Technical Details and Background on Mildred Falls Incident

Matthew Pack

Photo: Joshua Davis

The Orange County Register published a nice piece today on Matthew Pack, the canyoneer who died Friday descending Mildred Falls. Reporter Greg Hardesty describes Pack as a young man who had found great inspiration in nature, adventure, and the West, and helps provide a very human context to the story of this tragedy. If you are following this story, I recommend reading Harvesty’s article.

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On the technical side, canyoneer Kirk Belles posted some information from the SAR team that rescued Pack. From the ACA forum:

The drop is 350+ feet. Matt had tied two ropes together and fixed them to the anchor at the top. The ropes were not long enough to reach the bottom. There is another anchor 100 feet down that people use to break the rappel into pitches. Matt had passed this anchor and was over the lip and in a long free-hanging section. It appears he may have been rappelling off to one side and either did not know the second anchor was there or over-looked it.

Matt had some gear on the rope, but it is unclear what type of gear it was. Speculation is that Matt realized his ropes would not reach the ground and attempted to ascend back up. The over-hanging lip and the force of the waterfall combined would have made ascending extremely difficult.

The waist belt of Matt’s harness was positioned unusually high and probably caused the mechanical asphyxiation.

Anybody who has spent time executing an unplanned ascending maneuver on a free rappel knows the difficulty of managing cumbersome gear whilst spinning rope in the air and gradually losing circulation via harness compartmentalization. It’s one thing when you are set up with ascenders ready to go, pack weight rigged appropriately, maybe even a chest harness. Lose that sort of preparation AND throw in a waterfall and a killer lip to get over, and you have a large pile of cards stacked against you. In a situation like that, a harness that’s a little lose could have easily been the final straw. It’s difficult to emphasize enough what a tough position that would be for anyone.

From Kirk’s SAR notes, it seems the critical error was missing the second anchor station 100′ down the watercourse. My guess is he knew about the mid-way anchor (being that he didn’t have enough rope to get all the way down), and he couldn’t find it, either because he misinterpreted the beta OR he just couldn’t see the bolts. He may have guessed the anchor would appear beyond the overhang lip, as it is often difficult to see past such a lip. Once he passed that point, a number of things would have made it difficult to retreat. It’s incredibly scary to imagine being in that situation, trying to remain cool, calm, and working through the steps to self-rescue.

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About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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