Crevasse Rescue – Raising Systems

This Crevasse Rescue article is part of the book - Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue.

VDiff glacier travel crevasse rescue book

Imagine you are travelling on a glacier as a team of two, and your partner in front suddenly disappears down into the snow.

Step 1
The first and most important thing is to hold the fall. This will not be easy! The best technique is to dig the sides of your feet into the snow (imagine a tug of war type action), while plunging the shaft of your axe into the snow.

If you end up being dragged along the surface, the self arrest position will hopefully stop you as the rope cuts into the lip of the crevasse and increases friction.

how to rescue someone from a crevasse glacier

Step 2
After holding the initial fall, kick a secure platform for your downhill foot, or cut one with your axe. This will give you a bit more security to hold the weight while you are making the anchor. Shout to your partner and check they are okay. It might be very difficult for you to hear them but it’s worth trying. If your partner is uninjured and capable of prusiking up the rope or climbing out of the crevasse then that would be the best solution.

Step 3
If you cannot communicate with your partner or they are unable to climb/prusik out by themselves, then you will continue. Make the appropriate anchor depending on snow condition. This will be difficult because you are also holding the weight of your partner on the rope. The anchor needs to be very good, so don't rush it. Be precise and get it right.

how to rescue someone from glacier

Step 4
Once the anchor is built, put a French prusik on the weighted rope and then clip this to the newly created anchor (using a micro traxion is better if you have one – see below).

Push the prusik forward along the rope in front of you. Cautiously allow the weight to pass from you on to the anchor, watching carefully to see if it is working correctly.

crevasse rescue

Step 5 (If Using a Prusik at the Anchor)
Clip the unweighted strand of rope through the same carabiner that the prusik is on, ideally this should be a small screwgate orientated so that the narrow end is pointing towards the crevasse. This now creates an ‘autoblock’ – meaning that as the rope is pulled through, it locks to capture the progress.

This setup generates a lot more friction (which makes hauling more difficult) than using a micro traxion or other type of pulley, but is simple and works.

two person crevasse rescue

Step 6
Tie an overhand knot in the slack rope to act as a backup in case the prusik/pulley slips.

Step 7
Tie a classic prusik on the weighted rope and connect it to your harness. This is to protect you in case you fall into another crevasse but also acts as a backup in case your snow anchor starts to fail. You can now remove all of your chest coils, but remain tied in to the end of the rope.

Step 8
Move down the weighted rope towards the lip of the crevasse, sliding the prusik as you go. If there are jamming knots in the rope, you’ll need to pass them (see below). Be very cautious as you approach the lip of the crevasse at this point and keep the prusik behind you to protect yourself from falling in.

Check if your partner is okay. If they are fine but cannot prusik out, you will need to haul them. If your partner is severely injured or unconscious it might be necessary to prusik or abseil down to them and administer emergency first aid or call for rescue services. Never haul an unconscious casualty!

crevasse rescue for two people

If You Need to Walk Past Jamming Knots

To pass a jamming knot while moving towards the crevasse, clip into its loop, then move the prusik over to the next section of rope. Repeat as necessary.

A much quicker (but more dangerous) method is to walk past all the jamming knots first and then attach your prusik. This does not offer a backup for the snow anchor and if you fall into a crevasse, the anchor would be shock-loaded.

prusik past a knot

Step 9
Clear the edge of the crevasse. The rope will have cut a slot through into the lip. If it has gone deep, you will need to clear and cut the lip of the crevasse, being careful not to knock anything big onto your partner below. Then pad underneath the rope with walking poles to prevent the rope cutting further into the lip while you are hauling.

Step 10
Move back from the edge of the lip. Clovehitch the slack rope into your harness and unclip from the prusik. Take the rope which now runs between your harness and the anchor and clip it to the prusik as shown. This is now a 3:1 hauling system.

how to do crevasse rescue

Step 11
Using the power in your legs, claw your way back up to the anchor. As you do this, pull down on the dead rope coming from the back side of the pulley to increase efficiency. Pull in a straight line with one leg either side of the ropes.

Step 12
Stop just before you reach the anchor and allow the weight to transfer from your harness back to the autoblock/pulley. Do not continue to move past the anchor as you may disturb the snow which provides its strength.

