The Quick Way Down

The Quick Way Down – This article is intended purely as something to learn from and not to point fingers at anyone, which is why I have left out names of some of the people involved.

The day began at the Inner Wall of the Canyon in Kloof Gorge and in typical KZN early start fashion; we arrived at the crag at around 12:30pm.  Our group for the day consisted of me (Dylan Williams), Michael van der Ham and two younger climbers from a nearby school.  Michael and I had taken the young guys out as part of an initiative to get some of the keen local young climbers out and climbing on some harder routes on rock.  The day started off really well, with the younger guys going off to climb a 24 at the new sector of the wall which had recently been reopened.

While they were busy on the other side of the crag, Michael and I got started on our project for the day which was the Phantom of the Opera.  This sport route has long been considered one of the best lines in the Gorge and had been in our sights for a while.  After doing some stretches on the ground I started up the route, just going bolt to bolt, getting the draws on and familiarizing myself with the moves.  Things went very well and I came down sure that the route was going to go down in the next couple of months at least.  After I placed the draws Michael also had a go to solidify his beta and investigate camera angles to see if we could film the route.  Once we were both down I opted to take a long rest before going for a red-point burn.  By this time the younger guys were finishing up at the new sector and one of them had managed to get their route on his second attempt which was pretty great.

Belay accident rock climbing

Photo by Michael Van Der Ham


After a 30 minute break I decided that I was ready to give the route a red-point attempt and kitted up.  It was decided that Michael was going to ascend the scramble (which is conveniently right next to the route) and do some filming while I climbed.  This meant that one of the younger guys would have to belay me.  Although I had never before climbed with the guy who belayed me on that attempt, I assumed that since he had been belaying his friend on the other side of the crag, he was a decent belayer.  I started up the route and made a fairly good link through the thin and technical first crux and into the start of the second crux where I took a small fall which was held by the belayer.
I decided that from this point on I would just go bolt to bolt again and try to link small sections together to further refine my beta.  As I was nearing the top of the climb (around the second last draw) I had done a reasonably long link from the draw below and was starting to get tired.  With my waist about 40cm above the bolt, I stepped off the rock and simply did not stop falling until I hit the deck about 12-15m below (not sure of the exact height).

Belay accident rock climbing

Photo by Michael Van Der Ham


Due to a lapse in concentration, my belayer had allowed the rope to slip through his hand(s) and flow freely through the device he was using (which was an ATC).  To his credit, he did slow me down before my landing, but in the end I still decked.  Immediately after I decked there were a few seconds where I was too shocked to really process anything, but after that things got very real, very quickly.

I had landed in a bush at the base of the route and sort of rolled onto the path below that leads to the other wall.  I made sure I was lying on my back and got the young guy who was not belaying to untie the rope from my harness and take off my climbing shoes.  My lower back was in quite a lot of pain and something was definitely very wrong with my right wrist.  I had never done a first aid course or anything of the sort but I knew that when your back is involved, it is best not to move at all and with this in mind I told Michael to call Scott Sinclair, who then alerted the rest of the mountain rescue team.  What followed was an epic 3 hour rescue mission by the awesome people of Mountain Rescue for which I am incredibly thankful.

Belay accident rock climbing

Photo by Michael Van Der Ham


They strapped my wrist and got me on a stretcher before hauling my ass up a terrible 20m bushy and dusty rock face.  They then helped carry all 70kg of me up the path and out of canyon which, as those of you who have climbed at the area will know, is no joke.  After I got to the hospital they took about two days to fully check out my back with a CT scan and many x-rays before finally discharging me.  I went back for a checkup the following week and unfortunately, after a new set of x-rays, it was determined that I would have to go into surgery to have a screw put into my wrist which had apparently been fractured during the fall.

In the end I was very lucky to get off with the comparatively minor injuries I sustained and although it could have been a lot worse, I think it is important that people focus on learning from this incident.
This incident was due to negligence and possibly also a lack of experience and I will definitely be more wary in the future when choosing belayers.  It is never a good idea to assume that everyone who you go climbing with is a safe belayer and this is definitely something that I had taken for granted.

For those people who are interested the belayer was using an ATC and a fairly new 10mm Mammut 60m rope and I fell from approximately 40cm above the bolt.

Once again:  This article is intended purely as something to learn from and not to point fingers at anyone.

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The quick way down belay accident

11 Responses to The Quick Way Down

  1. ScottS Mar 3, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Wow – that’s a pretty scary photo sequence!

    Thanks for posting your account of events Dylan.

  2. Evan Margetts Mar 3, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Glad you are okay dude! Besides what happened I really enjoyed the read as it was well written 🙂 hope the wrists gets better soon so you can send phantom!

  3. Richard Mar 3, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    Eish Dylan, glad you are mostly okay.

    Despite some sketchy stuff on snow, ice, remote trad areas etc, the closest call I have had was also on a sport crag.

    In my case I had a very EXPERINCED belayer and the rope was clipped ABOVE me. However when the rest jug unexpectedly snapped, I fell about 25m, passing 11 draws and stopped just above the ground. Same story – rope flew through the ATC. It wasn’t even a skinny rope.

