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Smith Rock, Oregon: fatal fall on rock

The primary purpose of these experience reports and the Annual Report of Accidents in North American Mountaineering is to aid in the prevention of accidents.

Fall on rock, failure to follow route, inadequate belay and protection, no hard hat, poor position
On Saturday, May 2, 1998, Bill Pesklak and his partner Brian Boshart,  were working on Titanium Jag, a 5.10b assigned two stars, an average quality route, by Alan Watts, author of Climbers Guide to Smith Rock. Both men had attained a small ledge about 80’ up the route. With Boshart belaying, Pesklak climbed an estimated 20’ above the ledge, slipped off, fell on his belayer, tipped off the ledge, fell again striking his head then slid the remaining 60’ to rocks below. Pesklak died from massive head injuries; Boshart, with a concussion, back muscle injuries and belay rope burns around his leg was lowered from the rock six hours after the fall by rescue personnel, hospitalized and released.

Analysis of Accident: What knowledge and techniques will help prevent future accidents?
Titanium Jag has some fixed anchors; traditional protection gear to 2” is suggested. Climbers familiar with the route suggest that Bill Pesklak may have been off line. He had placed one piece about 10 feet above his belayer and was working on a second piece when he fell. Brian Boshart was clove hitched with the climbing rope into a two-bolt anchor; he belayed directly to the climber from his harness with an ATC. Both men had discussed his belay position; he states that he had unclipped his daisy from the anchor to move laterally several feet to a position under Bill because of rock fall concern. Brian was able to watch Bill climb; he had locked off the ATC with the rope around his leg as the leader worked on the second piece. Bill fell feet-first onto his belayer knocking him off the ledge and into a 15-foot pendulum to a point 10 feet below the anchor. Control of the belay was lost; the climber had tipped off the ledge, falling headfirst then sliding to a stop at the bottom of the climb. Brian remembers the rope paying out through the protection point, which remained on the rock.

Additional Comments:
Above a belay ledge, experience tells us that the rope should be clipped to a second anchor just above the belayer’s head or to the belay anchor, thereby adding friction to the system and pulling the belayer’s body weight into the anchor above the ledge to hold a leader fall.

Smith Rock is a highly developed sport climbing area and most routes have been artfully bolted and cleaned of natural debris. Most climbers at Smith Rock do not use helmets on top roped routes. The use of helmets on less developed routes should be a mark of advanced ability and could have saved a life in this instance.

The use of a belay device such as the Grigri manufactured by Petzl is a way to stop a fall, uncontrolled by a belayer. The device jams the rope with a cam when there is a sudden shock load. Many sport climbers at Smith Rocks use Petzl Grigri belay devices; Brian believes that use of a Grigri and a helmet might have save Bill’s life.

Report filed by Robert Speik and printed in the 52nd edition of ANAM, for the year 1999
Copyright© 2003 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.



A fall kills William Pesklak of Vancouver, Washington, as he climbs a sheer cliff at the Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon

The Oregonian
By Gordon Gregory and Laura Trujillo of The Oregonian staff 
Sunday was blue-sky perfection, and dozens of bare-armed climbers scaled the sand-color rock, seemingly untouched by a fatal climbing accident the day before. 

An experienced climber died Saturday when he slipped while ascending a steep climb fell and hit his climbing partner 20 feet below and then plunged another 80 feet to a ledge. The partner was bruised but stayed anchored to the cliff until rescuers could help him from the mountain. William Pesklak, 39, of Vancouver, Wash., and his partner, Brian Boshart, 25, of Beaverton, were climbing up Red Wall-a sheer rock cliff - Saturday morning, using existing anchors in the rock, said Deputy Neil Mackey of the Deschutes County Sheriff's Department. 

As Pesklak climbed 20 feet above Boshart and tried to clip into a rock anchor, he slipped or missed the anchor and fell, witnesses told sheriff's deputies. The climbers were on a moderately difficult route called Titanium Jag. 

