Strategies for escaping from a wall
08 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
I came across a post on a forum yesterday from a guy who was asking about soloing his first big wall. One of the things that people kept bringing up was how difficult it would be to escape or retreat alone, as the route of choice was the seriously overhanging Tangerine Trip. This got me thinking about my own experiences at retreating!
Like starting a fight with the biggest guy in the room you need to have an escape strategy before you begin; or at least have thought about it first. To help you on the way here are a few pointers.
First off at the beginning of a wall you often miss the good life back on the deck, and so it’s easy to bail on the second day, especially if you have an excuse like bad weather, smelly partner or flat batteries in the stereo. What you often find is that after a convoluted retreat, you hit the ground – having past several hard won pitches – only to find yourself thinking ‘fuck why didn’t I leave it a day?’ or watch as the sun comes out, your partner finds a new pair of socks, or you discover you’d just had the pause button on.
The best option, unless it’s a ‘keeper’ is to tie all your ropes together and try and fix them down to the ground so at least you are committed totally to giving up. A 60 metre lead, haul and zip line will get you a LONG way down off any wall - believe me. You can rap with a bag if you want (holding all your personally stuff), leaving your food and water on the wall. Once down at least you have the option to either decide that you want in, or return when things are less frantic to retrieve the rest of your kit. Of course this also means you need to be able to pass knots, and get back up the ropes – so don’t leave you jumars on the belay!
If you know that this is it and the only way is down, being in a team pays dividends, as there’s a ton of work to do. First off you’ll probably need to jettison as much heavy stuff as possible. This means emptying water bottles (or stashing them if possible), throwing away any heavy food, and possibly throwing off a haul bag with unbreakable items (taking care of course not to kill anyone in the process). When ditching your supplies it’s vital that you hold back something in reserve unless you don’t make it down in a day. Once that’s done break the loads into one for each climber, with one heavy one and one light one. The lead climber raps down with the light load to the anchor and sets up the belay, securing the rope for the second – who’ll need it as they’ll have the heavy load.
If the pitch below needs to be down aided, then the leader climbs down (not as hard as it sounds) without a bag, then once down, fixes the ropes, then jugs up removing the gear. Once back at the belay the climber then descends again with the light bag. This is much easier then the second trying to remove gear on rappel with a monster haul bag clipped to themselves.
When rapping with a haul bag it’s best to attached the belay plate directly to the bag with two locking krabs on the haul strap, then hang yourself next to the bag via a short sling or daisy. The ropes should be backed up with a prussic attached to the bag below the belay plate, and can be backed up by a second belay plate and prussic on the climber. Lighter bags can be clipped straight to the belay loop.
The bag itself should have docking cord so as to allow it to be secured to each belay, and easily removed (3 metres of 7mm cord that is attached to the belay via a tied of munter hitch).
The main thing is not to rush the operation as taking short cuts invariably ends in time wasting disasters.
Although this sounds grim what it usually entails is a series of directional anchors that set you on the right course, and usually involves lots of swinging and penduluming around. Having fixed gear to go for makes life much easier – as well as having a cheater stick!
People often say that a route is impossible to retreat from – well this is bullshit, as no matter how steep or long a route is there is always a way; all it takes is patience, energy and a well thought out strategy. The following technique was used by me when descending alone off the Troll wall, along with a ton of baggage.
First rationalise all your gear, disposing of everything that is not necessary. Then get a long sling or cordelete and create a series of loops that will hold you, and each bag to the belay plate. Then attach a sling or docking cord to each bag in turn. If the abseils are straight forward then get to position on the rope (using a prusik loop or a jumar on the UP rope as a back up) and attach each bag in turn to the sling, until they are all hanging from the belay plate. Descend and when you get to the next belay clip each bag in vai their cords, then remove each one from the main sling (or un-weight them from the sling).
If the abseils are not straight forward then go down without any bags with the ropes fixed at the top belay (down aiding probably), and attach them to the next belay. Then jumar up, unfix the ropes, ready to be pulled and head down.
