One of the best tools in a climber’s arsenal is visualisation, the ability to create a simulation of an event that has yet to happen – or – replay a past event, only this time as its architect. In either case, we create a virtual reality in our minds, a scenario, or multiple scenarios, that we can run over and over, sometimes in a split second, other times over days, weeks, years or decades (it can often take half a lifetime of endlessly re-runs and second-guessing of a traumatic event until you finally come to terms with it, and just accept how little actual control we have over anything).
We live most of our lives in this virtual world, one that’s more fantasy than fact, visualisation running in the background of everything and all the time, fight or flight partly triggered by visualizing two outcomes in a heartbeat (we’re always trying to see into the future, even if it’s measured by the blink of an eye).
When it comes to climbing, visualisation is an intrinsic part of all movement, each footfall pre-placed and evaluated in your head, but most often carried out subconsciously (running in the pitch dark is scary not just because you can’t see, but also because you can’t visualise the steps). This visualization can be switched to manual, where one consciously rehearses the next moves or traces the path of a loaded slope, considers where the gear will go, and where one can rest; but as one masters visualisation, the need to “go manual” recedes. I suppose we transcend trying to predict the future when we enter the “flow” state, a state in which we briefly exist in the future, and so everything is seen, known and easy. Or maybe not!
This tool is also an invaluable aid to technique, especially for techniques that are beyond the bounds of climbing SOPs ‘standard operating procedure’. Here you can create a problem in your head, such as having one of your ropes chopped by a falling rock high on a face, and then play out what you’d do to overcome that problem.
Doing this, even for a minute or two, will create a draft response to such an event that can be filed away. This is also one reason why climbing is so rich in stories, especially epics, as they are a rich source of visualisation role-playing game. We can read Touching the Void and think through what we would do, or Between a Rock and a Hard Place and consider what we’d not want to do. They also provide mods to our ideas and strategies, one reason why climbers buy ten times more technique books about climbing than high brow climbing literature.
As you learn more climbing tricks and climb more and experience more random events, see how problems manifest themselves and are resolved, we keep editing these game plans and strategies, seeing some things as being unworkable, adding in new methods as you learn them.
If you can see the timeline of one of these strategies, such as the aforementioned cut rope, you’d probably find it begins quite small, or maybe be blank, in that you have no idea what you’d do (rescue?). It would then grow in size and scope and complexity as you learn more tricks, but this might just be more encyclopedic than practical, or be a reaction to overthinking a problem, and just trying to bury it under solutions (non of which you fully understand or how to employ in the real world). Eventually, no doubt after having had a few ropes cut, you arrive at a more stripped-down set of ways to deal with such a problem, hopefully meaning the solution will be less dangerous than the problem itself.
An example of this was having a partner break his leg while climbing in Kenya, requiring a self-rescue to get him back to the ground where he could get help. Such a scenario is the kind of thing all climbers think about, and dread. Some train for it, reading books about self-rescue, hauling and lowering rucksacks that act as casualties at their local crag. Most will hear stories of this happening to other climbers, and listen closely as others describe how they’ve dealt with such real-life emergencies, and consider their own response. But when it happens, how close is it to how you thought it would be? Well, I’m sure it’s like being in combat, in that in part, how you do, is down to how well you’ve been trained (or trained yourself), which also reflects on how confident you are to be able to react positively and make use of that training. It also comes down to your ability, at the centre of such a crisis, where you have little room for errors, to visualise the way out, training or no training (a complex problem will often require you to consider multiple strategies you’ve formed in your head to be combined into one).
The aim of this article is to put forward a scenario and then consider a number of possible solutions and outcomes, both as a way to pass on some notes about technique, but more so to consider how to think through a problem.
In the scenario below there are no right or wrong answers, only compromises, but some compromises won’t kill you.
Ryan and Emma are high on a face, standing on a large ledge with a solid anchor. The next pitch goes left for ten metres into a jagged corner filled with loose, sharp, blocks. The traverse is protection-less and the crux of the climb. The first gear is at the top of the corner, where the corner connects with a crack, which leads back right to another ledge and solid belay.
Ryan and Emma have only one 60-metre single rope, the pitch approximately 40 metres long.
Emma is the stronger climber.
If the leader falls off before they place any gear they will take a factor 2 fall onto the belay, but, the only hard climbing will be reaching the corner, and then the climbing itself should be easier, and safe if carried out with care. A factor 2 fall should not really take place on the traverse, as the fall would be a swing (note: how would you belay someone for a factor 2 fall?).
The primary problem is that the second climber is the most exposed as they will have to carry out the crux moves while being exposed to a dangerous swing into the corner.
What are your options?
First of all, what are the simplest solutions to this problem?
