20 January 2005

Empress Canyon with Sunshine, Chris and Sara

Took Sunshine and her brother and sister down Empress Canyon today. Sara had never done a canyon before, and Chris never an abseil canyon, so I thought it would be good to start them on something memorable...

While the canyon went well (Empress is wonderful for jumps, slides and swims if you start from the top), the abseil went badly. Sunshine showed amazing confidence and launching off the 35 metre over hanging waterfall, but Sara freaked out and decided there was no way she was going to be able to do it - I agreed to walk her out. Brave little Chris started the abseil well but had a mishap with a prussic line I stupidly had him use for safety. If I hadn't have made Chris use that prussic he would have completed a great first abseil without trouble.

What happened was I had set him up with his own figure 8 to lower himself with, while I belayed him from the top for safety. This alone would have worked well enough, but I wanted to be double sure (over precautious), and had him use a prussic line over his figure 8 as well.

For those who don't know, the figure 8 is the friction device used to lower down. The prussic line is just a small bit of rope tied from the harness with a special knot to the main rope. If Chris had of accidentally let go of everything and fell, the knot would tighten on the main line and stop him falling. For those who do know, this is not necessary as I was belaying him from above. If he fell, I would of caught him on the rope I was lowering him with.

Anyway, as Chris approached the lip of the over hang he did everything well. He kept his feet apart while he lowered over the lip of the overhang. Unfortunately, as he stepped down below the overhang, he placed the knot of the prussic line straight onto the lip effectively engaging the safety knot and stopping his descent. He continued to abseil a little further and subsequently loaded the prussic line with all his weight. He was trapped in mid air, just below the lip of the overhang, by the prussic line.

Chris's alarm and panic at this was quite unnerving, so I tried to pull him up. However I did not have the strength or proper equipment to do this, and it seemed to be causing him more discomfort anyway. I had on the previous day shown both Chris and Sara how to use prussic lines and they both knew how to ascend rope with them. But Chris was understandably very afraid and uncomfortable hanging in his harness up a 35 meter waterfall. To his credit though, he managed to pull him self together and listen to me as I called reminders to him about what he had learned the day before. He grabbed for his second prussic line and tied it to the line to step up on with his foot.

While this did seem to bring back Chris' confidence for a brief moment, the foot line was unfortunately too long for his short legs to step high enough to take weight off the prussic line that was engaged above him. At any rate, the weight from his foot line was still pinning the knot on the edge of the overhang so he wouldn't have been able to release the prussic knot. He was well and truly trapped now, and very freaked out by it.

I decided to anchor the line that I was belaying him with and prussic down to him (As both lines were weighted I couldn't abseil - nor did I want to, I need the flexibility to move up and down the line quickly). It was only about 5 meters and not at all steep so I was comfortable. When I got to him I tried to talk him through the the prussic routine, but it was quickly clear that Chris was not only losing his head, but a lot of strength with it.

I had to find a way to lift him myself. The best I could manage in the short amount of time that Chris' state was permitting was to lower myself as close as I could to him and pull him by the arm. Before I did this I called down to sunshine to go for help.

On about the third attempt of my reaching down to him, Chris managed to grasp my arm with a firm monkey grip and I pulled him up enough for him to release the prussic and lower it below the lip. Chris was then able to resume an abseil position, untie his foot line and wait for me to go back to the top to give him slack on the belay and let him lower himself down.

Sunshine had not yet departed for help thankfully, so the alarm was not called. Although there was a small crowd gathered below, and I can't be sure if no one in that crowd had risen an alarm.

The relief was overwhelming and I took a while to recover back at the top. It would have been a whole nother story if Chris was too heavy for me to lift. I'm not sure what I would have done - probably have him prussic up the belay line would have been the only option... When I did finally recover, Sara and I retreated back up the canyon and to an exit track.

When we were finally reunited with Sunshine and Chris, Chris was quick to say that the trip was both the best and worst thing he had ever done in his life. He also said that he is looking forward to his next canyon and another abseil!!

What a relief that it all went without tragedy. One of those rare but sudden reminders how costly a mistake in this activity could be. Next time I will most certainly not use prussics as a safety feature! Good for going up, but not for going down.


Anonymous said...

Hey Leigh,

I could feel your heart racing..have you every thought about using the french? prussik- where the prussik is below the abseil device? It can feel a little akward at first because it restricts your ability to have your thumb firmly up your bum (as is often learned when first abseiling - I am not being rude!). I have come to really like the knot though as you can load your weight onto it and unload when you want to start abseiling again..and you wouldn't have any dramas about leaving it behind as you go over overhangs etc!


Adski said...

Abseiling with a standard prussik is asking for trouble hey, especially where there's water and a chance of drowning hey. Hard to make the connection initially, but obvious with 20/20 hindsight. Glad you all came out of the experience ok.

Leigh Blackall said...

Hindsight - or experience, I'd say I have a fair bit of both now days... I haven't heard of tghe French Linda, maybe I better do some more reading.
Little Empress Canyon is turning into a trecherous place it seems with this: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200501/s1287003.htm

Adski said...

The french prussik is effectively a spiral, 4-5 wraps of a really short prussik loop, attached on the brake end so it can't get snagged when you go over a lip. Also if it does lock off, it can be unloaded easily.

Some info: "Friction knot below the descending device"

Leigh Blackall said...

Great link Adam,
Here's where having a blog really comes into being.
I have told that story to about 3 experienced guides up here in the mountains. One chick blasted me with a heap of "Oh no! you never do that!" but no alternatives, another old timer just said, "argh well! Now you know!", and another reaffirmed my conclusion that the top belay was enough. But I have since thought, what if I didn't have another rope for a top belay, and what about situations when commuication is difficult.
So anyway, you guys have solved it for me via this blog. Linda has mentioned the French knot, and Adam has provided the link to end my troubles. All saved on this blog if ever I forget.
Thanks guys.

vetNERD said...

I heard about a fella having some climbing hassles in the Blue Mnts. It was on the radio. I held my breath, was it Liegh??

It was not...and then I read this!! mad as hatter...mad as a hatter. But of course, I am jealous!

connelly said...

This was the scariest experience of my life… It was like a bad dream that came true! Even though I was crying, along with Chris yelling “ My balls hurt,” Leigh handled it very well. :)


Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Sara,
I think Chris yelling that out was just him adding initial drama to his situation - that tight little wetsuit he was wearing would have doing the real hurting... He soon forgot about his balls when the fear krept into him...

And no Kylie, the poor unfortunate soul that drowned in Empress on the weekend was not me. Poor fella was swept away by a flash flood.


Toni Lee said...

Inspiring to see positive feedback in your comments.
Hope Chris will find the nerve to give it another go.
Still feel great about the abseil you helped me achieve, at Katandra all those years ago. Perhaps you could try Sarah with something like that. A very safe and easy go would be good for her.