Step 13
Repeat the hauling process as needed. Move back towards the crevasse, adjusting the clovehitch on your harness as you go. Then adjust the prusik back towards the lip to reset the system.

Step 14
The final stage is to get your partner over the lip of the crevasse. They will probably be stuck if the rope has cut in. Don't just keep pulling, as it is possible to cause injury. If they can’t climb out themselves, you will have to go to the lip and help them. Tie yourself in tight and give them a hand, or throw a loop of rope for them to pull on.

VDiff glacier travel book

Crevasse Rescue - Hauling Past Knots

If you have tied jamming knots in the rope, it will be necessary to deal with them when hauling.

Step 1
Haul as described above, but stop when the first jamming knot is 10cm away from the pulley.

Step 2
Attach a 30cm sling to the anchor. Put a French prusik on the weighted rope below the jamming knot and connect it to the sling.

Step 3
Pull with your harness again to free the pulley so that the weight can be transferred onto the prusik.

Step 4
With the weight now removed from the jamming knot, untie it and pull the slack rope through.

Step 5
Remove the sling, prusik and carabiners and continue hauling as normal. Repeat this process for each jamming knot.

hauling past a knot

Crevasse Rescue - Teams of Three or Four

Holding the initial fall is easier with more climbers on the surface to share the weight. The rescue principles are the same as described above, but the situation is easier to deal with.

Step 1
The middle climber holds the weight, while the back climber moves forward. As they move forward, they should reduce the slack rope by attaching a prusik and sliding it along.

three person crevasse rescue

Step 2
The back climber moves in front of the middle climber and constructs an anchor.

Step 3
Once the weight is transferred to the anchor, the system is the same as for a team of two.

crevasse rescue with three climbers

Step 4
The climber who built the anchor should attach to it and sit in a braced position. This protects them and also creates a backup for the anchor. They can then help to haul from their braced position.

Teams of Four
These steps can be modified for a team of four, with an extra climber to assist with hauling or taking some of the strain from the anchor.

crevasse rescue with three people


Communication with the casualty is critical in all of these crevasse rescue systems. Often this is only possible by creating an anchor and having one person move to the lip of the crevasse, or by having a second independent rope team acting as a communication relay.

Advanced Trad Anchors > Part 1 of 5 > Getting Perfect Equalization

'Advanced Trad Anchors' is part of the book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.

VDiff trad climbing self rescue book

In Trad Climbing Basics, we introduced various methods of creating belay master points by tying an overhand knot in a sling or cordelette.

These methods are safe, simple and perfect for most situations that a beginner trad climber would find themselves in. However, they have drawbacks in more complicated belay setups.

The main problem with the overhand knot is that it does not spread the load equally between the pieces, especially if one strand is short, or if the loading direction changes.

This uneven distribution of force could mean that all of the force is applied to the poorest piece of the anchor.

Advanced Trad Anchors - Loading Direction

When loaded directly downwards, each piece of this anchor will take 33.3% of the load.

Advanced Trad Anchors climbing anchor

If the loading direction changes (e.g; the climber moves to one side and then falls), 100% of the force will go onto one piece.

This could cause that piece to fail.

trad climbing advanced trad anchors

Advanced Trad Anchors - Strand Length

If one strand of the cordelette is much shorter than the others, more force will be applied to the short strand when weighted.

This is because a short strand reaches maximum stretch before a longer strand.

These concepts are easier to understand if you imagine how elastic bands would stretch in these situations.

how to equalize trad climbing anchor

The same is true for dynamic rope. More force is applied to the top bolt in this case.

using rope in trad anchor

VDiff climbing self rescue book

Advanced Trad Anchors - Number of Strands

A double strand of cord (or rope) stretches less than a single strand when weighted.

While this is a good method of equalizing pieces which are far apart, more force is applied to the right piece in this anchor.

advanced trad anchors equalizing cordelettes

In this anchor, the strand of cord on the center piece has been doubled up to keep the master point higher.

Because of this, more force will be applied to the center piece when weighted.

equalizing cordelettes trad climbing anchor

Similarly, more force is applied to the upper two pieces in this anchor.

using rope in advanced trad anchors

Getting perfect equalization is not so important for most situations when each piece of the belay is bomber.

In most cases, the variations of the overhand knot method described here are fine. However, in more tenuous or complicated belay setups, a self-equalizing method could be much safer.