    Suffice to say when the belayer did eventually grab the rope it made quite a bloody mess of the fingers involved. And for that I am grateful, otherwise I may not be climbing today.

    The reason I have added my story is that it is not just inexperience in belaying that can lead to this type of situation. A climber can fall at any time for any reason – and if you are on the other end of the rope you need to be ready.

  4. Rob Mar 3, 2014 at 5:03 pm #

    I agree with Richard.

    Experience means nothing. All it takes is one moment of non-focus. These things happen quickly. Assumptions also cause accidents. Don’t ‘think’ your rope is long enough. Tie a knot in the end of it – every time. A 10mm rope in an ATC is more than capable enough to catch a huge fall. Don’t “assume” someone you’ve not climbed with before will have your back in a fall.

    I think the number one problem is that people are not trained properly. Anyone can just head out and buy a rope and some gear. Who trains these people? In the case of the guys above, clearly, there was lack of proper training on all levels. How someone can so easily place their life in the hands of someone else without knowing their ability is irresponsible.

    All of this just smacks of today’s obsession with the self to be honest. People are so obsessed with filming themselves that they are willing to place themselves at risk.

  5. David Mar 3, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    That’s a rather harsh comment Rob.

    I love watching local climbing videos and in fact my all time favorite and most inspiring climbing movie is local – AKA “No strings attached” – soloing 31! What a legend!

    The local video of Nadine Methner sending Snapdragon ( inspired me to try the route, which has been my favorite line up until last year when I became obsessed with Beast.

    Keep the local videos rolling!

  6. Rob Mar 4, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    I’m not saying I have a problem with climbing films. That Snapdragon film was made by Gustav, filmed by him on the side. Nadine didn’t ditch her belayer for some kid she’s never climbed with before to make that film. That’s what i find crazy about the above situation. People need to be more careful about who holds their life in their hands.

  7. Dave Harding Mar 4, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    I agree with Rob a little, I’ve noticed the change in attitude towards climbing since I started (2004) and today – there’s a much smaller amount of interest in the initial teaching of skills such as basic safety and belaying and so forth from what I’ve experienced lately. I’ve seen a few kids that have been climbing for a year, solidly, but I still wouldn’t let them belay me on a slab 6a.

    I think its a good point that Dylan didn’t point fingers though, big respect to him as the poor kid is probably under enough pressure knowing he almost killed someone.

    Most important thing we can take from this is that we need to get back to the days of teaching and testing new climbers with regards to general safety (I remember having to pass a belay and spotting test in school).

    Wishing you a speedy recovery Dyl.

  8. gregb Mar 4, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    very glad you are ok, Dylan.

  9. Warren Gans Mar 6, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    This means in one month 2 Thomas More College old boys were rescued! Gerald has clearly rubbed off on us 🙂

    I know the rescue team writes reports on their rescues, but it would be good to document them with near misses, and the lessons learnt from each. I suppose the lessons from the above story require a touch more info that perhaps no one really can know: what the belay distracted; were they more used to a Grigri….

    Glad you’re OK man!

  10. Snort Mar 8, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    Hi Dylan,

    First up all is well that ends well and you are indeed fortunate to get away with relatively minor injuries. However, a lot of people know or would get to know who belayed you. Your choice of words is in my view very unfortunate in that you say that you do not wish to point fingers. However, the word “negligence” is one of the most loaded and accusatory words in the English language. What happened was a mistake and it happens a lot around the world. I have been party to that mistake personally after more than 30 years climbing. Slippery ropes are problematic and there is plenty of debate on that score.

    I can assure you this kind of mistake can happen to anyone no matter your experience or diligence. Belaying is a dynamic process that requires first unlocking a friction device and feeding out of rope and if this action is not quickly reversed when a person falls, accidents happen. It is not instinctive as in using the clutch of a car as people do not fall off often enough for it become instinctive. I try to make a point as scary as it is to fall every time I sport climb to get my belayer practiced. But of course that is in itself risky as the more you fall the more chance you have of being dropped.

    Do not be too surprised if you drop someone one day. I have been dropped several times (fortunately no serious injuries) and then I did it too.

    All the best in climbing…….

  11. Inky Daly Mar 11, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    Hi Dylan, I don’t know you but was out climbing and with a climber who helped co ordinated your rescue when you fell and so felt a part of your experience. I was also particularly concerned because I have also been dropped, hit the ground and dealt with a fractured skull and broken lower lumber vertebra. I was out of the sport for a year, but still believe it to be the best and most vital physical experience. My belayer was vastly experienced, I love him dearly and although we seldom see each other, I will always consider him one of my best friends who I would face any challenge with. My comment is to say thank you for sharing your experience, we all need to renew our awareness of the reality that climbing comes with risks and we all need to be very conscious of each role we play – both as climber and belayer. Sometimes a sequence of events presents itself (as it did in my case), sometimes people are just negligent, but if we respect our selves and our partners and keep arrogance and ignorance as far out of the picture as possible, we will all be better off. So glad you are okay, and so now you know, some stranger far away really worried about you!!!!!

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