When descending take your time and have a knife handy if it all goes too shit and you need to cut your bags free! At the end of the day the most important piece of baggage is you.
Last year I rapped 18 pitches of El Cap, Solo with about 140 lbs. It took two days. (couldn’t ditch food, took water down/energy drinks/fun stuff for nose climbers)
Here’s what I learned:
ATC Complications: When bailing, you have plenty of penjis/reaches to do. Rapping with ATC-only friction can get dangerous fast if you take the pigs down the pitch with you your first trip down the line. Be very careful if you are doing this, and add friction to the system with another ATC or twists around a biner below the ATC. You may be hating yourself if you add friction with a munter, the last thing you need is twists in your line when you are trying to bail/pull thru anchors, etc.
There are perfectly safe ways to rap with an ATC, I’m not saying its a bad idea, just that I prefer another way…and that one should be aware of the complexities of using one in this particular situation.
GriGri and Heavy Loads: When using a grigri to rap with a particularly heavy load, the handle becomes quite difficult to release, and points almost straight up in when weighted in the cammed position. Also, it heats up very quickly, glazing your rope.
The combined glazing of the rope (If you are so unlucky) and the strange loads on the grigri can result in a very jerky descent. If you are rapping a dynamic line, it can become pretty scary and maybe dangerous quickly. If your ropes are rubbing on an edge, wow, no good.
Additional Friction: You can add extra friction to this system by positioning an ATC on that line below the grigri, after extending the grigri with REDUNDANT slings.
Reaching the Next Station: If your pigs weigh more than maybe 70 pounds, you will find that if you rap with them without your line connected to the next anchor first, you may be in trouble. It is very hard to “penji” to a station with a heavy load. You may have to rap the pitch first, fix your line with some slack in it, jumar up, and then rap with the pigs, using jumars to pull yourself to the station when you beocme horizontal with it.
There are ways to do this without rapping the pitch first if you have to move sideways with a heavy pig, but if you can’t figure it out on your own, its probably too dangerous to try.
“Riding the Pigs” Riding the pigs as described above, where the pigs are on rappel and you are clipped to the pigs, redundantly, is key.
Managing the Rope: In high winds, like on El Cap sometimes, just feeding your ropes thru the rings and letting them float in the wind is not a good idea. Control your ropes with rope bags clipped to your pigs as you rap. Stay tied/clipped into the ends as you rap for backup.
Down Aiding - Setting up your fly pole as a “stick clip” can eliminate some down aiding and suffering, as you can use it to hook fixed gear and bolts when your plum line is taking you out too far from the wall or too far to the side of the station that you are trying to reach.
The key is: Don’t Bail. Seriously. Bailing is often as hard as climbing, specially if you are solo, and on many routes, may be harder/more dangerous than actually climbing them as long as the weather is stable.
Andy’s Article: This is a fine article with great illustrations. With so many ways to do things, we won’t always agree. Here’s a few points where Andy and I differ…
In the section with the prussik below the ATC…if you weight the prussick, as it is shown attached to a pig…and that pig weighs alot, good luck. It will not be fun using your knife that close to your lifeline, and that will likely be your only choice.
Also, three docking cords are, IMO not necessary, time consuming, and confusing which can be bad especially if your weather is deteriorating. . Connect all your pigs to one powerpoint and add one docking cord to that.
Ditching your stuff: Sure, ditch the unnecessaries. (This probably would not include survival gear.) But if your ropes get stuck, you are slower than you think (don’t be surprised) you willl want more of your stuff than you might otherwise…don’t ditch rain gear/warm gear and keep the ledge rather than kill someone when it lands on them at the base.
Finally: Please DO NOT cut your bags loose unless your only other choice is to die. On today’s crowded routes with crowded bases, your lack of ability should not be compensated for in this way. You would stand a chance of killing someone.
But he is right, always always always have your knife on your person. It can be a great problem solver on a wall.
Hope this helps.