Advanced Trad Anchors > Part 2 of 5 > The Sliding-X

This article about the sliding-X knot is part of the book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.

VDiff trad climbing self rescue book

The main advantage of using a self-equalizing anchor is that it continues to distribute the load equally between the anchor pieces as the loading direction changes. This maintains a lower force on each piece, therefore decreasing the likelihood of anchor point failure. This is especially useful when equalizing marginal pieces of lead protection.

The main disadvantage of using self-equalizing knots at the anchor is that if one piece fails, the whole belay shifts. This shift is barely noticeable on a well set up anchor. However, with some setups the sudden jolt could cause you to lose control of your belay device. Be careful where you use self-equalizing anchors and make sure to tie appropriate extension-limiting knots to reduce the possible sudden shift in belay position.

If two micro nuts are equalized with an overhand knot as shown, it is likely that one of them would take most of the force of a leader fall.

This could be due to a slightly off-centre adjustment of the knot, or a slightly different loading direction (you may not fall directly downwards). If the fall generates 4kN of force, it will cause the 3kN piece on the right to fail.

equalize climbing anchor

This will put 100% of the force on the remaining piece, which will most likely cause that to fail too.

equalise climbing anchor

If the same two micro nuts were equalized with a sliding-X, the knot would self-equalize during the fall and distribute 50% of the force (2kN) onto each nut. The nuts would then be much more likely to hold the fall.

sliding-x climbing knot

The Sliding-X

The sliding-X is useful for:

- Equalizing two pieces of trad gear as part of a more complicated anchor
- Equalizing two pieces of lead protection
- Equalizing a two-bolt anchor for top roping

Step 1
Clip a sling through two pieces of gear.

Make sure the sewn section of the sling is near the top of one of the pieces so it doesn’t interfere with the sliding-X knot.

Step 2
Twist the sling 180 degrees and then attach a carabiner to it. The central point will now be equalized even when the pull comes from different directions.

sliding-x equalizing climbing anchor

Step 3
Position the central point where you want it. Unclip the sling from one piece and tie an overhand knot near to the central point.

This is known as an extension-limiting knot. The closer to the central point you tie them, the less the anchor will extend if one piece fails.

Step 4
Clip the sling back into the piece.

equalize climbing anchor sliding x

Step 5
Repeat steps 3 and 4 with the other side.

You can now adjust the overhand knots so they are as far down as possible while still allowing the central point to move freely where it needs to.

sliding-x trad climbing anchor

If one piece fails, the central point will shift as shown.

how to tie a sliding x climbing anchor

1) It’s essential that you twist the sling in step 2. If you don’t, the central point can become completely detached from the anchor if one piece fails.

how not to tie a sliding x climbing anchor

2) It can be difficult to clip another carabiner into the main point of a sliding-X when it is weighted. If you must do so, make sure you have clipped the carabiner through the sling in exactly the same way as the original carabiner. A much better alternative is to use the quad anchor.

Sliding-X Variations

There are many ways of incorporating the sliding-X into an anchor. However you do it, make sure that if any piece failed, the resulting anchor shift:
- Is minimal
- Causes the remaining pieces to re-equalize
- Will not cause you to lose control of the belay

The following arrangement uses one double-length sling to equalize three pieces.

Step 1
Clovehitch a double-length sling to the lower right piece.

how to tie a sliding-x climbing anchor

Step 2
Clip the sling through the upper right piece.

how to tie a sliding x climbing anchor

Step 3
Add two extension-limiting knots.

how to tie a sliding-x climbing anchor

Step 4
Clip the sling into the left piece.

Adjust the knots so they limit extension while allowing for some directional movement.

how to tie a sliding x climbing anchor

Step 5
Put a 180 degree twist in one of the master point strands and clip a carabiner through both loops as shown.

how to tie a sliding x climbing anchor

VDiff climbing self rescue book

You could also equalize four pieces by clovehitching another piece on the left.

You may need to adjust the extension-limiting knots after adding the fourth piece.

how to tie a sliding x climbing anchor

If your belay consists of one bomber piece (the bolt) and four mediocre pieces (the micro nuts), you could use an arrangement like this.

