wear a helmet when she belays and as a lead climber try not to dislodge rocks. Some people are careful, others seem to be clumsy (or ignorant)and constantly knock down bits and pieces.

    Barnett Peak in the Stirlings is really bad for loose rock. Especially at the top of climbs. I’ve never seen so much choss raining down before or since and I would recommend you keep your hardhat on all the time there.


    #3313 Reply


    Thanks Folks,

    We always wear helmets, after reading this thread why wouldnt you ?? So far we havent tied in as static belay, Just been climbing Churchmans, But the first time we where there some guys on an abseil course kicked a grape fruit sized rock off the top and casually called “below”, I was more worried that if she’s on belay and has to move in a rush she’d have to undo the screw gate to move or pull me off the face while she ran out the way. Just wanted to know what the usual practice is to avoid this ??


    #3314 Reply


    I’m not compulsive about brain buckets but I always wear one when belaying at Churchman’s. There is so much loose choss on top!

    Rock fall – I nearly got wiped out on Coercion on Bluff Knoll when there was large rockfall. The whole area between this and Hell Fire Gully (NOTE THE NAME!!) is subject to rock throwing from the summit tourists. A helmet will not save you there unless it is so big that you can crawl into it.

    #3315 Reply


    Like all things in climbing helmets are a personal choice (would you want it any other way?)

    I try to wear one all the time these days, even though they wont save you from even modestly sized rocks.

    The is another reason to wear one – smashing your head in a fall. I once went for a 20m fall on a climb in the Wolgan valley, and inverted and smashed my head on the rock (actaully broke the helmet…).

    PS: In the dangars falls accident even the glacing blow of the rock was sufficent to cut the one leg loop of the harness from the body of the climber: no helmet could help you from a 500kg rock falling 40m.

    #3316 Reply


    I think rockfall generally goes with the territory and anyone who has climbed for long enough will have had at least one close call through no fault of their own. My personal favorites include

    1> Watching a good mate just climbing past a massive (2m+) stalagtite on Babes in Thailand, Tonsai beach.Only to then then have itbreak free under bridging pressure and spear into the sand past a very lucky belayer

    2>Belaying on the second pitch of a climb and having the leader knock a series of blocks on me. I dinner plate sized block collected me on the top of my unhelmeted head, breaking on my dreadlocks. Another Tv sized block grazed my shoulder drawing blood but no worse. Unbelievably no damage just a mild concussion

    3> Belaying at Twin Streams NZ and having the leader dislodge a small fridge sized block that was perched, dived under an overlap in time to watch it obliterate my previous belay stance.

    There are many more but i am getting near boring myself.

    #3317 Reply


    To tie in on belay or not to tie in, this is the question. With any falling object,the amount of time you have to react is merely seconds(on most Perth climbs). There would be no time to untie from a locking beener or even to unclip a quickdraw. So if you do need to be tied in, where do you choose? Somewhere with a bit of an overhang above. You’d be lucky to find this, and it would obscure your vision of the leader. Tie in well to the side of the line of the climb? Leaves more slack in the line should the leader fall, gear more likely to rip out(zipper effect-unless cams are placed to allow for sideways pull.

    Having only experienced rockfall the once, I have a question for those unluckier than myself. In your experience, did the dislodged rock always fall directly down and land at the very base of the climb? I always wondered if some rocks would strike something on the way down which would cause them to veer away.

    My one rockfall experience, was at the very start of a climb at Peak Charles. The leader had weighted a small ledge, and deciding it was good had stepped up to place gear only to have the entire thing crumble away. As there had been a massive fire right up to the edge of the rock not long before we were there, we thought perhaps the rock had been weakened by the heat and it just shattered. Although alot of rock came down, it was all small chunks, and it rolled rather than fell onto those of us below. No one had more than a couple of bruises.

    Did read an article in Rock magazine about a belay ledge breaking off on a multipitch climb. Luckily there were a few pieces of gear between the leader and belayer, so they both survived. Another good advertisment for never placing all your gear in the one crack/feature. Spread it out, above, below, to the sides if possible.

    #3318 Reply


    Hi Kath:

    In my experience it all happens too quickly to get out of the way, and you never know which way a rock will bounce (your perspective is poor looking up from below), but if you are not tied in (or tied in with a bit of room to move) you have some chance at least. You dont really have a choice on Multi-pitch climbs, you need to be tied in.

    In the dangars falls accident the bugger who was struck was tied in with no room to move, and let me assure you the day went from a fun outing to a life threatening situation in about 5 seconds, all because of a single bad decision.

    If rocks hit the wall on the way down they can bounce a long way – there was a bloke killed at the base of an open cut mine last year, the small rock bounced down a 100m long slope (70 degrees) into the cab of the toyota; there was no damage to the car.

    I havent unintentionally pulled a block off myself for about 8 years (touch wood…) and I think the reason is careful climbing and being very selective whom I climb with (using the rules Chris outlined in his notes above).

    When belaying, if I think there could be loose rock (I rely on the leader to warn me) I try to belay under a ledge, even if I cant see the leader.

    If there is nowhere to hide and the chance of pulling a block is high I rely on the leader to back down, climb around or rap off and make a good call not to pull on the block (there is no shame in rapping off a route).

    If a route is known to have bad rock I sometimes wont climb it (ie in Yosemite last year Chris and I elected not to finsh the Central Pillar of Frenzy because we didnt like the rock – we rapped off ).

    When rapping down a route fixing rope we try to fix rebelays in “free hanging” situations and knock rocks off (or rebelay around) which could be dislodged when ascending.

    #3319 Reply


    Yeah, (i) leave enough slack between you and belay point so you can move around and (ii) avoid having leader climb directly above belayer’s head. The extreme case was when I was in Peru on Alpamayo (snow/ice) where the leader fell on top of his belayer and put a crampon through belayer’s scull, killing him. Nasty, eh?

    Also, even large solid flakes that people have been yanking on for decades come off eventually, plenty of stories in Yosemite – so even though the Central Pilar of Frenzy (nice climb with greazy start 1st pitch) Glenn refers to is a well beaten trade route, he is totally right not to rely on previous cleaning.

    Main thing is to use the head. Better a live turkey than a dead eagle, eh?

    #3320 Reply



    Having kept on eye on this thread my partner and I came up with the same solution basically, I put a piece in at ground level and start the rope running through this (we where taught this on the lead climbing course with AO) this helps to direct the pull downward apparently, I then set my partner up to belay with about 6-8 foot of rope between her and the first piece, She doesnt belay directly under the path, It gives her more choices to move and apparently is easier on her neck. I try my hardest not to drop any loose rocks on her (although dropped a Krab last week)


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