Emma is the strongest climber, and so ideally she should climb last, as she will have the lowest chance of falling off the pitch. She will also be able to judge how hard it is, and have the holds chalked, by Ryan going first. This option may not work if Ryan does not feel confident to lead the pitch, or safe if Ryan lacks experience climbing loose rock.
The leader could make a belay above the crux (fig 3), thereby splitting the pitch, so as to provide more of a top rope, using long extenders on their first runners in order to reduce the angle of the rope.
The leader could tie into both ropes and split the pitch while climbing on a double rope system (fig 4), providing one rope to protect themselves and one for their partner. The downside of both methods (2 and 3), is that building a belay mid-pitch will use up part of the rack and lose time, but then so does breaking both legs.
One way to align the rope to the second is for the leader to back-clean the pitch (fig 5), thereby avoiding an acute rope angle. Back-cleaning can only be done if the leader is somewhat comfortable at the grade, allowing them to place gear and move back a few moves and remove the bottom piece. When back-cleaning you should try and always have two pieces of protection placed at all times, so one primary runner and a lower back-up. This primary runner could almost be viewed as a moveable top rope, or, that you are creating a mobile anchor, as most of the time you will have three pieces protecting you (you will only have two pieces when you remove or add the bottom and high piece). This approach can be highly effective, but only if the climber is experienced and strong at the grade, able to climb in control and make solid judgements about the quality of their protection.
Z belay back-rope
A more advanced option is for the second to back-rope (fig 6) the section of the climb, a technique that is generally only an option when using a double rope system (I will cover this in part 2). But it is possible to back-rope with a single rope, but this requires a great deal of skill, planning, and the ability to see potential dangers.
If one had a 100% solid fixed belay anchor, such as a bolted belay with rings, the second would untie and feed their rope through the anchor (or use a sacrificial locker, rapid link or karabiner), and tie back in. Now you would clip a locker from your belay loop into the down rope and start climbing (see fig 6).
Instead of taking in the rope, the belayer will pay out the rope, with each metre climbed requiring two metres of rope to be let out. This is a very important point as you can easily get halfway across only to find you’re out of rope!
If the leader was to fall, they will either end up in some kind of baby bounce fall (so held in the bottom of a V), or swing back towards the belay, but away from the corner.
Once the second is back in line with the rope, they would need to secure themselves back into it directly (locker, multiple lockers, or bowline on a bight), and untie for the end of the rope and pull the rope through, freeing themselves from the belay. They could then climb on with the end of the rope trailing behind them.
The dangers here are obvious. First, by paying rope out in order for the second to climb you could be setting them up for a much bigger fall, as a falling second will not necessarily just going to sag down onto the rope. You’re also adding in all kinds of odd forces on the rope, lockers and belay.
The biggest danger would be if the belay was to fail, something that could happen if you’re not using a fixed belay, so a sling or nut (or even a piton, as the force might be applied in a way that pulls it out), the second will fall a large distance, which would be far more dangerous than just falling into the corner.
How can this problem be overcome?
Z self-belay back-rope
The way to overcome this problem would be to somehow create a self-belay as you move, so that if you fall, your weight will come onto the main strand, meaning if the belay was to fail, you would not plummet down to the bottom of the rope.
Such a self-belay will probably require some manipulation by the second and could be a ABBD like a GriGri, a micro ascender (Tibloc, MicroTraxion, Frog) (fig 7), or a Prusik minding set up, created by feeding your rope through a belay device (you will need to untie), then attach a Prusik (fig 8), allowing you to pull the rope through the Prusik with one hand (hopefully!).
Would you actually use one of these techniques? Probably not, as they would probably take too much time to work out and set up, but it’s worth thinking about them. But what would a better alternative?
If the second was unable to climb the section, then a very simple and effective, and safe option, is to carry out a lower out.
Here the leader would feed all the spare rope down to the second, who would tie in short (tie-in, or clip-in with two lockers), leaving them all the free rope to play with.
They would feed this rope through the anchor, or through and solid anchor point, and then – on a tight top rope – rappel down this spare rope, or even hand over hand down it, until all the weight was on the top rope. They would now pull the spare rope down, and either climb or ascend the rope until they were able to climb.
The biggest hazard here is forgetting that each metre of travel requires two metres of rope, which can sometimes result in you getting halfway down your lower-out, only to find you’re out of rope! But hopefully, now I’ve told you that it shouldn’t be a problem.
Just Do it!
Of course, there are other options, but the number one option will probably be the simplest, to just roll the dice and just climb the bloody thing and hope for the best, which tends to work out 99% of the time (fear can be the most effective way to avoid an accident).
In part two I will cover how to deal with such a scenario when climbing on two ropes.