How to Big Wall Climb - Retreat, Bailing and Fear Management

Tuesday June 6, 2017
This is part of my How To Big Wall Climb project. View the table of contents here

Click here to see what is currently on my El Capitan rack.

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El Capitan after an especially cold winter storm.
El Capitan after an especially cold winter storm.
Credit: Chris McNamara
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Retreat, Bailing and Fear Management
Storms, and not being prepared to weather them, is the number one way climbers die on walls. A whole book could be written on this subject so I will just stick to basics and refer you to one very important resource: “Staying Alive” by John Dill, which is a free download on the SuperTopo web site:

Retreating on a big wall is a pain in the ass for one reason: the haul bag. Managing that beast while rapping is tricky and not fun. But rappeling efficiently and safely with a haul bag is a very important skill. If you have to retreat in the rain and snow, with every extra minute you are exposed to the elements while rappeling the danger increases exponentially. As you get colder you lose mobility, make poorer decisions, risk a waterfall forming on top of you and become too cold to move. Know how to bail before you get on the wall! And if you don't actually practive (as I recomend below) then at least do the mental excercise of envisioning how the whole retreat process works. If you have to figure this out for the first time while in a storm… you will be hating life.

Skills to Learn
 Rappelling with the haul bag.
 Bailing on overhanging terrain.
 When to go up, when to go down, when to stay put.
 Are you bailing for the right reasons?

Gear You Need
 2 Ascenders
 2 daisy chains
 2 Aiders
 3 locking biners
 gear for anchor
 auto locking belay device
 fifi hook
 haul bag

Where to Practice
Any cliff where you can rap down to a hanging belay, pull the rope, then rappel again. If you can't find that, just rappel on any old cliff.

Rappeling With a Bag
Rappeling with a bag is a little awkward, but it’s less awkward than the alternative: trying to rap with 60 pounds on your back.

First, whenever you are rappeling, it is a good idea to:
A) Keep your Ascenders clipped to your side in case you need to ascend back up.
B) Keep your daisy chains attached to your Aiders so that you can both safely clip into the anchor and move around a hanging anchor if necessary.
C) Any time you are moving the bag from the anchor to your belay loop, make sure it is backed up somehow so you can't drop it. A daisy chain or sling for the bag itself is a good idea.

The actual process of rappelling with the bag is pretty simple.
 Clip the haul bag with a locking biner to your belay loop.
 Clip your belay device to the belay loop above the other biner. An autolocking device is best.
 Ride the Pig! (rappel with the haul bag between your legs).
 When you get to the next anchor, clip in your daisy chain and orient yourself so as much of the weight transfers to the daisy chain as possible. If you are at a hanging belay for a long time, you may want to hang the haul bag off its own daisy chain or sling.

First, I need to dispel a myth. Some epic big wall stories have a passage like this: “The wall became just too overhanging to retreat. We were totally committed. Summit or the grave. We had to dig deep in the haul bag of our souls for the courage to persevere in the extreme… etc, etc.” While this makes for dramatic story-telling, it is just not true. If you can aid climb up something, then you can aid climb down it. Retreating on traversing and overhanging terrain is a pain in the ass, but it is not impossible.

Retreat Procedure: Three Scenarios

First off, whenever retreating, both climbers should have Ascenders clipped to the side of the harness, extra slings and biners, daisy chains and Aiders. Make sure there is a knot in the end of any rope you are rappelling.

1) If you are familiar with the rappel route and it is straight-forward:
 Divide up the weight (usually the first person rappels with all the rack and the portaledge and the second person rappels with the haulbag).
 Both climbers rappel down the rope using a standard belay device.

2) If you are unfamiliar with the rappel route or the terrain is traversing or overhanging:
 The first person only takes as much weight as enable him to make free moves and ascend back up the rope if necessary. Usually this is just the rack.
 Fix one of the ropes to the anchor. The first person rappels that single line on an auto-locking belay device but keeps the second line within grasp (clip a quickdraw to your harness and let the second line run through it).
 If the terrain is too traversing or overhanging to make it to the next belay, then the first person either clips fixed gear or places his own gear as directionals to make it to the next anchor.
 Once he gets to the next anchor, he fixes both ropes to the anchor (with a little bit of slack).
 The second person then rappels both ropes using a two-rope rappel device. Because the ropes are fixed, he can pull in and unclip the directionals, then swing back out.

