Maybe it’s a sign of our busy times that the subject of self-lining or solo top roping crops up a lot, strange work shifts, no midweek partners, or partners at all, leading to people wishing to get out and do something. Just going out soloing is an option for some, but not ideal if you’re wanting to push, or work things. And so self-lining allows a climber to safely play around on the rock, work a route perhaps, the term ‘play’ appropriate as self-lining is never quite lead climbing, or seconding, or soloing, but a bit of all three.
One of the biggest problems with the whole subject of self lining is that there’s a disconnect between the manufacturers of the gear used and the climbing world, as no one is self-lining as demonstrated by companies such as Petzl (two ropes, two ascenders), meaning there’s a void which is often filled with bits of info but not the whole thing, and so people don’t know what to do (using a single Traxion for example, which can be dangerous). For example, the Petzl Shunt is not recommended for self lining (even though it’s the most used self-lining device), when in fact it has been used for decades in rope access in just the way it is used in self-lining (and has been demonstrated to work, and recommend by Petzl), offering a backup on a single line, shows it’s perhaps the best tool for the job. And so here’s a rather more practical view on the subject.
Before I start what I’m writing below is how I go about self-lining and breaks from the standard practice as recommended by companies like Petzl, who recommend two ropes and two ascenders (see links below). The techniques below are what I’d describe as advanced and require a great deal of care and attention as the opportunities to fuck yourself up are high indeed.
The leader fixes a single rope down the line they want to climb, then attaches themselves to the line with some form of ascender that will allow them to climb, but will catch them in a fall. They then climb the route, often working it, then move on to another route.
To set up and use a self-lining system you need to be good at setting and judging belay anchors, as - unlike a free climbing belay - you will often be hanging from the anchor. This generally means being able to set up both simple (tree or bolts) and complex anchors (nuts and cams equalised) without putting yourself in harm’s way, judge them 100 solid, then integrate your rope so it doesn’t get cut or bring down the crag on your head.
You also need to be happy rapping steep grown (most people can do this), and climbing the rope with Prusik loops or ascenders (most cannot). Furthermore, you need to be able to go from hanging on your self-lining device, say a shunt, to set up to rap or climb the rope without killing yourself. Hanging in space on an overhanging and remote crag without a belay device, Prusiks or ascenders is an ‘Oh Shit’ movement worth avoiding.
A sound understanding of rope dynamics and sets ups (such as used in SRT and rope access) is also very helpful, and you cannot be too paranoid about your ropes.
I would go out on a limb that although many experienced climbers self-line, most often it’s something those who are newer to climbing try out a few times until they find partners. This should not be a point of concern, but rather a point of learning, as taking it seriously (skills, equipment, technique), greatly advances the climber’s experience. For example much of my early understanding of anchors, ropes and edges, and rope climbing, knot passing etc came from early forays into self-lining in Millstone Quarry.
Rope: Use a solid good quality single rope, ideally a 10+ mm static, as this is better able to handle abrasion and heavy wear, ascenders etc, as well as not having much ‘bounce’ when it catches you. If you’re climbing primarily on shorter crags then you don’t need a full-length rope, and you can pick up ‘offcuts’ from caving or industrial suppliers (a 30m rope is often fine). A longer rope can allow you to have one anchor and then keep moving the rope around and redirecting with sub anchors (say five close lines on a wall), but I’d probably stick with a shorter length rope.
Some people would call for the use of a dynamic rope in case the device you’re using snags on the rope, creating a loop, thus increasing the chance of a high factor fall (rope catches on the device, stops feeding, you climb higher, fall off, you shock-load the device and rope), but I’d argue that if you set it up correctly, and monitor it, then this should never happen. A static rope can take a fall (best not to test this out), but most devices that feature cams can be very aggressive on ropes when shock-loaded.
Edge protectors: One thing to focus on when setting your line is the effect of a fall on the rope as it runs over the edge of the crag. If the line goes plum vertical from the belay any fall will see limited ‘rub’ or abrasion on the rope (if it’s set correctly), but as soon as you move out from the plumb line you have problems. For example imagine a route like Pool Wall at Lawrencefield, which traverses around, backwards and forwards until the plumb line is reached. Any fall low down will see the climber pendulum across the plumb line, causing the rope to saw across the top of the climb. Such an action can cut a rope very quickly, which even if it doesn’t kill you will kill your rope. For this reason, I think it’s vital to always employ edge protection on your rope, either an industrial edge protector or something more DIY (a piece of carpet) or makeshift (a pack wrapped around the rope).
Belay kit: This is classic SPSA stuff, a good range of kit to set up a good anchor. Having a long length of rope is also great for tying off big features or tying distant pieces into the anchor.
Self-lining device: There are many devices on the market that could be used for self-lining, with people using Microtraxions, GriGri’s, Ropemen and both chest and handled ascenders, some being great, some being downright destructive and dangerous! But which is best?
The first thing is that whatever you use that you 100% get how it operates, as putting on a Microtraxion or GriGri upside-down is not unheard of. Knowing how the devices works and how it should run and feel is vital in order to reduce pilot error and that ‘Oh Fuck’ moment just before you die.
