Tips on safer winter soloing
04 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).
Although we all know that soloing is dumb, stupid and dangerous, many of us still do it. The reasons are many. Sometimes we solo for speed, climbing easy but exposed ground in order to reach the real climbing. Other times it’s because we have no one to climb with and conditions just seem too perfect to miss. For some soloing is an expression of freedom, and nothing beats moving swiftly up faces and mountains alone.
Of course soling is dangerous, but some of these dangers can be limited, and the following are a list of things to keep in mind, both for solo soling and paired soloing.
Goes without saying really, but you have to be in control in order to be safe. Bashing away pumped and stupid on a steep pillar above a huge drop is not a nice place to be. Soloing requires calmness and confidence. If you loose either then you’re in trouble.
The two major killers on a solo will be other people and the condition of the route itself. Be wary of climbing under or near anyone else, even if they are several pitches above you. Falling ice may knocked you out, stun you, or break a limb. If there are people every where go for a nice walk.
Get a grip with conditions. If they are bad don’t climb. Be aware of avalanche danger on big exposed areas of snow, and be especially wary of cornices. Bad weather is also a bad time to climb, with even small spindrift avalanches proving potentially deadly.
Unless you’re walking carry a rope. With a rope you can belay yourself over short sections of hard ground, or retreat. Without one it’s very easy to end up pushing into the red, or else end up calling for a rescue. If the climbing’s easy stick the rope in your sack, or tie it to your back. If it’s hard, then clip into the middle and trail both ends. Be prepared for half length raps, and if the route requires full length raps to get down then carry a spare rope (50 or 60 metres of 5mm to 7mm perlon).
You’re not Alex Lowe. Get bonked on the noggin and your dead.
You’ll need this to rap, or place gear for protection or to rest. Don’t forget cord and an ice threader.
Self belaying when your moving fast and free isn’t quite so confidence building as having a mate holding your ropes, and to be honest it’s often 50/50 whether it’ll work. The basic was to achieve this is to place a piece of gear, clip a krab to it, then clip in one strand of your rope, clipping the end into your harness. You can now climb 15 metres until it goes tight. If you fall at the end you’ll go 30 metres before (hopefully) the gear holds. Once you’re out of rope you can either unclip the rope end so the rope feeds out of the gear (this means living the gear behind), or you can attempt to pull the gear out. This is possible if you leave slings, and sometimes works with wires, but don’t count on it.
If you place a multi directional anchor (peg, ice thread, bolt) then you can place gear as you climb. Again once at the top untie one end and pull it through, leaving all the gear behind.
For longer pitches, or where you want to retrieve gear, you’ll have to learn more advanced rope soloing techniques.
Your number one pieces of protection are you axes, so stay clipped to them at all times. Use either a Grivel Sprung leash, or tie them to you. It also goes without saying that dropping them is a bad idea (some may carry a 3rd tool).
Don’t rush into anything, and if in doubt back off.
If you can avoid it don’t solo together. You increase the risks of knocking shit down, plus a weaker climber may feel pushed to climb something they shouldn’t.
Text or ring someone to tell them what you’re up to. I know a few soloist who never came home, so it’s a good idea to tell the Mountain rescue where to find your body.
Soloing is stupid, but then so are a lot of things climbers do. Know the risk and leave your ego behind.