3) If the terrain is REALLY overhanging and/or traversing (only happens in rare cases):
 If the terrain is severely overhanging or traversing and/or the haulbag is really heavy, it may be too difficult for the second person to safely unclip the directionals on rappel. In this case, the first person follows the same steps as in 2) above…
 But the second person fixes the second line (the one not clipped through the directionals) and rappels that rope until he is even with the first person at the next belay. Because the terrain is overhanging or traversing, the first person now helps the second person get to the belay either by setting up a haul system and hauling him over or just fixing a line so that the second person can use his Ascenders to pull himself over.
 Now the first person has to put on the Ascenders, jumar up the first rope that is clipped through the directionals, rappel back down on both ropes until he is even with the second person at the bottom belay.
 Because the terrain is overhanging or traversing, the second person now helps the first person get to the belay either by setting up a haul system and hauling him over or just fixing a line to that the second person can use his Ascenders to pull himself over.
 Keep in mind this third option is very rare. I have never had to use it because Option 2 has always worked fine. But now you know why no wall is too overhanging to retreat from.

Go Up, Go Down, or Stay Put?
What do you do if a big storm is coming in? Up, down or stay put? The answer will vary depending on your situation but one thing has been proved again and again: most weather-related big wall deaths could have been prevented with the proper gear and better judgment. Proper gear includes synthetic layers, water-proof breathable shells, a portaledge rain-fly (whether you have a portaledge or not), and gloves.

If a storm is coming in, and you know you have time to safely make it the ground or the summit, then go for it! However, if you are not sure you can make it to the ground or the top, then focus on getting to the closest place you think will be sheltered from a waterfall. Once you are in a storm, it is usually more dangerous to retreat than to stay put at an adequate bivvy spot with good gear. When you are either climbing or rappeling, water will get in your jacket, collect at your belay device, and generally you can’t help but get soaked. If you stop, the wind and water may make you so cold you can't move again. And, of course, it doesn't take much for your hands to become so cold they fumble carabiners or don't work at all. More than a few climbers have died just a few pitches from the summit of El Capitan. They may have thought they would stay warmer by climbing or may have wanted to escape what they thought was hopeless situation. But, in general, if you have synthetic gear, rain shells, and some shelter (bivy sack or rain-fly) then you will be more likely to survive be huddling up with your partner than by trying to climb or rappel in bad weather.

The above said, just staying put where you are is not always the best solution. A big danger of being on a big wall in a storm is the formation of waterfalls. Even a relatively small waterfall can be deadly because everything that connects you to the wall is a conduit for water. Being wet is one thing. Having cold water running over you is a whole other level of cold. In general, black streaks on the rock equals a waterfall site in a storm. But even if there are no distinct black streaks, the water can still gather above you and run down in big sheets like on the West Buttress or Lurking Fear on El Capitan.

Bailing for Non-Weather or Non-Safety Related Reasons
Am I bailing because it is smart or because I am temporarily overwhelmed?
Few other activities can bring such sustained uncertainty and excitement as climbing up 2900 feet of vertical rock. It is precisely because climbing El Capitan is such an adventure that you will probably be terrified once you have committed yourself to it. This is natural. Without the process of overcoming such uncertainty, it wouldn’t be such an amazing experience.

Understand that at some point, whether it is racking up in El Cap Meadow or traversing into Stoveleg Crack, you may feel the urge to bail. Every wall climber, including me, experiences this, a lot. At this point you will have to make a critical decision: is the fear you have because you are unprepared and should not continue? Or is it because you are just a little spooked? As aid climbing master Ammon McNeely puts it, “There will be many reasons to bail swirling in your head those first few days. Sometimes success depends on your ability to ignore those reasons.” Here is where all the previous training you have done becomes critical. If you have followed the steps outlined in this book and put in your training, then dread might be just a little healthy fear from being in an unfamiliar situation. Focus on your firm base of big wall skills and the fear will melt away. If you have not adequately prepared, retreating may be the best option. You don’t want to barely scrape your way up what may be on one of the best climbs of your life. You want to climb it confidently and be able to fully appreciate the spectacular pitches. And, of course, if you are truly unprepared, going up on a big wall will put yourself, your partner, and potential rescuers at risk.

