By Ann McCreary
One of the most popular climbing routes in the Methow Valley claimed the life of a 26-year-old Seattle man, who died last week after falling more than 100 feet while climbing Goat Wall near Mazama.
It appears that the fall on May 3 resulted when a knot tying two climbing ropes together came undone, said Steve Brown, chief criminal deputy with the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office identified the victim as Ryan Kautz. Kautz was climbing with two other Seattle residents, Keith Erps and Matt Jackson, on a multi-pitch sport route on Goat Wall called Prime Rib of Goat.
Ironically, the first person on the scene of the accident was Mazama resident Scott Johnston, a local climber who developed the route and placed anchors along it. Johnston was climbing the route with two friends.
“We passed the party about halfway up and talked with them,” Johnston said in an interview last week.
He said he spoke with Kautz and Erps on one of several ledges on the route while Jackson was climbing. “They were happy, chatty,” Johnston said.
Johnston and his friends continued to the top and began rappelling down. “We hadn’t rappelled down very far when we heard some yelling,” Johnston said.
It’s common for climbers to yell to each other to communicate during the climb, so the shouts didn’t strike Johnston or his friends as unusual.
“Shortly after that we heard some distinct screaming,” he said. “We talked among ourselves and said, ‘That didn’t sound good.’”
Johnston and his party were still 500-800 feet above the other climbers when they heard the screams. They continued working down Goat Wall until they could see two people on a ledge below them.
“They were waving and gesticulating to us. It was pretty clear that something had happened, but we didn’t know what,” Johnston said.
According to an account provided to the sheriff’s office by Jackson and Erps, the three climbers decided to descend because the weather was deteriorating. On the descent, Erps had rigged all of the rappels down to the second-to-last rappel anchor, according to the Brown’s synopsis of the incident.
The sheriff’s account described the three climbers as experienced.
“The team’s rappel consisted of a twin rope rappel which entailed tying the ends of two identical ropes together with a backed up figure eight knot. One of the ropes is then threaded through the anchor and a full-length double rope rappel is achieved,” Brown said.
“This provides a much faster descent as they end up rappelling a full rope length of 70 meters per rappel station,” according to Brown’s summary.
Erps became fatigued from leading the pitches and then managing ropes on the rappel, Brown said. At the second-to-last anchor, Kautz took over and rigged the rappel at about 3:30 p.m., Brown said.
Jackson was in position to see Kautz put himself on belay, then pull down and check the function of the rappel device with a personal arrest system still in place, Brown’s summary said.
Jackson watched as Kautz began his rappel. He had rappelled about 5 meters when Jackson and Erps said they heard a loud snap and Kautz and the rope fell. Jackson told deputies that Kautz struck two ledges before he fell into a gully out of sight of Jackson and Erps, Brown said. It was estimated that the fall was more than 100 feet.
With no rope, Erps and Jackson were trapped at their location with no way down and no working cell phone. While they were stranded, the two climbers tried to communicate with Kautz.
At some point Jackson and Erps were able to see Kautz, and “yelled down at him to hold still,” Brown said.
About an hour later, Johnston and his friends arrived at the ledge. Johnston helped get all four climbers down the remaining three pitches.
Erps immediately ran to the approach trail and contacted a passerby to call 911, and the call was made at about 5:25 p.m., Brown said.
A search and rescue team from the sheriff’s office was dispatched immediately and a Navy helicopter with the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station search and rescue was on the scene by 7:30 p.m., Brown said. Kautz was dead when rescuers arrived, Brown said.
The helicopter transported Kautz and search and rescue team members to a landing zone where they met with county coroner Dave Rodriguez, Brown said.
Search and rescue team member Ottis Buzzard, an experienced climber and an Okanogan County Sheriff’s deputy, examined the climbing equipment at the scene including the ropes, harness and rappel device. All were found to be in good condition, Brown said.
“It did appear that the knot tying the two ropes together had come untied, causing Kautz to fall,” Brown said.
Goat Wall is a popular climbing area at the west end of the Methow Valley and Prime Rib of Goat is the most popular route, said CB Thomas, manager of Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies in Mazama.
“It definitely brings people from around the country,” Thomas said. “On the difficulty scale it’s moderate.”
“It lures people in, it’s a beautiful climb. There are only a handful of climbs like that in America that are long and safe, with bolts in it,” Johnston said.
In some regards, “it is an attractive nuisance,” he said. “Every year there are people with mini-epics on it. Usually it takes them a lot longer than they expected.”
Climbing guidebooks recommend against using two ropes, due to the number of ledges on the route and the resulting difficulty in dragging ropes over the ledges, Thomas said.
This was the second fatality on the route. In 2008, Seattle climber Ryan Triplett died when he fell while solo climbing.
On the same date last year — May 3 — a woman climbing Fun Rock in Mazama was seriously injured when she fell 70 feet.