10 February 2011
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).
WARNING: This blog is not meant as instructional text, and is simply a description of how I rope solo. Rope soloing is highly dangerous and demands a great deal of experience and good judgment and in many ways is more dangerous than free soloing, due to an increased reliance on ‘systems’. Anyone wishing to rope solo should already have extensive knowledge of all the systems and equipment needed, as well as a sound knowledge of themselves, their limits, and the reality of making a mistake. Bottom line: Don’t rope solo.
Free soloing is the truest expression of a climber’s freedom, cruising up the rock, alone and unnumbered by safety gadgets. But even the best free solo climber, pushing their limit, may find a section of the climb where success is uncertain - where a fall would mean death. In this situation they will either back off, fall off, just go for it, or employ some kind of safeguard until they pass this section. There are many examples of this in alpine solos (Ueli Steck rope solos short sections of many of his alpine climbs), and I covered this type of soloing a while back in my “winter soloing” piece. But what about climbs where the majority of the pitches are too hard to consider free soloing? In this situation, you need to employ systems that allow you to move as if you had a partner and one that can progress up the climb with you.
There are several full bore rope soloing systems around, designed primarily for big wall climbing, and have been tried and tested over the decades, from Bonatti on the Dru right through to futuristic solos on Baffin and Antarctica.
Soloing a big alpine face without a rope in a few hours - rather than days - is a real buzz, but in many ways it’s not a patch on spending time on that face; experiencing more deeply what it is that drew you there in the first place, the views, the bivvys, the moods of the mountain. The legendary soloist Ivano Ghirardini (first winter solo of the Eiger, Matterhorn and Jorasses) was a man who would probably find today’s need for speed quite odd, believing that the bivy was a vital ingredient of any climb (but maybe that’s just because he was slow, and felt under pressure by hotshots like Profit?). Rope soloing gives you the ability to spend days, weeks… or longer, all alone with the mountain, every inch gained, gained by your toil alone. Having rope soloed a few things, I think that maybe it’s the highest test of a climber, requiring everything you have (physical, emotional, mental as well as skill-wise), and also the most rewarding.
When rope soloing instead of being belayed, you belay yourself, and so a ‘break’ is a device or technique used in place of your belayers hand. You have two main types of ‘break’ one mechanical and one using knots.
By far the best, safest and most foolproof belay break for rope soloing on big walls with a lot of aid is the clove hitch. This is because the knot is always tied, and even when being loosened, will still catch you in a fall. A clove hitch can be adjusted one-handed, but it’s best not to dwell on what would happen if you fell with your fingers in the knot! The downside of the clove hitch is that on anything but a snail’s pace it’s a pain in the arse (you can clip a biner through a strand of the clove hitch to aid pulling slack through, but if this was to clip into something in a fall then the knot would fail). Never the less knowing how to rope solo with a clove hitch should be in the tool kit of all climbers, as it’s a fantastic tool both for self-rescue, and when faced with immovable rope drag (I’ll let you work that one out).
When soloing with a clove hitch I would use either a large steel Maillon, a twistlock forged HMS or two HMS krabs back to back (a single HMS is admissible due to the fact when rope soloing you always have a backup knot - otherwise your whole life would depend on one krab - not good).
The figure of eight can be used when on easier ground, and tends to be tied with plenty of slack, allowing you to make a few moves, then tie another one, and you could even pre-tied a number of knots. The downside is a figure 8 is a tough one to tie one-handed, and you have to be careful switching between one knot and the other. One way to do this is to use two screwgates back to back, clipping the new knot into one, then the other, then unclipping the old knot in the same style (this means you always have a knot through both krabs).
Although many climbers in the early days used the super prussic loop, it’s more a testament to their lack of falls, rather than the prusiks holding power, that they are still alive! The bottom line is a prussic will slip and melt in a fall - not good.
There are several mechanical devices people use for soloing, but only 3 which are designed for the job, plus when it comes to such devices nothing is assured!!!!
