If a tree falls off a cliff…

It’s been a little quiet here since my last post but things have been happening. I’ve guided a couple days this season and gotten out to a few remote crags researching an article publishing with Wild Northeast magazine next month. I’ve also been reviewing gear from Petzl, La Sportiva, Garmin, and Suunto for both this blog and the Gear Institute. After returning home from a camping trip this past weekend I was surprised to hear that a relatively healthy looking (and well used) rappel tree on Cathedral Ledge fell to the base a little after noon on Saturday.

Having used this tree dozens of times in the last 10 years without much concern I decided I wanted to investigate the failure that could have been devastating if anyone was in the area when it fell.

First, the tree in question. This was a large live healthy looking white pine tree that was directly above Browns Fist/Lower Refuse (Pg 188, North Conway Rock Climbs). It was a convenient way to retreat from the Upper Refuse/Black Lung/Book of Solemnity area with a single 60m rope. You could just reach the ground in one rope stretching 30m rap from here, which was also mostly free hanging. During some guide training a few years ago I learned some pre-rigging tricks that would keep multiple clients more comfortable if the guide was going first off this tree as the stance below the tree was virtually non-existent and the rappel quickly goes over a roof and becomes free hanging.

Alternate single rope descents from this area are quite limited. From the 1st pitch of The Book anchor you can reach the thread anchor at the top of the 1st pitch of Browns Fist/Lower Refuse in 30m, and do another shorter rappel to the ground. You can scramble/down-climb to the Ego Trip anchor but that will require 2 60m’s, or one 80m rope as I discovered today (and a 2nd rap). You can descend Bombardment which will also require 2 60m ropes or a stop at the decayed tree a-top pitch one of Pleasant St with a single 60m and another short rappel.

In short, there is no fixed station in the vicinity that would allow a quick descent with a single 60m rope so “escaping up” is probably the best bet if you only have one rope (or reversing the Barber Wall approach trail).

I wanted to come in from above so we parked at the top and rapped The Book.

The Book of Solemnity
The scenic belay ledge at the top of the 1st pitch of The Book of Solemnity- Petzl Bug Pack Review coming soon

When we touched down on the Refuse Ledge it was obvious the tree took a lot of topsoil and debris with it. A smaller pine just below the the ledge took a hard hit and some “death blocks” are currently suspended in its exposed root system.

Looking down from where the rappel tree used to stand, loose blocks are held by the root system of this destroyed pin directly above Brown’s Fist

We briefly considered trundling these but realized there was no way we could be sure there were not people below (we could hear voices near the base of Recompense) and I’m sure they could reach the lower climbers trail when set loose. Spotters will be needed to make clearing these safe. It was impressive to see how the root system that failed loosened rocks 10-15 feet back from the tree’s original location.

Rocks loosened when root system pulled out

These are pretty stable in their place but the blocks in the previous photo are quite threatening.

After taking a couple quick pics and wanting to get some climbing in we made our way down to the Ego Trip anchor. My friend Dave Karl had loaned me a 80m Petzl Volta (review coming) to check out and I was curious if the length would get us down to the 1st pitch Ego Trip anchor. It did with little to spare, and another short rap had us on the ground.

Sue on Bombardment

Sue grabbed a quick on-sight of Bombardment, we cruised up Upper Refuse, and finished up Lookout Crack.

Petzl Volta Climbing Rope
Sue tops out a one pitch Upper Refuse… easy to do with 80m of rope…
Petzl Gear
Sue finds the locks on Lookout Crack

Back at the top by noon we coiled gear and I grabbed a quick shot for upcoming gear reviews.

Petzl Bug & Petzl Volta
Petzl Bug & Petzl Volta

Gear reviews aside and back on topic… the falling of this tree cost me some sleep last night. It was a very solid healthy looking pine that I’ve trusted my life, and clients lives, to many times over the last decade. It did not budge when testing with climber loads and there was no red flags that would help me understand why this decided to fail at such a random time with no “event”. Usually “spontaneous” rock fall and tree “failures” like this can be traced to some weather or climber load event. In this case it was a nice, almost summer day with a seemingly light breeze at the cliff and many days without significant rain.

Checking with the local Mount Washington Observatory the highest gust in town over the period in question was only 18.5mph and while the cliff does see stronger orographic effects a few witnesses report relatively calm conditions during the failure. The soil in this area is a bit thin and quite compacted by climber traffic. Erik N. over at NEClimbs offered up some statistics for those who like numbers:

“A healthy root system should be roughly 1.5x  foot per inch of the diameter of the tree.  So a 10” diameter tree trunk at 4 feet high should have a root system 15 feet out in a circular area.  If more than 40% of the root system is compromised it’s at a high risk of failure.”

I’m not quite picturing the math perfectly here as I am a visual learner but this tree was 50+ feet tall, and the roots that ripped out looked to only go out about 15-20 feet in a circular area (a result of thin cliff restricted soil). By the above definition most of our anchor trees would probably be considered to have a “high risk of failure”.

These seemingly rare acts of nature have me wondering if we shouldn’t pay a little more attention to our tree anchors on our beloved highly traffic’d front-country cliffs. I’d like to spend some time with a certified arborist (quite a few around here are accomplished climbers) and do a quick inventory/assessment of the most popular tree anchors. While preserving the character of Cathedral/Whitehorse climbing is important to me I also think we need to be proactive when it comes to our existing fixed anchor management. This information, when shared with with local climbing communities like Friends of the Ledges, will hopefully lead to thoughtful replacement strategies of fixed anchors where appropriate.

In the meantime don’t spend a lot of time below Lower Refuse/Brown’s Fist (or the climbers trail that cuts from the Recompense Trail over to Funhouse Area. I will update this post when the very necessary trundling is scheduled.

From the vantage I got today there are some teetering blocks being held up by the uprooted routes of a smaller pine tree. Other climbers nearby reported hearing significant rockfall around 8pm Saturday night which I think was tied to this event, so I would consider the area below Lower Refuse to be a bit more active with random rockfall until local guides/FoTL/MRS can get in there and clean it up a bit.

UPDATE 6/27/16: The ledge above Browns Fist/Lower Refuse were cleaned this morning by a combined volunteer effort including Mountain Rescue Service, local guides, and Friends of the Ledges. Both routes below have significant dirt/debris on them that will require some heavy rain to clean up. Use caution below the AP Treat area as a lot of the debris ended up in this area.

Yay community!


3 thoughts on “If a tree falls off a cliff…

  1. Thanks Dave. Very informative. I was there that Saturday and had climbed Bombardment just before and rapped off the tree at the top of Bombardment. Thirty minutes later we were down by the road and heard the crash, which seemed to take 30 seconds to reach the bottom. We rushed up there to make sure no one was hurt. Quite shocking to see the tree there with the rappel slings still on it! Brian


    • Thanks Brian! I wanted to hike up to check the tree out but ran out of time today. Did you happen to grab the slings? Nice souvenir IMO. I also looked at the rap set up on that Bombardment tree and it could be re-done. A lot of material with no redundancy, but that’s another issue.


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