This method equalizes the pieces so the bolt takes 50% of the load and the four micro nuts take 12.5% each.

how to tie a sliding x climbing anchor

Advanced Trad Anchors > Part 5 of 5 > Minimal Gear Anchors

'Minimal Gear Anchors' is part of the book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.

VDiff trad climbing self rescue book

The following minimal gear anchors are great to know in case you reach the top of a pitch without a cordelette, only a meter of rope to spare and not quite enough slings to create a self-equalizing anchor.

Endless variations and combinations are possible depending on the equipment you have and where the gear placements are. A few examples are given below.

It’s hard to get any of these anchors equalized perfectly, but if you’re short on slings and rope, these are probably your best options.

Example 1

A double-length sling equalizes the two pieces on the left.

An overhand knot is tied in the shoulder-length sling on the right to equalize it with the others.

Trad anchors with minimal gear anchors

Example 2

A double-length sling can join three pieces, if two of them are in line with each other.

Simply tie an overhand knot in the sling above the lower piece.

Building trad anchors with minimal gear

Example 3

The upper cam is clipped through the sling of the lower cam. This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than just having one cam.

Often you can slide cams up or down a placement to fine tune their position.

Trad anchors with no gear

Example 4

The upper two pieces are equalized with a double-length sling.

The overhand knot is adjusted so the lower piece can contribute to the anchor.

minimal gear anchors how to make trad climbing anchor

Top Tip – Minor Adjustments

You can wrap a sling two or more times through a carabiner to shorten it slightly. Keep the wraps close together and away from the gate if possible.

If you need to shorten a sling more, it’s better to tie an overhand knot as shown in example 1.

rock climbing sling and carabiner

Advanced Trad Anchors - Summary

There isn’t a ‘best’ method of equalizing anchors, since every trad anchor situation is different. Understanding the advantages and limitations of a wide range of anchor systems gives you more options. Use your knowledge to select the best method for each unique situation.

Self Rescue > Introduction

Having a good knowledge of self-rescue skills is essential for any climber. The more effectively you are able to improve a poor situation (e.g; if you are able to escape the belay and descend with an injured partner to the ground, instead of waiting in the middle of the crag for assistance), the less risk is required of rescuers and the quicker you and your partner will receive help.

Your self-rescue skills should be accompanied by a solid understanding of first aid (not covered in these articles). We recommend attending a wilderness first aid course to brush up on your skills.

If you are capable of rescuing yourselves, you may not need to call for outside help at all, if that is even an option. Depending on the weather and your position, a rescue may not be possible. Many remote areas do not even have a rescue service available.

eiger north face

The self-rescue techniques described in this manual are merely guidelines. Many of the techniques simply will not work in the pickle you actually find yourself in. For example; you cannot safely descend if there is nowhere to make a reliable anchor. You cannot safely escape the belay and rope solo to an injured leader if you have no gear to make an upwards pulling anchor.

You will often have to use your creativity to find a solution that works for your particular situation. Make a solid plan before attempting any kind of self-rescue and consider the additional risk it puts on you and your climbing partners.

VDiff self rescue course

In general, if you can't solve your problem by escaping the belay and setting up a tandem abseil for you and the injured climber, it is unlikely that you'll be able to effect a safe rescue.

In this case, you should consider calling for help or leaving the situation (if possible) and going for help yourself. However, leaving an injured partner alone adds a whole other set of problems to the equation.

If it’s possible to call for help (either using a phone or shouting to nearby climbers for assistance), this is usually by far the best thing you can do if you are not confident solving the problem with your current set of skills.

Skills described in this section include:
- Escaping the belay
- Hauling your partner
- Retreating mid-pitch
- Tandem Abseiling
- Rope soloing
- Prusiking up a rope

Self Rescue > Escaping the Belay

The belay escape is a technique whereby the belayer frees themselves from the responsibilities of belaying. This fundamental skill is necessary for many rescue situations.

Situations when you may need to escape the belay include:
- If your partner needs hauling through a crux while following
- If you need to descend to your partner to give immediate first aid
- If your partner falls and is injured while leading
- If you need to detach yourself from the rope to get outside help

The Belay Escape – How it Works

Any safe version of the belay escape involves the same four checkpoints:
- Get hands-free
- Transfer climber’s weight to anchor
- Transfer climber’s belay to anchor
- Remove all excess prusiks, carabiners and knots

The belayer can detach from the rope completely if needed. The end result is a system which can be released under load and can be used again as a belay. Returning to belay mode is often needed once a rescue has begun.