Although it’s not meant for rope soloing, the Petzl Grigri is by far the most popular rope soloing device, probably due as much to its low price as well as peoples experience with it, rather then its safety record. Some climbers modify their grigri to allow the rope to feed more smoothly, or attach a loop of cord or wire so they can fix it to a chest harness, but both involve drilling or filing, both of which compound the feeling that you’re doing something wrong. Beyond the fact that most climbers are comfortable using a grigri, its main drawback is the fact that it’s very easy for the handle to become tangled or snagged, and so stop the unit from locking off. I’ve used the grigri a few times and have taken two falls, one that it caught, the other that it didn’t (I was saved by an aider clipping into a piece of gear on the way down!). Another problem is the device can only be attached by one karabiner and unlike a knot, has a good chance of loading the karabiner badly (a brit soloist took a monster lob off el Cap a few years ago when his DMM Belay Master attached to his grigri snapped - being saved by his back up knot). When using a grigri I would use a steel mailon to attach it to my harness, and make sure to always have a backup knot, as well as reduce any clutter that could fowl the handle.
Charles Cole had an interesting system where he fed the rope through a belay device as normal, but then used a jumar as a brake hand, attaching it to his harness via a sling. I’ve never used this system, but guess if you get the length right of the sling, and a non toothed jumar (Rock exotica rescue), it could work, allowing the rope to be fed out. Beyond this system, you should avoid using any kind of jumer (including Petzl tractions), as in a fall you will do a great deal of damage to the rope, plus such forces are way beyond their design spec.
The soloaid is best describes as a mechanical clove hitch, allowing a climber to more easily grab slack as they climb. It’s also small and compact and relatively cheap and proves a great degree of security. I used one of these when trying to solo a new winter route on the Troll Wall and although it was great for aid, when it came to free climbing (I switched to the Rimond route) it was a non-starter. The bottom line is probably best to stick with a clove hitch.
The soloist has probably the best pedigree of any soloing device and has been used on many of the big solo climbs of the past two decades, including all Catherine Destivel’s solos (Eiger, Dru and Matterhorn). This device, unlike the Soloiad, allows free movement with no self-feeding required, a boon for free climbers.
The device is tied (hence no problem with karabiner breaking) to your harness (I use a loop of 7mm rope), and then clipped to a chest harness. If you get the set-up right it’s not too bad, but if you get it wrong you can feel pretty restricted. The rope feeds into the device, and locks against a cam in a fall (unlike the grigri the cam is safe from tangles or snags). The big problem with the unit is that it doesn’t work in an upside downfall - which I guess is a pretty big problem. The chest harness is designed to reduce this problem, but never the less this drawback is always in the back of one’s mind when using it. It’s worth noting, that although the Grigri has many drawbacks, it should lock in a headfirst fall. Luckily the Soloist has all been superseded by the following device, and really only has a place (along with the grigri) for winter soloing, where it has the advantage of having fewer moving parts, and therefore less prone to freezing up.
The pinnacle of mechanical soloing devices, perfect for aid or free, safe in any kind of fall, and used on such solos as Hans Florine’s solo ascent of the Nose and Half Dome in a day!
The silent partner is best described as being like the locking mechanism in a seat belt; it will run smoothly until you pull too fast, at which point it locks. This mechanism is inside a steel polished barrel, around which a clove hitch is tied. What happens is the barrel rotates, allowing the knot to run, then locks down as soon as you pull too fast. The strength of the unit, both in the way its designed to be used (it’s attached by two karabiners) and its simplicity (there’s nothing to snag and foul it) making it the best soloing device by miles.
A rope for rope soloing needs to be pretty robust, especially for very long climbs, as you may be giving it’s a lot more hammer than normal: climbing with it, abseiling down it, then climbing it with jumars. The good thing about rope soloing is that there is no drag at all, and if you do it right, also very little weight, so on tough climbs for 10.5 or 11mm ropes. If you’re on a big wall you will probably need a second haul line/ rap line, and I tend to go for a 10mm dynamic, so I’ve got a spare rope in case the lead line gets trashed.
Rope bags are a vital tool for anything that’s longer than one pitch, allowing the rope to feed out without snags (a tangle forty metres below you on a runout pitch is not good!). It often seems that most of your time on a big rope solo is spent stacking ropes into bags, and so you soon become intimate with the variations in good design. I use a wide range of bags, including ones made by A5, Fish, BD and Aiguille, but you can easily make your own, just make sure it’s nice and big and has some system of keeping it open.
These small prussic loops made from thin bungee cord are vital for smooth rope soloing (as you will find in the next article), allowing the rope below you to be held, rather than hanging from your waist (and probably locking up your belay device - or worse still, sucking a ton of slack through the system). Bungee is used rather than the thin cord, as in a fall this cord will break (as the rope is pulled through the system as it stretches), and bitter experience has flagged up the fact that 2mm or 3mm cord breaking under load can cut like a knife - not good when it’s next to your rope.