Poor Rappel Setup Led to ASU Student's Fatal Fall

An inadequate setup for a rappel anchor led to the 125-foot fatal fall of Arizona State University student Katelyn Conrad in January, a newly released report shows.

The tragic incident, like the rappelling deaths of a Phoenix firefighter and a 15-year-old boy at Camelback Mountain last August, also could have been prevented by use of a secondary backup anchor, evidence indicates.

Rappelling is a technique to descend vertical surfaces by creating friction on a rope, usually with a piece of gear like a belay device or metal figure-8 that's attached to the rope and the rappeller's harness. Used frequently in mountain climbing, canyoneering, and rescue work, rappelling is an exhilarating way to descend a sheer cliff wall — but done incorrectly, it can be extremely dangerous. The most crucial part of the process, arguably, is making sure the rope is anchored securely at the top of the rappel site.

Conrad, a 21-year-old honors student, had been a member of the ASU Outdoors Club for more than three years on January 17, when she and about 20 other ASU students went on an outing to the Coon Bluff Recreation Area at the Lower Salt River just north of Mesa.

The bluff, rising about 150 feet from the river area, is a popular crag for rappelling practice. On that day, members of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Team were training nearby on another part of the cliff.

Mike Zysman of Rappel Arizona was the "trip leader" for the ASU group, according to the incident report by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Conrad's rappelling experience included a two-day course put on by Zysman and three canyon trips, the report states. Like the other students, she had signed a liability waiver before the outing.

The group was split into three sub-groups: Beginner, intermediate and advanced. Zysman set up the beginner's rappel anchor, but members of the intermediate and advanced sub-groups set up their own anchors.

Instead of a straightforward anchor, Conrad and another student set up an anchor often used in canyoneering called a "biner block."

First, a piece of webbing with a metal link was secured to a large rock. One end of the trio's climbing rope ran through the link and was then attached by a clove-hitch knot to a carabiner. That left about 10 feet of rope free at the top; the rest of the rope was thrown off the edge of Coon Bluff to use for the rappel.

We won't get into detail here on exactly how the biner block works. However, as another canyoneering web site teaches — with capital letters for emphasis — "it is VERY IMPORTANT that it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for the blocking knot or carabiner to pull through the" metal link.

No one besides the three women inspected the anchor before they began rappelling at about 11 a.m. The first two students, including Jessica Jia, Conrad's best friend, made it down successfully. They were lucky, it seems.

By herself at the top, Conrad walked off the cliff edge and began her descent. The end of the rope came free from the anchor and Conrad began free-falling. People in the area heard a sudden scream. A man on the other side of the river yelled, "Oh my God, she fell!"

Conrad slammed into a lower part of the cliff, her shattered body coming to rest upside down in a tree. She'd been wearing a helmet at the time, but it wrenched to one side when she hit her head. The entire length of the orange climbing rope had fallen with her. Her injuries were "severe," the report states.

Clarissa Chapman, a medic who was training nearby with the PCSO team, was among the first at the scene. She saw that Conrad wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse. Chapman and the PCSO team members tried CPR, oxygen and a defibrillator, but nothing could save the student.

Conrad's death marked the second time a Phoenix police officer lost a child in a rappelling accident within a six-month period. Conrad was the daughter of Lieutenant Robert Conrad, a 27-year veteran of the force. On August 8, Trevor Crouse, 15, son of Officer Patrick Crouse, died after a 40-foot fall in Echo Canyon Park that also claimed the life of Phoenix firefighter Gary Johnstone.

As New Times previously reported, the August incident appears to have stemmed from Johnstone's failure to tie a secure knot in a piece of webbing that joined his harness to a metal eyebolt sunk into the rock. Johnstone, who at the time had been giving rappelling instruction to three teens, including his own son, had tied a second anchor to a palo verde tree to show the teens how such a backup could be arranged — but never tied himself or the teens to that anchor. 

"We failed to tie a correct anchor..." — Jessica Jia

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Conrad's setup didn't involve a backup anchor, either. One of the PCSO rescue-team members told investigators that a second anchor would be standard when practicing a rappel.

At the scene, Jia told detectives she had watched the anchor being set up and believed "we failed to tie a correct anchor."

After conferring with other rappellers, she figured that the clove-hitch knot must have worked itself loose, possibly because it wasn't positioned correctly on the carabiner.

Besides that, "we didn't tie any knots on the remainder of the 10 feet of rope," Jia told authorities.

MCSO rescue specialist Tim Medlock of the MCSO technical mountain rescue team, who reviewed the evidence at the scene, came to roughly the same conclusion. The report states that Jia's presumption was consistent with Medlock's theory about the accident.

Following the tragedy, hundreds of family members and friends attended a memorial on Tempe's "A" Mountain for the talented biomedical engineering senior. 

"It will be rough for a while, but we will move on," ASU Outdoors Club Treasurer Jake Swanson wrote on the group's Facebook site on January 20. "Though it will always be different be we will all run a little faster, hike a little further, climb a little higher, bike a little quicker, and eat a little harder because we have a little bit of Katelyn in us. And we need to compensate for that."

UPDATE July 7:  We had reached out to Rappel Arizona before publication of this article seeking comment from Zysman. He's no longer working there, we found out. Zysman sent us an email this morning to make a minor clarification: "While overall accurate, I think you should clarify/ edit one point: While I have worked at Rappel Arizona in the past, this was a strictly an ASU Outdoors Club trip, and Rappel Arizona had no role in organizing or operating this trip."

We should also add that the report on Conrad wasn't released in general, but was obtained by New Times following a request for public records under Arizona's open records law.

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