Of equal importance is the security of the device, which must be 100%, or as close to that as possible, as the ground hits you very fast - faster than you can work out you’re a fuck up. Some devices like the GriGri are superb as belay devices but can be death traps for self-lining, where an errant sling can hold down the cam, or a terrified hand can try and grab it and only pull harder when it does not stop your fall. There is also the world life use of devices that look 100% safe in that little Petzl booklet, all clean lines, but that doesn’t quite work so well in the dirty and crumpled reality. For example, I’m a huge fan of the Microtraxion, but found to my horror that the cam became disengaged and locked off the rope once, the reason? The end of the little tape used to secure the belay loop to the leg loops had somehow got caught on the teeth of the cam and yanked it back where it locked off, something you’d never be able to demonstrate in a lab.
And so for me, I think you need a device that cannot be fouled up or placed on incorrectly.
Next, I want a device that locks into and around the rope, not onto the rope (such as an ascender), so that the rope can’t escape and leave you up on the climb like Alex Honnold.
The way the device locks down on the rope is also important. Although the most effective, I would avoid toothed cams, the reason being they are too effective. By this I mean that as soon as you begin to traverse from the plum line they will lock off, trapping you in place. This can be very frustrating and can lead to climbers trying to fiddle with their cams in order to gain some slack, which is not good mid-pitch. A better option is a device that locks on the rope by some other kind of non-toothed camming or twisting action, as this allows you some leeway, giving you the freedom to go left or right, or up and down, but only locking when you fully load the rope.
I think the device also needs to be able to move without having to manually pull the rope, as this just creates the high possibility of high dynamic forces being applied to the system (if you fall with lots of slack in the system). Some of the devices that people use, such as the GriGri, will not run without manually pulling the rope unless a very thin rope is used, which solves one problem by making another one (a skinny rope).
So which device is best? Well, Petzl uses to recommend using two MicroTraxions (two gives redundancy), or a Croll ascender, but I would not, due to their toothed design. Other like the GriGri, but I’d say this has many problems and should also be avoided. Devices like the Tibloc, Ropemen, Duck etc also feature toothed cams. And so for me the two devices that stand out as offering the best level of performance and safety are the Petzl Shunt and the DMM Buddy 100 (or a variation of the Buddy design).
What’s interesting about both these devices is that they are, or have been used for many years, as industrial self-lining devices, used as a back up on the second rope used for industrial rope techniques. The ability for both devices to move up and down the rope easily without snagging sheaths with teeth is a boon for self-lining. A bonus with the Shunt is also that it cannot become detached from the rope and also have the best pedigree as a self-lining device.
Connector: How you attach your device to yourself is vital as often this is the weakest link. You need a connector that is very strong and cannot be cross-loaded or twisted. Using a DMM Ceros or Belay Master style locker (or Petzl Captiv) is one way to avoid cross-loading, or a steel 10mm Quick-Link, having this fixed to your belay loop so it cannot move or shift around. I would also try and keep the device in the correct position where it connects, maybe by using heavy duty elastic bands or Petzl Tangas.
Some climbers attach the device with a short sling (30cm), which stops it from getting caught between their body and the rock, which can work, but has the drawback of creating a 60cm ‘drop’ when you fall, and also puts the device in a position where you might grab it in a fall (the drop increases this chance as well). With any such techniques as you get experience and more trust, you’re less likely to grab a device, but early on I’d stick to a close connection.
Bottom Weight: For the device to run well you’ll need to weigh the end of the rope, and this is best done by just clipping in your pack and add a small amount of weight. Don’t overdo this as a heavy rope will make it harder to traverse around.
Other kit: It’s vital that you always carry a belay device to rap down on, as well as some (or several), methods to get your weight from the device onto your belay device. This will either be a Prusik loop or micro or full-size ascenders. When transferring from going up to down always tie into the rope somewhere below in case you blow it and end up not attached to anything. I would also recommend a helmet at all time, as you never know what the rope might dislodge, and you are all by yourself as well (always tell people where you’re going).
Here are a few other things to think about:
Backups: When self-lining – as with any roped soloing – you should back yourself up. The best way to do this is to tie overhand knots in the rope as you climb so that these will block your device if it fails to lock (make the bites 30cm otherwise they might just come undone in the fall). This is very fast to do and doesn’t affect the weight on the rope to help pull it through the device.
Re-Belays: If the route you want to do moves around a lot you might want to consider the use of re-belays or just the placing of runners to run the rope in the right direction. This is done by rapping the line and placing gear where needed, either letting the rope run free through it or tying it off with an alpine butterfly knot (easy to untie). The use of re-belays is also highly recommended if you’re either unsure of the stability of the top of the crag (loose or sharp edges), or if you’re really working the route hard. What this creates is a second anchor that is on the wall itself, so free from edges and abrasion, back up by the anchor above. This re-belay anchor does not need to be anything complex, even a solid nut or cam will do (be aware spending all day loading a nut will make it pretty well fixed).