Watta accident report:
On 24th Dec two of us decided to do a trip through what is most commonly known as Watta canyon which is located behind Robertson in the southern highlands. Although not as well know or popular as others in the area I hadn't done it for a few years so thought it would be a good option for the day as it normally only takes around 4 - 5 hours. (Please note this is NOT Carrington Falls).
After making our way through the horizontal section of the canyon and down the first waterfall of approx 15m we made our way to the anchors for the final drop of approx 60m. The normal way to descent the final waterfall is just off to the side in two drops, 10m to a small ledge followed by another abseil of approx 50m from bolts on the ledge to the bottom (also possible to split in to 40m to slippery ledge and 10m to bottom).
Upon arrival at the small ledge after the first 10m abseil we found the bolts were in good condition but the slings were very sun bleached and although there was about 10 of them we removed them all and replaced them with new section of rope and 3 maillon rapides (one through each bolt and another for the rope to feed through). We rigged the anchor as equalized but slightly off set due to the bolt placements and the natural direction of rope over the edge.
The natural way over the edge is through a small valley that has been created by water flow in high water, what I could best describe as a small water carved dish with a rolling edge which also has a few small tufts of grass. Once the anchor was ready we rigged the rope through the anchor in a blocked single rope system and tossed off the rope bag which just landed next to the pool at the bottom.
My friend set himself up on abseil did a quick check before removing his safety line and proceeding to abseil over the edge. After a short period of time (approx half what I would estimate it should take to get to the bottom) the rope that was running over the edge whipped up and landed is a loose coil in front of me on the ledge, I quickly picked up the end and realized the rope had "cut" and my friend had fallen a large distance.
After a few minutes of yelling and no reply I rigged the rope end I had on the ledge as a long safety line so I could get near the edge to see down. I could see he was lying face down on the slippery ledge approx 10m from the bottom slightly under the spray of the waterfall with no movement. After yelling for a further few minutes he slowly started to move his arm which was incredible considering the distance he fell (15-20m).
At this point I pulled out our epirb and started to document the times of events as things occurred. At this point my main concern was to get down to my friend to assist him but all I had on the ledge was approx 15m of the 9mm static that has been "cut" and a 65m of 6mm pull cord. After a period of time I managed to drop down a small dry bag right next to him on the end of pull cord with few basic emergency supplies for warmth and a note on waterproof pad asking him to tie on the end of the rope so I could pull it up.
After major difficulty (and extreme pain) getting to the end of the rope he tied on the end and I pulled it up which enabled me to get down to him. Once I got down I carried out a quick check and moved him off to the side of the ledge where we were more sheltered from the spray and could set up a shelter with emergency blankets and plastic sheets. Main symptoms were extreme lower back pain(later confirmed to be a broken back), excessive shivering/very cold and pain to left foot.
During this process I had seen the ambulance helicopter on a few occasions but on all occasions it departed without lowering anyone or landing, the first time was approx 90 minutes after I had set off the epirb. (At some time later in the evening there was a second innocent involving the helicopter which is still under investigation, there may be a time at a later date when this information is available for those who are interested.)
Results of rope testing:
After testing was carried out by Australia authorities the results show that the most likely reason for the failure of the rope was due to vertical abrasion. Although it seems very unusual and hard to believe a near new rope could fail like this testing of similar vertical abrasion shows very similar results. Other possibilities such as load failure, sideways sawing and rope contamination were dismissed during testing. (My best guess is a combination of bounce in the rope and extremely unlucky placement of the rope.) To the best of my knowledge I can't find any other similar abseiling / canyoning accidents worldwide but if anyone knows of any I would like to hear of them.
- The fall taken was approx 15m onto boulders of different sizes. Main injury as result of the fall was broken back at L3 which required surgery with pins placed around the spine.
- Rope was a commonly used Tendon 9mm static rope, a type which I have used for approx 3 years both recreationally and professionally in variety canyons / rocks without issues.
- The rope used was approx 1 year old and only used 3 or 4 times before the day of the accident. Rope was always stored clean / dry in a dark location.
- Weight of person on rope was approx 90kg
- The rope was inspected by both people on the morning of the trip and several meters were cut off one end due to a small section of damage on the outer section of the rope. It was them remarked for length at the ends and new middle mark, at this point no other damage was clear.
- The edge seemed to be a good placement for the rope with a short length of contact with the rock before having a totally free hanging abseil for another 35-40m.
- The rope placement was in a similar location to other parties before us. This is clear due to the off-set nature of the slings on the anchor. -The rock in this area is mostly sandstone.
- Both members of the group have done a large amount canyoning and practice caution when placing ropes over edges to reducing "sawing" over the edge. Care was also taken not to "bounce" to much while abseiling.
- We feel that one of the items that helped to reduce the amount of injury was wearing a large pack with dry bag and other items inside. The helmet was also an important item in protecting the head.
- Anchor placement is very important. Although we are lucky in Australia having most canyons in a soft rock like sandstone an anchor placed in a position where there is little or no rubbing on the rock is best as commonly seen in caves or European canyons. Often this may require a short traverse or difficult move to reach but it reduces the chance of these incidents.
- Carrying extra supplies was very important. Without the emergency blankets, balaclava, neck muff, rain jacket and large plastic sheets to stabilize the patient the outcome may have been very different. Other things that were very useful were waterproof pad and pencil, head-torch, matches and of course the epirb.
- Carrying a pull cord for emergency was useful but if we had a slightly thicker rope which I could have abseiled on (eg, 8mm) then a lot of time could have been saved.