Like many days last spring, May 31, 2003 was a great day for climbing.
While it may have started as a good climbing day for David Christopher Gunstone, it certainly didn't end that way.
Gunstone was in Squamish, visiting from Seattle, to do some climbing on that Saturday afternoon. He was with a group of friends and they were climbing a route called Exasperator at the base of the Grand Wall area of the Stawamus Chief. Exasperator is a popular route with a moderate difficulty rating. The route is described as a two-pitch crack climb.
Gunstone, 41, finished a top rope ascent at just after 5 p.m. He was on his way back to the ground when things went fatally wrong. Gunstone fell 25 metres to his death.
Coroner Jody Doll investigated what happened leading up to Gunstone's fall and determined his death was accidental. Doll's report was completed May 6 of this year.
Doll determined that Gunstone fell when his climbing team failed to tie two ropes together. Essentially, where two ropes were needed to lower him to the ground, there was only one in place and he fell to his death because he ran out of rope.
According to Doll's report, Gunstone and his friends arrived at the bottom of Exasperator and met two other climbers already on the route. Gunstone's group had met the other two climbers through previous encounters in the climbing area. The two climbers completed the first pitch on Exasperator and said they wanted Gunstone and his group to join them and lead the climb up the second pitch.
In consultation with climbing experts, Doll determined that two ropes were initially used to begin lowering Gunstone. One of the ropes belonged to Gunstone while the second one belonged to the other group of climbers.
"Mr. Gunstone and his group planned to leave after Mr. Gunstone was on the ground," Doll wrote in her findings. "Their rope had to be removed from the system during the knot pass and replaced with a rope from the other group. When Mr. Gunstone's rope was untied, the replacement rope was not attached in time. As a result, the rope passed through the belay device and Mr. Gunstone subsequently fell to the ground."
Gunstone and one of the other climbers were using a belay system. Gunstone was on the wall and the helper was on the ground with a mechanical belay device attached to his harness. Gunstone also had a harness and the rope was securely attached at his end.
According to Doll, rock climbers have to look after their own safety and share responsibility for the safety of all the other members of a climbing party. "It is an accepted and common practice for climbers to double check knots and harness configurations, confirm instructions and vocalize plans," she wrote.
"When a climbing situation develops into a social atmosphere, as is often the case when larger groups of acquaintances congregate at the base of a climb, and especially in a controlled top rope situation, a relaxed atmosphere often evolves," Doll wrote in her report. "In these situations, the direct line of communication and psychological connectivity between the climber and the belayer is interrupted by exchanges taking place in the group on the ground."
Doll found that a number of factors contributed to the fatal accident that spring day last year."There was no well-communicated plan to complete the transfer of the ropes and there was a break down in the communication between the belayer and the rest of the group on the ground," Doll wrote in her report. "The belayer instructed the third member of Mr. Gunstone's group to complete the rope disconnection and reconnection process. The belayer stayed focused on Mr. Gunstone and assumed the rope reconnection had taken place. The belayer began to lower Mr. Gunstone and continued without noticing that the approaching end of the rope had not been reconnected."
Doll learned that confusion developed between the two groups in the minutes before the fall as 60 metres of uncoiled rope lay at the base of the climb.
"This created a confusing mess of multiple untied rope ends that could not be easily identified and separated," Doll concluded.
Gunstone's resulting fall caused massive head trauma. After the fall a call was made to 911 and local emergency officials arranged for an air ambulance helicopter to take Gunstone to hospital in Vancouver.
Hwy. 99 was closed at the base of The Stawamus Chief for a short time while the injured climber was loaded into the aircraft.
"His injuries were catastrophic and he was essentially dead [from the impact]," Doll said in the days after the accident. "When B.C. Ambulance got there, people were performing CPR on him. Some of his body processes were shut down."