Friday's NPS Incident Reports described what to me is a very surprising, almost baffling toproping accident at Acadia (the report is quoted below). I think it raises a number of questions worth discussing with other climbers.

For those who haven't been to Acadia, Otter Cliff is a sea cliff with about 30 moderate climbs which is primarily a toproping area. Though you can walk to the cliff base at low tide (and likely wade there even at high tide, most days) and there are a few nice lead routes, the usual setup is to toprope from fixed anchors (huge stainless bolts and staples installed by NPS) at the cliff top. One aspect of the cliff requires gear anchors but there are some large cracks that make this uncomplicated.

The cliff top is very pleasant and a lot of people prefer a top belay rather than starting with everyone down by the water. This calls for some serious edge protection and an old piece of carpet is a typical piece of kit for most people who climb there with any frequency.

In the accident described below, it seems a guide was belaying a client from the cliff top, with another client observing, also on top. The client got stuck, and the guide tried to descend to assist, at which point the rope cut on an edge and the guide fell on the stuck client.

The truly shocking part, to me, is that the second client -- connected to the guide somehow -- was then pulled off the cliff and landed on the two injured people below!

Now, I have participated in some questionable and stupid activities at the edge of cliffs, while setting anchors, starting rappels, and occasionally while trying to help those stuck just below, but I can't quite figure how this happened. Particularly not with a professional guide involved. The questions that immediately come to my mind are:

  • Was the guide descending on the same rope the stuck client was toproping on? How?
  • Did the guide just forget he was connected to the other client? Wouldn't the client on top have been pulled off even if the rope didn't cut on the edge?
  • With a toprope anchor in place -- likely well back from the cliff edge, then extended -- why tie a client to the guide (presumably the belayer) rather than to the anchor? Or -- I guess we can only speculate -- was the (top) client tied to anchor and guide, and did he unclip?
  • Was the connection between guide and (top) client actually running through a belay device or other teaching rig?
  • Where the hell was the edge protection?
  • How many mistakes were made here and was any one of them really the critical one? The initial fall would seem to be due to lack of edge protection. But this accident got a lot worse than that in the end.

I know there are many other climbers here who know the cliff in question, and who have relevant guiding and rescue experience. What are your thoughts?

There's another writeup, with a picture showing the rescue (though possibly not the actual section of the cliff where the fall happened) at the Boston Globe site.

Acadia National Park (ME)
Three Climbers Rescued From Ocean Cliffs

The park received a 911 call reporting three injured rock climbers near Otter Cliffs on the morning of June 16th. The cliffs are located along the Atlantic Ocean on the rocky Maine coastline. Rangers and personnel from Mount Desert Island SAR and Bar Harbor Fire and Rescue responded by land while the Bar Harbor Police and Coast Guard responded by sea.

Once on scene, rangers and a Bar Harbor paramedic rappelled down to the climbers to stabilize their injuries and package them into litters. The park rescue team, Mount Desert Island SAR, and climbing guides employed high angle rescue systems to hoist the injured to the top of the climbing area, where they were carried out to an awaiting ambulance. Two of the three climbers sustained significant injuries and were taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. They are reportedly in good condition.

Rangers are leading the investigation. From all reports, it appears that that two novice climbers were being instructed by a guided climbing service when the accident occurred, and that all three climbers were tied into the same rope system. The instructor and one of the students were on top of the climbing area, and the other student was standing on a ledge 25 feet below.

As the guide began his descent to assist the climber below him, the rope to which he and the others were tied was severed by a sharp rock edge. The guide ultimately fell approximately 15 feet onto the climber below. Still tied to the instructor, the second climber was pulled from the top and fell the full 25 feet, landing beside the other two.

Acadia Mountain Guides has a commercial use authorization to provide guided climbing services in Acadia National Park. Although the investigation continues, no charges are pending.
Submitted by Stuart West, Chief Ranger