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Members Turn Rappelling Tragedy Into Opportunity

Posted on: July 8th, 2013 by The AAC


On the anniversary of a tragic accident, one AAC leader shares the story of a team of volunteers who transformed their grief into action.

Exactly one year ago today, North Carolina climber Eric Metcalf, 19, fell to his death while rappelling. In the months since his untimely passing, American Alpine Club members from the Southern Appalachian Section have turned the tragic accident into a teaching opportunity, developing a series of two-hour clinics to instruct climbers in safe rappelling practices. Here, Southern Appalachian Section Chair David Thoenen recounts the genesis of the initiative, a process that involved leveraging Club resources and volunteers toward a positive and inspirational end.

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By David Thoenen, AAC Southern Appalachian Section Chair

The news of a climber’s death sends shock waves slamming through their circle of family and friends, as well as the climbing community at large. The inevitable cycle of denial and grief follows, and eventually most mourners arrive at a level of acceptance. At that point, the potential emerges to build a constructive response to tragedy.

On July 8 of last year, Eric Metcalf, a talented university student, musician, and climber from Cary, North Carolina, died while rappelling the second pitch of the Sentinel Buttress at Moore’s Wall, a popular central North Carolina crag. The following week, Eric’s family held a memorial service for him at the Triangle Rock Club, the gym where Eric first discovered his love of climbing. The moving eulogies delivered by family and friends emphasized in the strongest terms the importance that Eric had attached to climbing as a central element of his life. These testimonials made a profound impression on the American Alpine Club members in attendance, who left the service motivated to pursue measures that could help prevent similar tragedies.

Two days after the memorial service, over a burrito lunch, three AAC members held an impromptu meeting. They considered two questions: First, should the Club take on a more active role at the grassroots level to promote safer climbing practices? Second, did the AAC Southern Appalachian Section have the resources to take on this role? Or should the section simply forward its proposals to the Club’s national organization for consideration and, potentially, action? In the end, faith in local initiative carried the day. By the time the last burrito wrapper had hit the trash can, part-time climbing guides Danny McCracken and Aram Attarian had agreed to lead the project, committing to define the content, structure, and delivery process for a program of free two-hour clinics dedicated to teaching safer rappelling practices.

From the outset they turned to “Know the Ropes”—the new department in the AAC’s annual publication Accidents in North American Mountaineering—for content. Sharing lessons learned through comprehensive accident analysis, “Know the Ropes” documents recommended best practices for enhancing climbing safety. Coincidentally, the 2012 edition focuses on best practices for rappelling. After consulting with Accidents editor Jed Williamson, McCracken and Attarian (who in his spare time serves as the associate editor of Accidents) elected to adopt these best practices as the core subject matter of the clinics. The pair went to work and within two weeks had a draft instructor’s guide and student handout ready for review.

REI Cary, North Carolina

REI Cary, North Carolina

Early in the project, McCracken stumbled across the acronym BRAKES—an easy memory aid for rappelling best practices—on the Rescue Dynamics website. Rescue Dynamics gave their permission to the AAC to incorporate their clever acronym into the clinic material.

The next step was to run a pilot of the clinic, which McCracken did in mid-September during the AAC Craggin’ Classic at the New River Gorge, testing out the lesson plan on an audience of volunteers from the AAC campground. It came home in need of tuning, but the pilot attendees made it clear that the project was on the right track.

Once the teaching material had passed muster, the team’s priority became defining both delivery process and instructor recruitment. A flurry of emails later, they’d found their solution: a partnership with the Appalachian Mountain Institute, McCracken and Attarian’s North Carolina guiding employer. Patrick Weaver, owner and head guide of AMI, enthusiastically agreed to join the program as an instructor and to encourage his guides to volunteer to help staff the clinics. The program could now count on AMGA-certified instructors and, importantly, instructional insurance coverage through AMI.

The Cary REI hosted the final dress rehearsal session on October 30, and Metcalf’s mother and father stopped by to offer their support and gratitude—a touching gesture considering the freshness of their loss.

On November 20, fewer than five months after Metcalf’s accident, McCracken and Attarian held the first live clinic at the same REI location to rave reviews from its participants, many of whom were stalwart AAC members from the Raleigh area. Rollout proceeded across North Carolina, and as the program gained momentum, more and more non-members began attending the sessions.

The clinics received notably strong engagement from the outdoor education programs at Brevard College and Lees McRae College, where Weaver ran a total of three sessions for students preparing for careers in outdoor education. These stops were particularly rewarding, considering the students will bring what they learned in two hours to hundreds more once they begin teaching in the field.

Just like outdoor educators, even climbers with decades of experience can benefit from the clinics. Proving it’s never too late to refine your technique, Will Merritt, a Club member since 1968, showed up for one put on at Pilot Mountain State Park in March. He was just one of several hardcore central North Carolina AAC members who braved the rain that cold day.

In May the clinic crossed state lines, heading to the Stone Summit Climbing and Fitness Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where it was so overbooked Weaver agreed to a second session.

The success of these clinics and positive feedback from participants serve as a testament to that kind of dedication, that willingness to drive four hours and then teach for four instead of two. To date, the AAC Southern Appalachian Section has delivered 14 clinics to the Southeastern climbing community at eight separate venues, with over 165 participants earning a free T-shirt with the BRAKES protocols printed on the back.

Join the class and get a free T-shirt!

Join the class and get a free T-shirt!

The two-hour sessions are open to AAC members and non-members alike, but it’s important to emphasize that they are not designed to stand in for an introductory “how to rappel” class. They are intended for climbers with some experience rappelling who want to ensure that they are current in their understanding of safer rappelling protocols and equipment. Each clinic is free, with the Southern Appalachian Section underwriting the program through local donations and fund-raising.

The motivation, initiative, and commitment of AAC volunteers and partners brought this valuable program to life, with special and sincere thanks to Eric Metcalf’s father, Jim, and the rest of the Metcalf family; Danny McCracken, Aram Attarian, Patrick Weaver, and the other clinic developers and lead instructors; the clinic partners, especially AMI, REI, and Rescue Dynamics; and everyone else who has provided financial support, instructional time, venues, and promotional assistance.

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The fall clinic schedule should be set by early August, with the first sessions to be held in October (AAC Events Calendar). The program is interested in partnering with new hosting venues and sponsors across the Southeast (AAC affiliation not required), and the team can provide promotional and instructional materials to AAC members outside that region who would like to bring the clinic to their hometowns. Additionally, AMGA-certified climbers are always welcome to volunteer as clinic instructors.

Please direct questions, requests, and potential partnership opportunities to Southern Appalachian Section Chair David Thoenen, who manages program enrollment and logistics, at [email protected].

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