An account of a tragic accident at Swanage put together from several sources
On Sunday August 20, Andrew Rose, 20, was climbing with a friend from Warwick university, who by chance is also called Andrew. The two, who reportedly had six years' experience, went to Cattle Troughs (further west of Boulder Ruckle). At around 6pm, Andrew Rose was on the rim at the cliff bottom, with the tide out (giving about 10ft to the water) belaying his friend, who was doing Pearly Gates (VS 4c in the latest guidebook; possibly to be upgraded to HVS 5a in the next one). The route is about 60ft long.
Then it all went badly wrong. According to Steve Taylor, a Swanage activist who has spoken to people involved in the rescue, "The leader pulled off a large block from slightly off-route, which fell onto the belayer." The impact killed him. Taylor says: "A helmet wouldn't have helped. Looking up while his leader was climbing would have."
The leader, Andrew, fell as the block came off; without his belayer holding the ropes, his fall was unlimited. But he didn't deck out because the ropes jammed. He was however flipped upside down as the rope came tight - one helper at the accident said that there was a smear of blood on the rock about seven feet above the ground. Almost all of Andrew's runners unzipped. Clearly, it was nearly a double tragedy. Andrew was too confused to recall the name of the route, and was later treated for shock.
UKClimbing reader Greg, who was on the scene and helped in the rescue (but has asked for his full name not to be used), said that Andrew, the leader, "had blood running down his head and seemed in shock but was coherent. I got him in some clothes as I expected to be there for a while." Andrew Rose, however, immediately looked beyond help: no pulse could be found.
"Why the leader did not deck is not clear, but the belayer was using a Sticht plate which may have jammed. By the look of the scene, some rope must have gone through the device. Also, the bottom pieces of gear ripped, leaving one piece quite high up. It looks like the leader untied from the ground on stretch, as I pulled the rope through by just reaching up to it." There were smashed bits of rock on the ground, and bits of dirt mixed in (which suggested to Greg it had come from up high).
Andrew Rose died at the scene. He was airlifted along with his friends to hospital in Poole but pronounced dead on arrival. The other two were treated for shock and released.
But what are the lessons for people who want to climb at Swanage, which has always had a reputation for doubtful rock? Steve Taylor says: "I climb very regularly at Swanage, having climbed some new routes around Pearly Gates just last year. People who are experienced with the Swanage cliffs have a feel for what is solid, and what isn't. I don't know if these guys climbed here regularly, it sounds unlikely.
"I'm currently working on the new Climber's Club Guide to Swanage, and will be making some extremely strong recommendations to avoid routes with loose finishes, such as most of the Cormorant Ledge area."
What's more worrying is that he adds, "Cattle Troughs is one of the more solid areas of Swanage".
Greg, who helped, thinks that the lessons are as follows:
- We assume it is only the guy on the sharp end who is at risk. But cragging is social and we often take beginner friends: explain to them that there are other risks.
- In an accident, co-ordinate who does what in the rescue situation. We managed to get it right (I think), but more by fluke than from taking a minute to agree. We also underestimated the seriousness of this incident at first.
- When getting the first info from one of the members of a party that have had an accident, take your time and get it right. They are not at their most lucid at that time. Andrew (the leader) couldn't tell me the direction I had to go from the descent point. When the Canadian girl told me "left", and I didn't know she wasn't a climber, I wasn't sure if it was "left" facing the crag (like a climber would describe it), or "left" from looking out to sea. This is a similar point to the one above.
- Wear a helmet - Andrew, the leader, might have been better off.
- Know/learn some basic first aid. Someone had put Andrew (Rose) in the recovery position. (If you don't know what the recovery position is, find out now- Ed)
- Obviously, beware loose rock. The leader described the block he pulled off as "the same size as me". Not sure if that would have shown up as loose by pulling on it, though.
- People are not as visible to a helicopter as a helicopter is to people. The helicopter pilot seemed to struggle to see us. I stood out on a little prow of rock waving the brightest thing I could find. The coast guard on the phone told my wife they spotted us because of the waving.
Finally, our sympathies to Andrew's parents, family and friends. It's easy to think that the warning at the bottom of these pages is trivial. But as this case shows, it could be you. Take steps to make sure it isn't.