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 an 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.
A rope solo - step by step
In part 3 of this series on rope soloing I’ll run through a scenario of a typical day in the life and climbs of a big wall soloist. In this scenario I’ll be using a standard rope soloing set-up, and will cover a better system in the next instalment.
Waking up halfway up the PO wall on a solo ascent I look up at the pitch above and wonder what the day will bring. In the past, and with a partner, I’d be aiming for 3 pitches a day, but now I’m focusing on one, two or one and a half a day.
A soloist’s pitch is one that’s led, cleaned, and hauled, and so half a pitch is one that’s just lead, meaning that you clean and haul the pitch the following morning. This approach works on many levels. First, it’s vital to set a pace that’s sustainable and doesn’t leave you exposed to exhaustion. Soloing requires sound judgment, and being strung out - especially in the dark - is a sure-fire way to get into trouble. And so knowing your limits, and only climbing what you can comfortably do is the way to go. Keep a good safety margin by starting in the light and finishing before it gets dark. Darkness adds a whole new set of problems for the soloist, and so is best avoided unless you plan on setting speed records.
Also having a rope fixed on the pitch above give an extra level of safety, as your belay is backed up by the belay above.
The first thing I do is stack my ropes, which being tired the night before, I just left looped on the belay. I set both rope bags and carefully feed both the haul and lead lines into their bags (free end goes in first on the lead line, the free end goes in last on haul line). Once this is done I check that my lead rope is attached to the master-point of the belay correctly and backed up directly to a bolt. With my haul bag hanging from the master-point I know that a pull on the lead line will life up the bag, and help give a soft fall.
Next, I get ready to climb and sort out my rack. The big problem for me is that I don’t know how to set up a tag rack (a remote cache of gear I can get while climbing), so do it the hard way this time and take all the gear I think I’ll need. Luckily I have a Supertopo guide, so know I can leave the big stuff behind. Never the less the double set of cams, pegs, hooks and krabs weighs a lot. I stick on my helmet, sunglasses (to protect my eyes from sun, stone and steel), knee pads and gloves and I’m almost ready.
Now I tidy up the belay and put the ledge away (or secure it against the wall if I’m going to flag it) so that there is nothing that will snag my ropes.
I attach my Silent Partner to the line a few metres along from where it’s attached to the belay, using two small screwgates (back to back). I stop and double-check it’s set correctly and give it a few tests.
I know take five metres of slack and tying a fig of eight attach it another screwgate direct to my belay loop.
Now I attached the haul line to the back of my harness.
I’m almost ready to go.
Now I do another check:
- Harness done up
- Rope soloist on correctly, with screwgates attached.
- Back up knot tied.
- Haul line attached.
- Both ropes feeding direct from rope bags to me.
- Make sure the haul line is attached to the belay at the far end.
- Check I have all my rack, and that the belay is tidy.
- Check I have a belay device so I can rap down my haul line.
- Check I have my jumars or mini ascenders in case I fall into space.
- Check I have water in my water bladder on my back.
It’s time to go.
I start by clipping a krab into my highest bolt and clip in my lead line so that if I fall it won’t be straight onto the masterpoint, then clip my aiders in and crank up. I place my first piece and move off the belay.
Now I’m off the belay I check the ropes are leading straight to me, and that the haul line is not twisted behind the lead line. Everything looks good, and so I move on.
The pitch takes three hours to lead, longer than with a partner - but I’m taking it easy, my mantra being “I can’t afford to fall”. I know that a broken ankle would be far more serious alone, and something like a broken femur, or to be knocked unconscious could be terminal.
Twenty metres up I look back and realize I made a mistake; my haul line - instead of hanging free down to the belay, is trapped under the lead line where I’ve clipped into a cam a few moves belay. At this moment it’s easy to swear and get angry, but a soloist needs to accept that YOU made the mistake - and no one else, and so you should forgive yourself. Being angry and frustrated is just a waste of energy. The piece is probably close enough that you can clip all your aiders together and climb down them and free the haul line, but if it wasn’t then you could build and anchor from your last two pieces and rap down and sort it.
Problem solved you carry on. The weight of your rack makes your shoulders hurt, but you stay focused, drinking every 15 minutes so as to avoid heatstroke.
You try and stay nice and relaxed, again reminding yourself that you must not rush. In your bladder pack, you have a headtorch and a survival blanket and an energy bar, but you know you’ve moved well enough not to need them.
Towards the end of the pitch you’re almost out of cams and krabs, and again wonder how you could carry more gear, but make it to the belay at last, feeling a huge surge of satisfaction as your aider’s krab snaps tight onto the belay bolt.
Now - slowly and methodically you build the belay. Using a cordelette you create a masterpoint from the three bolts and pulling up the free end of the lead line, attached it with a screwgate direct to a bolt, then with another krab direct to the masterpoint. Next, you unclip your haul line and attach it direct to the belay bolt, then attach it to your hauler and fix this to the masterpoint. Now you tie a fig of eight knot in the haul line AFTER it leaves the hauler (so the ropes comes up through the haul from the last belay - and then has a knot tied) and clip this into the masterpoint as a second back up in case the hauler failed.
You take off your rack and attach it to the belay, along with your silent partner and you’re ready to go.
You attach your belay device to the haul line, and then one jumar (or prussic loop) as a backup; then before unclipping from the belay and descending you check one more time that everything is good. Also check you have your jumars and hammer, which you may need when cleaning.
Everything looks good so you rap down.
It takes only a few seconds until you’re level with the belay - hanging in space. To reach it you must pull out all the remaining slack from the rope bag, until the rope snaps tight to the bags, allowing you to pull yourself in.
You’ve done it.
Now it’s time to clean and haul.
The first thing to do is make the haul line tight from the bag to the belay above, as lowering the bags out at the moment would mean they would drop twenty metres to the end of the haul line (the pitch above is only forty metres), meaning you have to haul an extra twenty metres. To do this you can either simply tie a new knot in the haul line (alpine butterfly works well), or use a hauling device (minitraction) attached to the haul bags (remote hauling). With the bags tight and ready to go, you lower them out into space.
Now you clean the pitch, and arrive at the belay above, and set about hauling.
At one point, the bag gets caught under a small overlap in the wall. You lower the bags back a metre and haul again, something that often works, but not this time. So you try pushing the haul line out from the wall with your body as you haul, but again it remains stuck.
You clip into the lead line, so you have enough slack to rap down the haul line (not the side under load) to the bags. Once there you get back on your jumars and haul while at the same time pulling the bags away from the wall. The bags move, and you jug back up the haul line to the belay (if the haul line broke, or the pulley failed, you’d be back up by the lead line). Another option - if you didn’t have enough lead line - would be to rap down the lead line to the bags, and use the remote hauler (mini traction) to haul the bag over that section. If using a remote haul set up, make sure that the hauler is back up so that if it fails, the haul bag doesn’t just shoot off the rope.
The bag arrives at the belay at last, and you secure it.
The afternoon winds are picking up, so you pull out the rope bags and stack both ropes - after all the best way to avoid a problem on a big wall, is to kill it before it becomes one.
Another pitch is in the bag, and although you have time to lead half the next pitch you decide the break out the ledge and just chillax, after all, what’s the rush?