Fatal accident occurred during rappel down cliff
By Marcy Stamper
A 20-year-old man died instantly after falling 600 feet while climbing Goat Wall near Mazama on Monday (May 29).
Shelby Withington of Bellingham, a student at Western Washington University and a member of the school’s climbing team, was climbing the Sisyphus route with three friends on Memorial Day when he fell from the seventh pitch to a ledge below, according to Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez. The accident occurred around 9:15 a.m.
Withington and a friend were descending from the seventh pitch — their destination for the day — using a rappel technique called simul, in which two climbers descend simultaneously, counterbalancing each other as they lower themselves on a single rope threaded through a central anchor at the top.
“It was not a rockfall or an equipment failure. It was climber error during the rappel process that resulted in the fall,” said Rodriguez.
In a simultaneous descent, both climbers control the friction on their side of the rope as they descend. They should also have a stopper knot at each end of the rope as added security. The knot would catch on the climber’s rappel device on the harness or, if that failed, on the top anchor.
Withington and his friend were not completely in sync as they descended, although the two were not far apart. The friend reached solid ground (at the sixth pitch) first, which eliminated the counter-balance, said Rodriguez.
The rope slipped through the upper anchor and Withington was in free-fall — almost to the base of the climb — until he hit a ledge, said Rodriguez. “He died on impact. The injuries were catastrophic,” he said.
One of their friends waiting on the sixth pitch tried to grab the rope as it went by, but was unable to arrest Withington’s fall. The friend sustained injuries to his hand, said Rodriguez.
Another pair of climbers who were about the begin their ascent of Sisyphus heard screams and called 911. Aero Methow Rescue Service and the Okanogan County Sheriff’s search-and-rescue team arrived within an hour and paramedics hiked to where Withington had fallen and confirmed he was deceased, said Rodriguez.
A crew with Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Search and Rescue was also summoned and arrived within the hour. The Navy helicopters have been used in backcountry and other inaccessible rescues here before.
“These guys are amazing. They come in with a helicopter — they’re flying right next to a wall. It’s tricky flying,” said Rodriguez.
The helicopter crew lowered a medic with a litter to reach Withington. Working with the Aero Methow and search-and-rescue crews, they lifted his body into the litter and transported him to the North Cascades Smokejumper Base.
Three of the four climbers were members of the Western Washington’s climbing team. All four had climbed together before. The Goat Wall climb was not a team event, said Rodriguez.
Authorities have notified Withington’s father in Seattle. The other three climbers, ages 21, 22 and 27, have returned home to Bellingham and Tacoma, said Rodriguez.
The Sisyphus route is rated from 5.8 to 5.10, with one stretch of 5.11. While that is a difficult rating, the route is considered manageable because there is considerable permanent protection in the form of anchors and bolts, said Rodriguez. There are 10 pitches altogether.
This is the third fatality from a climbing accident on Goat Wall in nine years. Last year 26-year-old Ryan Kautz, from Seattle, died when he fell on the Prime Rib of Goat route. The accident was determined to have been caused when a knot Kautz had tied came undone, according to a sheriff’s deputy.
In 2008, Seattle climber Ryan Triplett died when he fell while solo climbing on the Prime Rib route.