High Over Boulder…and Stuck: Rescue on the Seal Rock Rappel

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Photo and Article Contributed by: Eileen Monyok

Author’s Note:
I don’t often contribute stories for the Compass. But when Basic Rock School (BRS) Director Rick Casey asked me if I would share my rescue story of helping a woman stranded in the middle of the Seal Rock rappel with a stuck rope, I agreed.

This rescue took place during our Spring BRS graduation climb. Being able to help this woman (non-CMC member) and her boyfriend made me proud of the skills that BRS teaches. It also made me grateful that I had once taken BRS and was now instructing, which gave me the opportunity to learn and refine these skills.

Last, I’d like to extend a special acknowledgement to the three graduating BRS students – Jon Campbell, Erica Colegrove, and Anne Park – who waited with patience and good sportsmanship at the top of a very windy Seal Rock rappel while the rescue was taking place. Also, lead assistant instructor, Mark Thomas, who was the last person to finally rappel down, deserves honorable mention for his clear thinking and good management of the situation from the top.

The day of our Seal Rock graduation climb started as a pretty typical graduation climb, although with two instructors and 3 students divided into two climbing lines, we thought we would move pretty quickly. At the elbow of Seal Rock, we hit a bit of a snag. The Denver CMC Group’s BRS was also climbing Seal Rock that day, although their trip had not been posted in the trip schedule. We waited patiently for this group to climb. Fortunately, we were anchored at a comfortable ledge. This delay later proved to play a critical part in the timing of the rescue.

After our BRS group enjoyed the summit of Seal Rock, I downclimbed to the rappel area to set up an anchor for our group. There was a couple at the rappel station, ahead of our group, who were just throwing their ropes for the rappel. I had noticed this couple earlier, as they were climbing the East Face South Side route on Seal Rock. The members of our BRS group continued to downclimb, one at a time, from the summit to the rappel area.

Seal Rock Rappel

At one point, the boyfriend of the couple, Jim and Sara (not their real names), said to me, “I think one of our ropes is stuck, and Sara can’t go down any further. Do you think that you could rap down and clear the rope? It should be easy to clear. I think it’s stuck in a tree just a few feet from Sara.”

Sara had rappelled part of the way down, but she hadn’t been moving for a while. It appeared she was not able to clear the stuck rope on her own. Jim said that he and Sara were sport climbers who were just starting to get involved in trad climbing. Jim mentioned they had just been talking about learning how to ascend a rope, but they hadn’t done so yet. So now Sara had no way of getting back up her rappel ropes.

I felt great empathy for Sara hanging in the middle of the Seal Rock rappel, being unable to move. She also had no good way to communicate with anyone because of the distance between her and the top rappel station. For readers who are not familiar with the Seal Rock rappel, it is a 165 foot rappel, on which a good part of it, you are hanging in free air below an overhang. It is one of the most airy and exciting rappels in the Flatirons, and it is not a rappel on which you would want to be stuck.

I was able to thread our rappel ropes through 2 of the smaller chain links that made up the rappel anchor. I started to rappel down toward Sara, assuming I was just going to be clearing a stuck rope from a tree. As I rappelled lower, I could now see that one of Sara’s rappel ropes was stuck in a tree ~50 feet horizontally east from her, in the free hanging section of the rappel. There was no way I was going to be able to get over to that tree to free her rope. Even if I got close to defying gravity to get part way over to the tree, I would likely pendulum back and crash into Sara.

I rappelled down to where Sara was stuck. Sara was surprisingly calm for having been hanging in the middle of the Seal Rock rappel for at least 30 minutes — the time it took Jim to realize that she was stuck and for us to start the work toward setting up the second rappel ropes.

My first thought when I reached Sara was, darn, why hadn’t I memorized and practiced the skills from the Rocky Mountain Rescue session I had attended over a year ago? In this session, they taught how to transfer someone to your rappel ropes. That would have been the super hero way to do the rescue. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite prepared to try to piece together what I could remember from the session while in the middle of the 165 foot Seal Rock rappel.