Dealing With Fear
Here are five tricks for dealing with minor fear on lead. They are to get you through momentary moments where your fear is working against you. If a giant storm is rolling in and you are unprepared, these don’t help. And in that situation you SHOULD be scared!

 1. Make sure you are psyched. If you are excited to be on the wall, that takes care of most of the fear.
 2. Realize you are more bad ass than you currently think. Most times you are scared, you don’t really have a good reason to be. It helps to have a friend who can cheer you on. On my most fearful aid lead on Rodeo Queen in Zion, I needed Ammon McNeely to keep telling me, “You got this. And you are going to feel a whole lot better if you finish the pitch.”
 3. Sing. It sounds stupid. But singing to yourself, especially when standing on sketchy aid placements, can take your mind off it.
 4. Trick yourself into “wanting to take the fall.” Another tip from Ammon. He says this is how he gets through a lot of hard aid sections.
 5. When bounce testing, scream at the piece to “get the F___ out!” This is a last resort thing. And you look kind of insane when doing it. It has gotten me through a few situations. But I might just be a little weird… or a lot.

 Falls are mostly in your head.
 Falling is rare on El Cap. And when it happens, it's over before you know it

Surviving Storms
To be continued...

Click here to see what is currently on my El Capitan rack

  Article Views: 22,546
Chris McNamara
About the Author


Sport climber
Los Angeles, CA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 04:35pm PT
i'm gonna start yelling at my sketchy placements. i dig that.

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 04:39pm PT
Chris, what the heck do you know about this? You should have let me
expound upon this topic of which I am The Passed Master?
Don Paul

Social climber
Washington DC
  Jul 3, 2012 - 04:46pm PT
Make sure there is a knot in the end of any rope you are rappelling.

Since you'd be pulling the ropes to do the next rap, you'd tie the two rope ends together rather than tie a knot in one of them. This is a really good habit and I'm glad you mentioned it.

Trad climber
Fresno CA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 05:06pm PT
Chris, what the heck do you know about this? You should have let me
expound upon this topic of which I am The Passed Master?

Au contrere! I can back off of any climb!


Springdale, Utah
  Jul 3, 2012 - 05:46pm PT
Good article..I like the project Chris.

my 2 cents on rapping with a pig, especially a heavy one.

I prefer having my rap device extended and the haulbag clipped to the extension with its own tether. This way the weight of the pig is not directly on your harness, you and the pig hang from a communal clip in point. I like to dock the pig with a muenter mule or other releasable hitch so I can rig the rappel ( usually with autoblock backup off my belay loop) and slowly ease the weight of the pig on the rappel device.

clipping the pig directly in the belay loop is not bad when the load is light but when its heavy it really pulls hard on the harness and is right in your junk.

Trad climber
  Jul 3, 2012 - 06:11pm PT
You forgot a few key sections in your article:

1. Hucking the bags, rappel as usual option- the PTPP way to get off

2. Calling in the Yosar chopper - you may to sever an appendage to get this but think of the views.
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
  Jul 3, 2012 - 08:09pm PT
Pete says that when you don't bounce test your gear before moving up on it, you are creating a string of question marks. He says that once you bounce it you are creating a string of exclamation points.

Recently, on Shortest Straw, Cheyne and I didn't like exclamation points since they indicated a surprise. We didn't want to be surprised so we decided that after bouncing a piece it got a period.

Our call was "Punctuating!" before embarking on an almost comical level of bounce testing.
Don Paul

Social climber
Washington DC
  Jul 3, 2012 - 07:05pm PT
Bounce testing is scary as sh#t. PERIOD. Hey Mark, I just bought a metolius bomb shelter on ebay for cheap. Inspired by your videos and all the chatter here. Now I just need to escape from my slavery job.

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 07:34pm PT
Doesn't unprotected bounce-testing cause lesions and sh!t?
Then ya really gotta bail.

Trad climber
Fresno CA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 07:46pm PT
When I first learned to climb, Chouinard had a few paragrpahs in his "catalog" (the front and back of a single 8 1/2 X 11 sheet of paper) that I took as gospel. It said to give a test by a small hop in the aid sling, and erase all thought of the piton pulling if it passed the test. Over many years of climbing, I can think of only once where that wasn't true. I had made some smashies out of extra-soft aluminum, and placed one that was so thin that it "melted" out of the crack, leading to a thirty-foot zipper. Fortunately, the rock was smooth, so I only hurt my ego.

