Descent Strategy image

Descent Strategy

December 8, 2008

Reading Time: 610 minutes.

The leader

When you go up a climb you do so as a team and the same goes for your return and in many ways more so. Firstly there should be clearly defined roles that will be kept too for the entire decent. The most experienced climber should go first, taking the entire rack, the best headtorch, ascenders, and everything they need to carry out their mission, which is to find the best line and the best anchors. They become the leader, and it’s their job to find a safe route down the climb and be in charge of being paranoid about the lives of the team. Going first should not be viewed as being on the sharp end, as an error will no doubt prove fatal to all, but making one person responsible and giving them the rack gives every one defined roles and gives every one a routine they can fallow for every pitch, saving time and avoiding mistakes.

Don’t be afraid to ask

Although the leader is in charge never be afraid to question their judgement if you’re not happy or have a suggestion to make. If they seem to be tired it may be worth swapping over for someone fresher.

Route finding

Before you descend try and visualize the line of pull and fall. Are there any obvious features that will snag your rope, will the knot hang up one the edge of the ledge you just left ,or will it get gobbling up by some nasty slot?

If you can spot potential problems before they become real then you can easily save yourself a great deal of grief and sorrow.

If you suspect the knot will hang up on the edge of the stance then rap a short distance, find yourself another stance, then pull the knot down so it’s past any problems – making sure that both ends still reach the next stance!

As the leader you should look out for obvious danger spots that could snag a knot or falling loop of rope, like constricted cracks, flakes or chock stones. Is there anyway of steering the rope from these areas? This could be done by placing the next belay out of the fall line of a problem, or by using feature to help direct the rope out of a dodgy fall line, like running it down one side of a smooth buttress rather then down a flake filled chimney. You may be able to just avoid problems by the way you pull your rope, perhaps by whipping out and away from any problems just as the end slips through the anchor. Even if a problem becomes a reality and you find your rope stuck knowing what may be the cause of the hang may prove invaluable when making a plan on how to get the rope down. If the ground is particularly dodgy then consider making a single rope abseil, which will half the amount of rope falling each time you pull the rope and eliminate the problem of the knot snagging. Most of all don’t be greedy in decent. Don’t make a 60metre abseil down past lots of obstructions and features as you can guarantee the rope will get stuck. If in doubt always stop where the terrain changes dramatically and save the full length abseils for blank and featureless ground.


Keep communication simple, and try to avoid situations were everyone’s sat waiting for everyone else – the most likely cause of wasted time, with the leader waiting for the second to descend, and the second waiting to descent, having not heard the leader’s shout that they are off the rope. The best way to communicate is to shout in a higher pitch then the usual low shout, as this carries further and can not be misconstrued as anything else. My favourite is the Freddie Mercury Live Aid shout, a kind of long high pitched ‘waaaaayooooo’ while other like the ausie ‘sheila’. Women have better voices for communication because of their pitch. When the leader shouts that it’s safe for the second to descend, the second should shout down that they understand, so that the leader knows they have been understood. If that isn’t working then use whistle commands instead.