The full belay escape system is described in this article. Depending on the situation, you may not need to complete all of the steps (e.g: the process is much simpler if your partner is able to un-weight the rope). However, it’s important to know the complete system before taking shortcuts.

Three different methods are described. These cover belaying:
1) From your harness (anchor is within reach)
2) From your harness (anchor is out of reach)
3) Directly from the anchor (e.g: using guide mode)

The Belay Escape – First Considerations

Before starting a belay escape, make sure it is the best course of action for the situation. Maybe a much simpler option exists, such as lowering your partner to a ledge, or getting them to prusik up.

Depending on the direction of loading and your course of action after escaping the belay, you may need to make your anchor stronger. Some rescue techniques (such as hauling) exert high forces on the anchor. Beefing up the anchor is straightforward if you are belaying a second and there are protection points available within reach. With some creative sling craft and fine tuning, you may be able to equalize a few extra pieces to the belay.

If you are belaying a leader on a multi-directional anchor where there is only a single piece holding an upwards pull (example shown), you will need to add gear or build a new anchor before escaping the belay.

upwards pulling trad belay anchor

This is very difficult (or impossible) if the leader has the whole rack with them. However, you may be able to adjust the existing anchor pieces and cordelette to hold an upwards pull. Make sure the anchor still protects you from a fall while you are adjusting pieces.

As a last resort, you might be able to rope solo or prusik a short distance to retrieve gear for backing up the anchor.

The Belay Escape – When Belaying from your Harness (Anchor within Reach)

belay escape trad climbing escaping the belay

Step 2
Tie a prusik hitch on the weighted rope with a long cordelette. Make sure the double fisherman’s bend which joins the cord is close to the prusik hitch.

If you don’t have a long cordelette, you could use a short prusik cord attached to a double-length sling.

belay escape trad climbing

Step 3
Clip a screwgate to the master point of the anchor.

Step 4
Tie a munter hitch with the cordelette to the screwgate. Flip the munter so it’s in the lowering position and pull all the slack through.

trad climbing escaping the belay

Step 5
Tie a mule-overhand backup in the cordelette.

Step 6
Slide the prusik along the rope towards the climber to take up any remaining slack in the cordelette.

trad climbing belay escape

Step 7
Carefully release your tied-off belay device and let a small amount of slack through so the climber’s weight is transferred onto the cordelette.

Keep hold of the brake rope for the next 3 steps.

escaping the belay trad climbing

Step 8
Attach a screwgate (yellow carabiner in this diagram) to the master point and tie a munter hitch on it with the brake rope.

Pull most of the excess rope through so there is just enough slack to remove your belay device.

belay escape

Step 9
Keeping hold of the munter’s brake strand, remove your belay device.

Step 10
Pull the extra slack through the munter hitch and flip it so it’s in the lowering position. Finish the munter with a mule hitch and an overhand backup.

escaping the belay

Step 11
Release the mule-overhand from the cordelette and use the munter to transfer the climber’s weight from the cordelette to the rope.

Step 12
Once the weight is fully on the rope, remove the cordelette completely. You have now escaped the belay and can move on to the next step of your rescue.

belay escape trad climbing escaping the belay

The same steps can be followed to escape the system if you are belaying from your harness and using a re-directional through the anchor.

redirected trad belay

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The Belay Escape – When Belaying from your Harness (Anchor out of Reach)

belay escape trad climbing escaping the belay

Step 2
Fasten a prusik on the weighted rope as shown and attach a screwgate to it.

belay escape trad climbing

Step 3
Reach back to your tie-in at the anchor and grab the free end of your tie-in. If you can’t reach, run through the rope stack until you get to it.

Step 4
Tie a munter-mule-overhand on the screwgate with this part of the rope.

trad climbing escaping the belay

Step 5
Slide the prusik down the rope towards the climber to take out excess slack.

Step 6
Transfer the weight onto the prusik by releasing your tied-off belay device. Be prepared for a bit of rope stretch before the prusik takes the weight.

