My friend Mike Virtanen and I enjoyed just such a day last Sunday when we climbed Little Finger, a 490-foot route that follows a long crack that splits the slab. The slab rises straight out of the lake. We got there by canoeing from the Rogers Rock State Campground.
Little Finger is the most popular route on Rogers Rock (the guidebook Adirondack Rock gives it five stars), so given the beautiful weather, we feared others would have the same idea. Sure enough, when we got to the launch site, we met two other climbers with designs on Little Finger. Since we had climbed it before, they offered to let us go first.
Their climb would not end as well as ours.
When Mike and I had finished the route, rappelled to the base of the cliff, and packed to go, the other two climbers—a man and a woman—were still on the third (and final) pitch. It was about 4 p.m. when we started paddling back to our cars.
That evening, back in Saranac Lake, I received an email from a friend wondering if I had returned safely from Rogers Rock. He had heard from another friend that climbers had to be rescued because of an “equipment malfunction.”
As it turned out, the other two climbers—Cedric Bien, 28 (who was the leader), and Susannah Gue, 27, both of New York City—became stranded when their rope got snagged on the cliff during the rappel. Sometime after 6 p.m., they shouted to a passing boater, who alerted the caretaker at the state campground.
Eight state forest rangers responded to the emergency call. Seven hiked to the top of the cliff in the dark. The other took a motorboat to the base of the cliff.
Those on the cliff tied together four climbing ropes to form a single 900-foot rope. With this, and a second rope as backup, they lowered one of the rangers, Evan Donegan, to the stranded party. The two climbers clipped into the same ropes as Donegan, and then all three were lowered to the bottom. The climbers were taken to the state campground in the motorboat and were back at their campsite by 12:30 a.m.
So what went wrong?
On Little Finger, there are two rappels, and because they are long, you need two ropes tied together. On the first rappel, the rope is threaded through a pair of anchors bolted to the cliff and pulled until the middle (the knot where the two ropes are joined) is at the anchors. The climber then tosses both strands of rope down the cliff and rappels down the ropes with the aid of a belay device.
At the end of the first rappel, the climber reaches another pair of bolted anchors. He then pulls down on one strand of the rope. The other strand is hoisted upward and through the anchors and then slides down the cliff. Then the climber sets up the second rappel.
On a rappel, problems can arise when the rope is being pulled down. One of the strands might get caught in a crack, flake, or other feature on the cliff, especially if there is a knot in the rope. And that’s what happened in this case.
While being lowered, Donegan freed the climbers’ rope. “I’m not entirely certain, but it looked like it got snagged on a flake,” he said. “It appeared to be at the knot where they were joined.”
As a result, the climbers were stranded at the second rappel station partway up the cliff.
Actually, Bien and Gue had only one climbing rope. When we met at the canoe launch, Bien told me that he also had an 8mm cord that he planned to join to the rope for the rappels. The plan was to rappel down just the rope and then retrieve it by pulling on the cord. He intended to use a figure-eight knot to join the rope and cord. This is a big knot that presumably would prevent the cord from passing through the anchor bolts when the rope was weighted. Perhaps the size of the knot made it prone to snag.
Donegan said the climbers did a lot right. Some might have been tempted to climb up to free the rope, but this would have been dangerous: the climber would not be protected against a fall. It’s worth pointing out that the rappels are done on a steep part of the cliff.
“If they had tried to climb back up, maybe it would have worked; maybe they could have got the rope down,” Donegan said. “Or it could have led to a fatal fall. It certainly was the right decision to call for help.”
The ranger also praised the couple for staying calm and for being prepared. They brought extra clothing, a cell phone, headlamps, and food. They were in good condition when Donegan reached them. “They were getting a little cold from hanging on the wall for several hours,” he said.
Fortunately, everyone got back safely. Kudos to the rangers for another job well done.
Top photo by Mike Virtanen: Phil Brown flakes the rope during the first rappel.
Second photo by Phil Brown: Mike Virtanen untangles rope at the top of the Little Finger route.