Julia Chen Accident Report

During the month of June, Julia Chen passed away from injuries sustained during an abseil accident.

This written account is my summation of two individual reports that I was given about Julia’s accident.  It should NOT be treated as an official report or to be considered in any way an accurate account of what happened.

Julia was at Paarl Rock to work on a relatively new sport climbing project with a friend (the route was unopened).
Julia opted to put up a top rope on the project that she was working.  The norm for putting up a rope on a project is to go ground up, however I do not know the circumstances/condition of the route and assume that she following best practice given the circumstances.

Events that led up to the accident:
Julia and partner had scrambled up the side, approximately 60 meters off the deck to a set of abseil anchors.
They secured a single rope to the abseil anchors (that is to say that there was one single rope reaching the ground). A knot in the end of the rope would have made no difference to any outcomes (the rope touched the ground). Diameter of the rope used is unknown to me.
The thinner the rope, the less friction caused and therefore (potentially) more difficult to control (vs a thicker rope, giving more friction).

Julia threaded the single rope into a bug (belay/abseil) device (the exact type of device is unknown to me).
Julia then proceeded to abseil down +- 30 meters, at which point she needed to swing over a couple of meters to the one side in order to reach the top anchors of her project.
The partner above no longer had eyes on Julia, but was watching the rope slide across as Julia moved/swung across toward the top anchors of the project route.
Shortly there after, the rope suddenly skidded across the rock to its centre/vertical position (i.e. directly below the top anchors above her).
The rope remained taught and then went slightly slack (i.e. not fully weighted).
The partner tried to communicate to Julia by voice, but did not get any response.
The partner then scrambled back down to the base where he found Julia.  Upon examination the partner observed that Julia had sustained a head injury/injuries and her hands had rope burns on them.
The pair then walked out to the car and proceded to a hospital.
Julia died the following day at the hospital.  My assumption is that she passed on from injuries that she sustained to her head).

Guessing game of what happened:
Julia had abseiled down from the top approximately 30 meters (half way down the rope – assuming the rope was 60 meters and touched the ground).
She then swung across to the anchors of the top of our route/project.

At this point many different scenarios can contemplated:

At some point she lost control of her abseil.  She could have removed her hand(s) from the rope (perhaps to grab onto the top anchors of the project or onto a grip or vegetation!?) or perhaps she lost her balance.
She was then pulled back to the centre ‘drop line’ of the rope (i.e. above the ropes anchors).
From the burns on her hands, she obviously tried to regain control of her descent and may have even have slowed herself down. It is not known if she grabbed above or below the bug (or both).
With no or very little control of her descent, she would have almost free fell to the ground.
Did she sustain head injuries at the top (after the swing at the 2nd set of abseil anchors during the swing back to centre), or when she came into contact with the base (or perhaps both!?)?  In my opinion, she would have knocked her head upon impact at the bottom.

In hindsight:
More friction on the rope.  Two ropes threaded through the abseil device would have made it much more easy for Julia to have regained control of her descent (due to the two ropes creating more friction and causing a slower rate of descent through the abseil device).  Thicker ropes would also have made created more friction.
A Prusik/Prussic knot, shunt or any other recommended method to safe guard an abseil.  Any of these would most likely have prevented her fast and (ultimately) fatal descent.
A helmet.  A helmet would certainly have taken the brunt of any impact and possibly have saved her.

It’s been somewhat conflicting for me to write about someones demise and critic it. Less someone you knew, liked and respected. It is my opinion that Julia would want others to learn from her what happened to her.

Julia, we will miss you and remember you.

See also:

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11 Responses to Julia Chen Accident Report

  1. Warren Gans Jul 17, 2017 at 9:37 am #

    Thanks for the write up, good to understand in greater detail what happened. I frequently come across climbers not using a prussik etc for abseiling, typically the argument is they feel it is unnecessary, lets hope this is a lesson to all of us.