Keep hold of the brake rope for the next 3 steps.

belay escape trad climbing

Step 7
Move back to the anchor and tie a munter hitch to it with the brake strand of rope.

escaping the belay climbing

Step 8
Remove your belay device.

Step 9
Bring in the excess slack and finish the munter with a mule-overhand.

escaping the belay

Step 10
Release the mule-overhand from the rope which is attached to the prusik. Use the munter to transfer the climber’s weight from the prusik to the munter-mule-overhand on the anchor.

Step 11
Once the weight has been transferred, you can remove the prusik and the munter hitch.

belay escape climbing

The Belay Escape – When Belaying Directly from the Anchor

When belaying directly from the anchor with a self-blocking belay device (such as an ATC in guide mode) or an assisted braking belay device (such as a GriGri), you have already escaped the belay.

These belay methods are not completely hands-free – a light hand must be kept on the brake strand while belaying. Therefore, the only step remaining is to back up the device. Simply tie-off the device with a mule-overhand as shown below.

guide mode belaying
how to belay in guide mode

Abseiling > Bad Anchors and Loose Rock

Bad Anchors and Loose Rock, is part of the book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.

VDiff trad climbing self rescue book

Poor abseil anchors are often found on seldom travelled multi-pitch descents or alpine ridge traverses. Sometimes there is no anchor where you need one, or the existing anchor is untrustworthy. It is your responsibility to fully inspect every anchor before you use it.

Never trust an anchor if you have any doubts about its reliability. Other options include:

- Belayed downclimbing
- Beefing up the anchor
- Backing up the anchor

Bad Anchors - Belayed Downclimbing

If the terrain is easy enough, it may be possible to downclimb. This means you don’t need to leave any of your own gear behind.

The leader climbs down first, placing gear as they descend. Once they reach an anchor (or the ground), they can belay the follower, who removes the gear on their way down.

The last climber must be careful as they will downclimb above gear which they didn’t place.

You will need some sort of anchor at the top to begin the descent. This anchor needs to be solid but can be fairly unsuitable for abseiling, such as a few cams which are widely spaced apart.

bad anchors poor belay abseil

Bad Anchors - Beefing Up the Anchor

If you embark on a route which has a complicated descent, it is worth bringing ‘leaver’ slings, nuts and carabiners for beefing up anchors.

Poor anchors do not necessarily need replacing entirely. Often one extra piece equalized to the anchor will make it good enough. If you make a new anchor, be sure to remove any ancient gear that you replace so no-one uses it in the future.

Sometimes the anchor pieces are good, but the carabiner or maillon (quick link) at the main point is worn. This is a critical part, since it is the only thing connecting the rope to the anchor. Add another if you are unsure. If you leave a snapgate carabiner, make sure to tape the gate closed so it can’t unclip during your descent.

Sacrificing your expensive climbing gear to beef up an anchor is painful. But it’s not as painful as falling down a mountain after the anchor fails. Make sure it is bomber.

bad anchors belay abseil

Bad Anchors - Backing Up the Anchor

If an anchor is okay but not completely bomber, you can add a separate backup to test it’s strength without fully committing to it. Your backup must be:

1) Connected in such a way which means it doesn’t hold any of the weight
2) Positioned appropriately for any potential direction of pull
3) Capable of holding the load should the initial anchor fail

The heaviest climber descends first with most of the gear or the heaviest bag. The second climber carefully watches the anchor for any signs of failure and then decides whether to leave the backup in place or to remove it and trust the original anchor alone.

The original anchor has not passed the test if the backup holds any of the weight. In this case, the backup should be left in place when the last climber descends.

If you’re not sure, just leave the backup there and enjoy a stress-free and safe descent.

bad rappel anchor

Reaching a Poor Anchor when Leading

If you reach a poor anchor after leading a pitch, you can use these techniques to get down safely.

retreat bail from climb

VDiff climbing self rescue book

Descending Loose Rock

Abseiling down loose rock is a climber’s nightmare. Seek out other options (such as downclimbing or abseiling a different way) before committing to the abseil.

However, if you encounter a choss-pile in the middle of a multi-pitch descent, you can ‘zigzag abseil’ to reduce the chances of being hit by rocks when you pull your ropes.

