There has been some confusion surrounding the tragic incidents leading up to the death of local Piedmont climber Mark Byers. On a personal note, I'd like to start by saying that Mark was an occasional climbing partner of mine and a regular at my home crag of Crowder's Mountain State Park. Media and eyewitness testimony have created some confusion as to the cause of Mark's tragic fall. In an attempt to shed some light on the event, Bradley Woolf, Robert Hutchins, and I met with park staff today to examine the scene.
The park had collected some of Mark's belongings including his harness (cut by rescuers) his Soloist (still secured to belay loop), his chest sling (cut by rescuers), and the section of rope that was trailing from his harness. Rescuers cut his rope to extract him. Tellingly, there was an overhand knot proximal to the cut end of the rope. This suggests that Mark's Soloist did not engage during his fall and that the backup knot is what prevented him from falling all the way to the ground.
We accompanied park staff to the foot of the climb and found no signs of broken gear at the base. Looking up we could clearly see an intact anchor at the belay ledge for Balcony Route (about 50 feet up) and a rope tied from here extending up the cliff to an unseen high piece of gear. From the unseen gear the rope descended to a point about 15 feet above the base (some distance below his belay anchor) We could see where the rope had been cut by rescuers. At the cliff top there was no sign of damage to the existing bolt anchors, and there was no sign that Mark had in fact even reached the cliff top as per prior reports. Bradley and I rappelled down from the intact anchor to inspect Mark's high piece. Approximately 40 feet down from the lip we found an intact #7 stopper clipped into the rope with a sling. This is the piece that held Mark's fall.
We rapelled down to the anchor we had earlier seen from the ground. It consisted of two .5 camalots and a pink tricam equalized with a cordelette. There was a red tricam that was hanging from the anchor, but not a part of it. We agreed that this was a directional or an early piece of gear placed as Mark led out from his belay anchor. This placement likely failed due to a lateral pull from the rope as Mark fell, but had little bearing on the distance Mark fell. It is also possible that the sound of this piece of gear pulling out is what witnesses reported as 'anchor failure'. Above the red tricam we found a sling girth hitched around a rock feature. This sling was still clipped into the rope. From here the rope is clipped into the previously described high gear. Above the highest piece the route steepens and pulls through a bulge. We found fresh chalk here, but no sign of broken rock.
After our site visit, our survey group felt very confident that the accident was not a product of gear failure but rather an inverted fall which caused the Soloist to fail to engage. Rescuers report no gear hanging from the rope at the tie in point which suggests there was no gear or placement failure high up on the cliff. It is highly likely that while pulling the bulge move Mark fell into an inverted body orientation which could cause the Soloist to fail to engage. It is also possible that falling with the rope behind his leg could have inverted Mark with the same resultant failure of the Soloist to engage. Rescuers report that Mark's airway was compromised by a sling he was wearing and that this was likely the proximal cause of death. Pictures that Mark took during a prior ascent show a red sling configured such that the tie in point was in the center of his chest (secured with locking carabiner). This effectively creates an X across the front of his chest which could ride up in the event of a fall and impact the victim's airway.
Because Mark was climbing the route in two pitches it is likely that he climbed the first pitch and set an anchor. From here he descended the route and cleaned his gear. While on the ground he likely met the couple who were exploring the base of the cliff. Reports suggest that he engaged them in conversation. If this is the case it would likely explain the confusion related to the eyewitness reports stating that Mark had finished his climb and was coming back down. From their perspective he had finished the route as he was standing at the base. From here Mark would have ascended back to his first pitch anchor and begun preparations to begin up the second pitch. As Mark progressed from the first pitch anchor to the top he would have been out of sight of anyone at the base and in fact from the base it could appear that Mark was simply topping out when in fact he still had quite some distance to cover before reaching the top.
The likelihood that Mark had placed a second gear anchor above the first is very low as the bolts atop the cliff are directly in line with belay ledge of Balcony Route. We found no sign that Mark had built a gear anchor at the top, or clipped into the fixed bolt anchor. We found no sign at all that Mark had summited including chalk marks, abandoned slings or carabiners, or signs of freshly broken rock.
In summary, site evidence and the knot in the rope suggest that Mark took a regular leader fall while climbing through the steepest part of the route. This fall was unarrested by the Soloist probably caused by body orientation. Once the fall was stopped by the backup knot, Mark's chest rig rode up on his torso to the point where it impacted his airway. Perhaps due to his injuries Mark was unable to right himself and take weight off of the chest sling.