The safest option, I realized, was to teach Sara how to prusik. Sara could then prusik up her rappel ropes to the top, and then rappel down on our ropes. With some guidance, Sara may have been able to get her weight on prusiks to unweight her rappel device, and then transfer her rappel device to our ropes. But, I would have first had to rappel to the ground to unweight our rappel ropes. This would leave Sara trying a new and potentially dangerous transfer without any assistance, and in the middle of the airy Seal Rock rappel.

Sara had 2 extra locking carabiners and a few regular carabiners, but nothing else. I talked to Sara about prusiking up her rappel ropes to the top, to then be able to rappel down our ropes. She looked all the way up to the top, and she gave me an “are you crazy” look. Yes, there’s nothing like learning how to prusik for your very first time on the Seal Rock rappel!

Meanwhile, I looked down at the ground 2 or 3 times to make absolutely sure that my rappel ropes were both touching the ground and had absolutely no possibility of getting stuck in anything, considering the high winds. I was about to give my prusik cords to Sara, which gave me an eerie and vulnerable feeling.

I tied my waist and foot prusiks on Sara’s rappel ropes and started teaching Sara how to prusik. In her adrenaline-filled state, Sara caught on very quickly. I tried to teach the tying of the safety back up knot that you periodically tie and clip to another locking carabiner, but this began to become a nuisance and a hindrance to Sara who wanted to quickly get out of her stuck situation. So I finally said don’t worry about tying the back up knots. The prusik knots were holding well.

I rappelled down to the ground and watched as Sara was making good progress prusiking up her rappel ropes. I tried to radio up to the rest of our BRS group on top what was happening, but there was no response. A little later they radioed down that Jim, Sara’s boyfriend, was going to rappel down to help Sara. The button on the top radio had unknowingly gotten stuck in the pressed state, but now that they had pressed the button to free it, we could communicate again. I wasn’t sure what Jim was going to be able to do as he rappelled down, but it seemed like his emotional support would be helpful.

Jim rappelled down toward Sara, who was still prusiking upward. They were both in the free hanging part of the rappel. Jim started to spin and his ropes began to get tangled in Sara’s ropes. I started to get concerned, since we still had 3 students and an instructor from our group waiting at the top at the rappel station. Jim was eventually able to untangle himself. He then continued to rappel down, after seeing what Sara was doing and realizing there wasn’t much he could do, although his intentions were good.

Sara soon saw the anchor for the Sea of Joy (5.13a) climb that is a little more than half way up to the top of the rappel. She announced that she was going to clip into this anchor and then get on our rappel rope. This seemed like a great idea. But then later I started to wonder about the condition of this anchor, since you never see anyone climbing the lichen-covered and challenging Sea of Joy climb. Also, there’s a suspect looking triangle of webbing that is part of this anchor. At this point, we could only hope that Sara was taking a good look at this anchor and not just grabbing for it out of desperation.

Sara clipped into the Sea of Joy anchor, while Jim and I waited at the bottom with bated breath. Soon enough, Sara was rappelling down on our CMC ropes. Minutes later, a very relieved Sara was standing on firm ground next to us. Jim was very gracious and appreciative, while Sara may have been a little shaken, and didn’t have much to say.

Jim again mentioned the irony of them talking about wanting to learn how to ascend a rope before they did this climb. Now there was no question that they were going to learn and practice ascending a rope. I mentioned that we teach prusiking as part of the CMC BRS class and that this was our graduation climb. Jim and Sara, however, likely did not want to wait until the Fall BRS class to learn and practice ascending a rope.

The three students, Jon, Erica, and Anne, next safely rappelled down, followed by instructor Mark. Everyone finally got to hear the story of what was happening while they patiently waited at the top. They too could now fully appreciate knowing that they had the skills and gear to manage the troublesome situation of having a stuck rappel rope.

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