Move sideways as you descend (pendulum or tension traverse) and make the next abseil anchor as far to one side as you can. This might mean leaving gear behind, but it puts you out of the line of rockfall when you pull your ropes.

abseil loose rock rappel

Climbing on Loose Rock and Runout Routes

This article, Climbing on Loose Rock and Runout Routes, is part of the book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.

VDiff trad climbing self rescue book

Climbing on Loose Rock

Accidents involving loose rock fall into three main categories:
1) Belayers being hit by rocks from the leader
2) Leaders falling because they held/ stood on loose rock
3) Being hit by random rockfall from above (either from other climbers, natural rockfall or from your ropes when abseiling)

One of the major contributing factors to accidents when climbing on loose rock is known as ‘positive reinforcement'. You climb a chossy route, place gear behind loose flakes and climb on loose blocks. They stay in place and you’re fine. You climb another chossy route without falling. And another and another. Success! There’s nothing like positive reinforcement.

However, the truth is that in most near misses, the climber has no idea they even had a near miss. Maybe you didn’t weigh quite enough to pull that huge block off. Climbing on loose rock is a bit like playing football on a minefield. Stay away, but if you end up stuck in a band of choss, take your time and be very gentle.

fisher towers rock climbing utah

Photo: Keiko Tanaka on the first ascent of The Watchtower, Fisher Towers, Utah.

There are precautions you can take (such as wearing a helmet, not starting a route beneath other climbers, or just avoiding loose routes altogether), but if you climb enough alpine rock, you’ll eventually encounter an unavoidable loose section.

The real skill is to learn how to deal with choss. You can place gear in loose rock, you can pull on loose blocks. But you first have to factor the following into the equation:
- Exactly how loose the features are
- How sharp the edges are
- How big the loose rock is
- Where the rock would fall if it broke
- If you have gear beneath you in solid rock
- How your partner will follow the pitch

It is fairly safe to climb through a small band of brittle flakes if your belayer is out of the rockfall zone and you have good gear in solid rock just below you. Place gear appropriately so that your rope runs clear of any loose blocks or sharp edges. Communicate with your partner so they know where the loose sections are.

It is not safe to climb a massive, teetering jenga-tower of sharp-edged death-blocks with your belayer and another team directly below.

Testing Rock Quality

Visual Test
Look at the feature and figure out how it is attached to the main part of the wall. If it looks detached, don’t touch it.

Some features have very thin fracture lines around them, which suggest poor rock quality. These fracture lines are sometimes covered in lichen or otherwise hard to see, so look carefully.

Tap Test
If you are still uncertain about the quality of a rock feature, give it a gentle tap and listen to the noise it makes. Loose rock ‘echoes’ and sounds hollow.

If you must climb through a small band of brittle flakes, determine which are the best holds and selectively distribute your weight between them. Pull down on holds, rather than out.

neil chelton fisher towers aid climbing

Photo: Neil Chelton on the first ascent of Sandromeda, Fisher Towers, Utah.

Runout Routes

Runout routes (climbs with little or no protection) should only be attempted by experienced climbers who understand the risks involved.

You can obviously reduce your chances of an accident by not climbing a sparsely protected route. However, if you are lured in by the appeal of danger, or if you end up on a runout by mistake, you will be safe if you abide by the two golden rules:
1) Do not climb up something that you cannot climb down
2) Do not fall!

Here are some tips to help you stick to these two rules:
1) Choose a route which is well within your comfort zone.
2) Make slow, controlled movements, keeping three points of contact at all times.
3) Place gear at every possible opportunity. Go off-route if you have to.
4) Equalize gear to make a stronger point of protection. A lot of bad gear equalized together is better than no gear.
5) Test the quality of each hand and foot hold before you use them. Stay away from loose rock.
6) Remember that you can always downclimb if the route gets too sketchy.

Following a Runout Traverse

The consequence of falling on an unprotectable traverse is likely to be a horrendous pendulum. Depending on the route, this could be much worse for the follower than the leader.

To reduce fall potential, the leader should place protection as high as possible before and after the traverse.

If the follower still faces a serious fall, they can use a ‘back rope’.

following a runout climb

VDiff climbing self rescue book

Back Roping

Back roping works best when climbing on two ropes (such as half ropes). If you only have one rope consider the safer lowering out technique instead.