"You take a risk in this kind of climbing, but this was just a freak accident," Mackey said. Members of the Deschutes County Search and Rescue, working with members of Corvallis Mountain Rescue, were able to reach Pesklak and carried him to an area at the bottom of the gorge. He was airlifted to St. Charles Medical Renter in Bend with severe head injuries. He died at the hospital later that night. 

Rescuers then rappelled down to Boshart and lowered him to safety on the ledge below him. Boshart was treated at Central Oregon District Hospital in Redmond and released. "He was really lucky," Mackey skid of Boshart. 

Jeff Boshart said his brother, a Member of a climbing club, went rock climbing almost every weekend and learned to climb about four or five years ago. 

He talked briefly to his brother Sunday morning and said Brian Boshart is doing OK. Pesklak knew the technical moves required to climb such a difficult rock and always double-checked his equipment, said Pesklak's mother, Charlotte Pesklak of Herkimer N.Y. 

Her son, an analytic chemist for SEH America in Vancouver, Wash. learned to rock climb about three years ago. An outdoor lover who often fished and hiked, he took up the sport to build strength, she said. 

Climbing season at Smith Rock typically starts in late April and lasts through September. The Red Wall area is a technical climb, Mercy said, requiring ropes and anchors. 

The death was on the minds of many of the climbers scaling Smith Rock on Sunday. "It definitely has an effect on a lot of people," said Dan Carlson, owner of Redpoint Climbers Supply in nearby Terrebonne. 

Carlson said some people who traveled to Central Oregon to climb the volcanic rock formations cut their weekend short because of the accident. 

Particularly hard hit were those who witnessed the Vancouver man's full. 

Mackey, who has been involved in many rescues, said one or more people plunge to their death most years at the park. Perhaps a dozen more suffer serious injuries. 

The park isn't particularly dangerous, he said, but climbing is a sport where any mishap can be deadly. Smith Rock draws thousands of climbers from around the world each year. 

Mackey said most climbers are hurt for one of two reasons: They are trying something beyond their skill level, or they get so good, they get too comfortable. Climbers cannot afford to be distracted-ever, he said. 

Mackey said Pesklak apparently was a highly experienced climber considered to be very careful and professional about the sport. He was no stranger to Smith Rock, and nothing about his gear or the anchors in the rock suggested equipment problems. 

His death was "just one of those things, just one of those momentary lapses," he said. 

A number of climbers who were back at the rock faces Sunday insisted that the sport is a secure one. 

"I would say this is the safest sport I've ever seen. But when something bad happens, it's really bad," said Laura Orr, a 26-year-old employee of the United States Geological Survey who lives near Seattle. 

Orr and her husband, Michael, also 26, were preparing to climb a 90 degree wall of tan rock rising above like a windowless skyscraper. 

The two make the five-hour drive to Central Oregon from their home almost every weekend until the summer heat drives them to Canadian cliffs. They say they come because there is great variety in the types of climbs, the weather is generally good and the vistas impressive. 

Most of the 400,000-plus annual visitors each year never hook a carabiner on a bolt. They come to gaze as the Crooked River snakes around the basalt bases of rocks that shoot straight up many hundreds of feet. Most of the rock actually is hardened ash called welded tuff that solidified during ancient volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. 

The rock can be crumbly, and some of it, called "Kitty Litter," is too fragile to hold anchors. But the hundreds of climbing routes either follow cracks and crevices or already have been bolted so climbers can anchor their ropes as they ascend. 

Ian Kovtunovick of Portland travels to Smith Rock once a month or so with friends. He is drawn by the variety of the climbs as well as the rock. He was back Sunday, rope on shoulder, hiking toward the base for his first climb. 

The 21-year-old doesn't climb for the thrill but because it focuses his mind and relaxes his spirit. And even though the previous day's tragedy dampened his mood, Kovtunovick still felt inspired. 

"There's something about getting 50 feet above everybody," he said.



Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated

Read more . . .
American Alpine Club
Oregon Section of the AAC
Accidents in North American Mountaineering