Now get out of that....
You have abseiled part way down your route and see a dangerous cut in the rope below you. You have descended into a coastal zawn and, as you gaze at the acres of unclimbable rock in front of you, realise you are in the wrong one. Your partner has injured their arm and needs to be lowered to safety…………
Having a toolbox of techniques for getting out of difficult situations should be a priority for every climber but I’d bet a set of shiny new prussik loops that many don’t have a much of a tool selection in their box. Why am I so sure? Well despite many years of climbing I certainly knew very few crucial techniques before I started training as an instructor and I know many of my long term climbing friends were the same. It’s also amazing how many very experienced climbers we get attending our self-rescue courses.
Of course I’m not criticising in any way and many climbers will cruise through their climbing careers without the need for any vertical jiggery pokery . In fact I always think learning self-rescue techniques are much like learning first aid skills. There are loads of people who know they should get around to it but work, life, kids, finances or simply being out climbing gets in the way.
We do, of course, have our usual range of one day Climbers Self-Rescue courses running in 2013 if you fancy filling your toolbox but in the meantime I thought I’d share a few ideas on what it’s worth carrying for those ‘escaping the touch’ moments on your next multi-pitch adventure.
I should say that I’m a great believer in simplicity (and not spending a fortune!) and the following recommendations are based on carrying the minimum tools required to do the job. There are loads of great products out there to make ascending, descending, hauling and all the rest much easier but you really do only need a few key things……
The cornerstone of being able to get out of vertical difficulty is the humble prusik loop (and associated Prusik knot). Invented by Dr Prusik, this simple tool is very versatile, very light, very simple and very effective.
My prusiks are made from 5 or 6mm cord. I search around for cord with a soft sheath and I also make sure they are different colours. They are tied with a double fisherman’s knot into loops about 30cms in length (I measure them by hooking the loop in the crook of my thumb and hanging it to the tip of my elbow). When tieing the knot I always ensure there are reasonable length tails (the bits of rope that come out of the end of the knot) and pull the knot as tight as I can.
I choose flexible rope with a soft sheath because it makes them grip the rope better and it also helps with handling. Finally, I always choose different colours to help with identifying the loops when they are in use. This could be identifying them myself so I don’t mistakenly undo the wrong one or helping me to get others to identify them such as “pull on the red loop”.
I carry three prussik loops. Three loops gives more versatility for some techniques (such as ascending past a knot) and also gives you a back-up if you drop one or need to lend one to a partner.
On long routes I carry the prussiks tucked into my t-shirt and around my neck. I soon find I don’t notice they are there (and usually only notice them when I’m jumping in the shower at the end of the day!) and yet they are always ready for use.
Along with my prussiks I also always carry a knife. This is really useful for cutting abseiling ‘tat’, freeing someone’s hair from an abseil device or a host of similar jobs. I have tried various knives over the years but my favourite is undoubtedly the Spyderco Ladybug. It’s very small and has a flat profile, well made, has a very sharp serrated blade and is self-locking so I don’t close it on my fingers. They are fairly expensive but I think they are worth the extra. Like my prusik loops I carry this little treasure around my neck on a piece of thin cord. It’s always within reach and yet is unobtrusive.
HMS karabiners are particularly useful for some rescue techniques where Italian Hitches are used. I usually carry a few screwgate ones. First there’s a couple of smaller HMS screwgates which are clipped on to slings carried over my shoulder (such as DMM Sentinels), a slightly larger HMS to use with my belay plate (my current favourite is a gold coloured Petzl Attache) and a much larger chunky one which is always a DMM Boa. I like to have my belay carabiner in a completely different colour to any others so I can easily identify it and DMM Boas, despite being a little heavier than some, are so versatile I think they are worth the extra weight. Of course these krabs get used for all climbing tasks but they are available for rescue situations if required.
I’m not sure where the word ‘tat’ originated, but most climbers know it refers partly to a length of cord or tape used for setting up abseil descents. On longer routes this can be really useful so I’ve included it as a piece of rescue equipment even though it might often be used in non-rescue situations. If I’m on a long route I usually carry a length of 7mm cord for this task. Typically this is about 6 metres in length to give enough scope for threading it around larger blocks or equalising a couple of anchor points. Of course it may be that you don’t have this available in an emergency so cutting some lengths off the end of your climbing rope will do the same thing.
Although not specifically for rescues, there’s some other items you carry which may be worth tailoring to potential ‘get out of that’ situations. Skinny dyneema slings are very easy to work with and can be knotted easily. They are also grippy when used with friction knots like the Klemheist. I have also been trialling Edelrid’s Aramid rope slings. These use 6mm aramid cord that is very strong and also works really well when knotted as the knot can easily be untied. They are made in 30cm. 60cm and 120cm lengths and, although they would all work as prusik loops, the 30cm model is specifically made a little softer so they can grip the rope especially well.
The type of belay plate is also worthy of consideration. Any will do but, providing you know how to use it, models with an auto locking feature such as the Petzl Reverso offer some useful functionality in certain situations.
Of course, having the right tool for the job is important, but the most important tool is the skills to deal with the situation. The right skills will also allow more improvisation options and the jobs of most of the items above can be replaced by similar items you’ll have with you if you know how.
If you decide you want some expert input details of our 2013 rescue courses are available here. It may just be the most useful day you’ve ever spent at the crag!