Step 1
Leave one of the ropes clipped into the last reliable piece of gear. This piece of gear should be capable of taking a sideways pull. You will have to leave this gear behind.

runout rock climbing

Step 2
Clip a carabiner or quickdraw to your belay loop and to the rope which you are back roping from. This ensures that you can retrieve your rope after the next steps.

how to climb a runout route

Step 3
As you climb across the traverse, the leader takes in on one rope (red) and gives slack on the other (blue). If you fall, you will be suspended between the ropes.

how to climb a runout route back roping

Step 4
After the traverse, untie from the back rope and pull it through the gear. Make sure there is no knot in the end of the rope!

Step 5
Tie back in to the end of the rope and allow your partner to take in the slack before you continue climbing.

how to climb runout routes

Improvised Hauling

This article, Improvised Hauling, is part of the book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.

VDiff trad climbing self rescue book

* This article is about using improvised basic hauling techniques while trad climbing. To learn more about hauling on big walls, see our article here.

Hauling a bag on a separate rope can be much easier than climbing with it on your back. This technique is useful for:
- Long, steep multi-pitches when your daypack is heavy
- Overnight routes

Hauling is typically only beneficial on terrain steeper than 80 degrees, where there are few obstacles and no loose rock. Otherwise, you’ll be better carrying the load on your back.

Basic Hauling Equipment

For a basic hauling set up, you’ll need:
- A second rope
- A hauling device (such as a Petzl Micro Traxion)
- A durable bag

how to haul trad climbing

VDiff climbing self rescue book

How To Haul

Step 1
Attach one end of the haul rope to the back of your harness. If your harness doesn’t have a designated ‘haul loop’, you can loop a short sling around the waist belt and attach the rope to that.

Be careful of using gear loops – they can break if the rope gets stuck.

tie haul rope to climbing harness

Step 2
Attach the bag to the other end of the haul rope and also directly to the anchor with a sling.

climbing haul bag

Step 3
When the leader arrives at the top of the pitch, they attach the hauling device to the master point.

Feed the rope through the device first, then unclip the rope from your harness (this ensures that you cannot drop the rope).

Pull through slack until the rope is tight on the bag.

micro traxion climbing

Step 4
The belayer releases the bag from the lower anchor.

haul bag climbing

Step 5
The leader hauls the bag up, stacking the rope neatly as they go. For light loads, it is quickest to hand-over-hand the rope and periodically pull slack through the hauling device.

For heavier loads, it is much easier to use your body weight to pull the bag up. Use an assisted-braking belay device (such as a GriGri) as shown.

Step 6
Clip the bag to the anchor with a sling and remove the hauling setup. You can now belay your partner.

petzl micro traxion hauling

Some hauling devices may not always lock with certain rope diameters. If your chosen technique involves letting go of the rope, you should add the occasional back up knot so the bag cannot fall the full length of the rope.

Basic Hauling Tips

* A specifically designed ‘mini haulbag’ is best, but any backpack can be used, providing the terrain is suitable.

Hauling a lightweight pack up low-angled rock will most likely result in you losing all your belongings and dislodging rocks. Make sure to attach the pack securely, tuck away any straps and use common sense.

* Using a dynamic lead rope (instead of a static rope or cord) as your haul line gives you more options. It acts as a back up if your main rope is damaged, or it can be used in conjunction with the main rope for wandering pitches (i.e: treat them as half ropes). Having a second rope also doubles the length of your abseils.

* On long traversing pitches, the bag should be attached to the middle of the rope (with an alpine butterfly) at the point when the leader reaches the anchor.

This enables the belayer to lower the bag out gently with the remaining rope. If the bag is fairly light, you can simply lower it out by hand. Heavier loads may need to be lowered out using a munter hitch or belay device.

rock climbing haul bag

* If you don’t have a pulley, an alternative for light loads is to simply belay the bag up with an auto-blocking belay device (such as a GriGri or an ATC in guide mode) or a garda hitch.

If the bag gets stuck, you can pause hauling and begin belaying your partner. Once they have climbed up and freed the bag, you can tie-off the belay and continue hauling.

garda hitch hauling

* Some hauling devices are easily dropped. To prevent this, the leader can trail the haul rope with the device pre-attached as shown.

After leading a pitch, the device can be attached to the anchor before removing the rope from your harness. This means that you can’t drop either the device or the rope while setting up the haul.

micro traxion climbing harness