[Photo] Bureau of Land Management
New Mexico medical resident Keith Azevedo stood at the base of Grape Ape in Diablo Canyon, focused on the rope that passed through his belay device. He heard a voice cry out. The sound came from the second-pitch anchors of the neighboring route Appendicitis (5.9+), 180 feet off the ground. A climber was falling.
Azevedo shouted up to his partner Stewart Walter. While Walter prepared to lower, their friend, medical resident Elise Lowe, darted 100 feet around the corner of the Sun Devil Wall to the base of Appendicitis. Azevedo was seconds behind her.
Susan Sarossy lay on the ground surrounded by friends. Azevedo, Walter, and Lowe scrambled to try to save her, but she later died from her injuries.
[Photo] Sandra Corso
Fifty-nine-year-old Sarossy was a longtime climber, social worker and mother of two from nearby Santa Fe. That day she was climbing with friends at the Sun Devil Wall, a south-facing 300-foot-high basalt cliff in Diablo Canyon, a 20-minute drive northwest of Santa Fe in central New Mexico. After climbing the two-pitch route on toprope, she reached the anchor. As she was cleaning the anchor and transitioning to descend, something went wrong. It’s still unconfirmed exactly what happened. She leaned back and fell.
“An accident this severe hasn’t happened in the last ten years,” said Andre Wiltenberg, owner of the Santa Fe Climbing Center, where he saw Sarossy climb two or three times per week. He said the gym seemed like her second home, and her death has deeply impacted the community. “She was always joyful, and she was someone who made the community better by connecting people with each other,” Wiltenberg said. Heather Volz, a close friend of Sarossy who was at the accident, remembers Sarossy from neighborhood gatherings. Volz says Sarossy was as an active climber despite receiving two hip replacements.
She was a bright spirit in the Santa Fe climbing community, and regularly invited newcomers to climb with her group on weekends. “Susan was that person who really made people feel at home,” Volz said, “and she always wanted to do one more climb.”
The canyon, the nearest climbing area to Santa Fe, is popular with both sport and trad climbers as well as with local hikers. The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the cliffs, warns against loose rock and rockfall. Despite these dangers, Santa Fe Fire Department Director of Emergency Management Martin Vigil says climbing-related accidents are rare. Yet rappelling accidents are far too common throughout the climbing world. Often, problems occur during the transitions between the climb and the descent. In Yosemite alone, in 2015, such accidents accounted for five deaths, according to Yosemite Climbing Ranger Brandon Latham. “Climbers rappelled off the end of ropes, leaned back from unclipped anchors and forgot to attach belay devices before descending.”
Alpinist digital editor Chris Van Leuven talked with Latham to learn more about the bigger picture regarding rappelling and lowering accidents. “When you’re done [climbing] some of your stress falls away,” Latham said. “Your acuity of awareness drops and you become more easily distracted.”
Latham urges situational awareness and routine partner checks. “Getting to the top is not getting home,” he said. “You’re only halfway there.”
Forty-year member of Yosemite Search and Rescue John Dill added, “So many of these accidents are because someone didn’t back themselves up or carefully double check their rigging, or their partner was afraid to say something.”
[Photo] Sandra Corso
This story was updated on January 30 at 9:30 p.m.