    I apologies if this sounds in sensitive, but I don’t think the helmet is a meaningful point here: yes, we should be wearing helmets, but she would still have fallen if she was wearing one-wearing a seat belt does not entitle a driver to run a red robot.

    • Justin Lawson Jul 17, 2017 at 10:36 am #

      Warren, I completely disagree. A helmet would have helped a lot and can stop someone falling.
      Like wearing a seatbelt, wearing a helmet is a good idea.

      You are operating off to the side of on an abseil (where there is potential for a swing). You lose you balance and take a hard swing to the side, bang your head (no helmet) and momentarily become concussed. During this time you lose your grip on the rope…

      Objects falling from above onto a person (new projects often have loose debris in the area).

      As opposed to:

      You lose you balance and take a hard swing to the side, bang your head (wearing a helmet) avoid a concussion. You continue with your abseil.

      • Warren Gans Jul 31, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

        Please don’t get me wrong here, I am not arguing against wearing a helmet (wearing one should go without saying, esp in an exploratory situation such as Julia’s), however I maintain that for me personally the key take-away I gain from Julia’s incident is the use of a prussik or some other kind of assisted breaking device when abseiling. I was trying to illustrate above that prevention is better than cure, and the prevention here is this abseiling assistance, not the cure of wearing a helmet.

        The use of an assisted abseiling technique would make a fundamental difference to the example you raise above, and while I don’t want to get to much into this example I would argue that the backup on the abseil in your example would have a much more life saving role than wearing a helmet- you get a concussion and let go, and you just hang there. Thank you, our example supports my point.

  2. mike Jul 17, 2017 at 10:50 am #

    Agreed, no helmets and climbing for some reason got accepted by the community. You’ll never see someone on an MTB without a helmet, and if they are the community calls it out. A helmet should be the first line of protecting your head. Prussiks have become so important too now that ropes are so skinny. In the old days ropes were fat, and one needed to ‘feed’ rope through the devices. Today the ropes fly through and gain any momentum and things become unstoppable.
    I’m so so sorry to hear of this young lady’s tragic death. Life is fleeting and fragile. My utmost condolences to her family and loved ones.

  3. WillemB Jul 17, 2017 at 11:29 am #

    a very tragic incident and we all miss julia……. i think we cannot overstate how important basic safety procedures are; and if we do not go along with it there should be good reason as to why not. in this instance a prussik would have meant no accident and helmet would have greatly increased her chances of survival.

  4. Andrew Blanche Jul 17, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

    Its very sad when this happens, but it would be even more sad if it happens again because we did not examine it and learn from it. My condolences to her family and friends.

  5. Snort Jul 18, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

    Thanks for the write up and I think your analysis is spot on given the info. There are many factors that you can consider with regard to safety and conventional ones include helmets, knots in the rope and prussiks. However what is so critical in all moving systems wrt belaying and abseil is friction and locking devices. The grigri is the gold standard of yesteryear. There are a host of devices on the market that provide better friction that standard ATC’s and Bugs. The TRE was pretty good, BD has just brought out the Autopilot but the idiot proof device is the Edelrid Joule. There are lots of others including The Click-up and so on and of course the shunt. I strongly recommend getting used to the Joule……It can be used as a normal ATC mode as well. But the locking mode is really idiot proof if you don’t have a prussik.

    I also commend Justin in being so bold to do this write up. And yes I agree that it is not only necessary but mandatory. If I make a mistake lethal or not I want people to know about it and learn from it. I am 58 years old and luckily survived very many NDE’s. Julia was very young indeed to be so unlucky.

  6. Donovan Jul 30, 2017 at 5:50 pm #

    This report seems accurate. Tie a knot doing pendulums or use a Grigri.

    • Justin Lawson Jul 31, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

      From a safety perspective, the same/similar outcome can occur using a Grigri.

  7. Donovan Jul 31, 2017 at 9:59 pm #

    I agree with that. If the person panics and grabs it.

  8. Donovan Jul 31, 2017 at 10:14 pm #

    Last but not least. Knots at the end of the rope.

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