The only other thing I always remember is a quote from Roper, to the effect that "then, unfortunatley, the pin held, which meant I had to move up on it."

Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
  Jul 3, 2012 - 08:11pm PT
I bought that fly thinking "well, here's money down the drain, I need this thing but I'll probably never use it".

So far, six walls, five nights under it. It's the best thing I ever bought!
Don Paul

Social climber
Washington DC
  Jul 3, 2012 - 08:20pm PT
I thought the theory of bounce testing was to approximate the force of falling on the piece. Taking into account that a climbing rope is dynamic and aiders aren't. That should tell you how hard to bounce. There are lots of engineer climbers, maybe one of them knows. Otherwise you may just be testing whether it's a "body weight +" type placement.
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
  Jul 3, 2012 - 08:47pm PT
My Metolius aiders sure are dynamic, I can feel them stretch with every bounce.

Someone, here on ST recently, measured the force put on a piece from bounce testing. I believe he couldn't get more than 650 pounds even bouncing as wildly as he could.

Bouncing won't indicate if the piece will hold a fall but it will indicate that the piece probably won't pull under your body weight and will maybe hold the next bounce test that fails.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 09:44pm PT
The option that hasn't even been mentioned here is often the most sensible one. LOWER THE BAG.

First person raps down single line easily swinging around to reach any station off to the side. No intermediate placements allowed ideally.

While the first person is rapping down the second prepares a lowering system for the haulbag intact after pouring out any water weight possible before descending.

The first person ties into the lower station and takes up the slack in his single trolley line.

The second person clips a short locking draw from the top of the haulbag straps and proceeds to lower the haulbag down the snugged up trolley rope to the station using the second rope. The first person clips the bag in and loosens the trolley line and the second rappels down to the lower station on both ropes.

Assuming that you are properly equipped with warm clothes, gloves and rain shells, this method is safest though a little slower. Rappelling down wet rock with a haulbag dangling below while attempting to maneuver can be a recipe for trouble especially with a lot of weight.

The first man down CANNOT clip anything into the trolley rope on the way down or the bag will stop right at that point and things get interesting. The first person has to jug up and clean out all intermediate protection placed while rappelling and return to the lower station before the second can do anything.

Retreating efficiently and safely is a case in point for not hauling too much weight.

Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
  Jul 3, 2012 - 10:04pm PT
A cool add-on to Steve's comment above is to attach the bags to the trolley rope, the fixed rope with a mini or micro trax. If the bags end up below the lower anchor for some reason, the climber at the lower anchor can simply set up a haul system and haul them back up to the anchor. The mini or micro trax will slide in one direction and grab in the other direction.
Slick, eh?
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 10:54pm PT
Mark- If the trolley rope is reasonably tight then it's station to station without complication.
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
  Jul 3, 2012 - 10:53pm PT
Yeah but if it isn't tight... and most climbers wouldn't know how to get it really tight and then most wouldn't know how to loosen it afterwards.

On a mildly diagonaling pitch it wouldn't be a big deal, on a severely tilted one it would be.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Jul 3, 2012 - 11:05pm PT
Employing a third rope to haul and finish the lower would probably be more efficient than trying to release tension in the rope from above to provide the necessary slack . First person raps double rope in this case with one rope designated as trolley line and the other as utility line.
Don Paul

Social climber
Washington DC
  Jul 4, 2012 - 01:32am PT
Gotta say, if I was getting stormed off el cap then pretty much I would be concerned with hypothermia and my brain not functioning properly, and would go with the simplest and fastest way down, ie ride the pig. Tie knots in the ropes every time and you should not be in danger. If you have to do the king swing with it, its what you have to do. Another option might be to leave the bag on a ledge you can get to fairly easily - deal with all this in better weather or you may want to finish the route. Even if its seige style, you might as well finish the route. Well hopefully I will never have to deal with this once I figure out how to set up the rainfly and keep the water from running down the rope into my sleeping bag.


London, UK
  Jul 5, 2012 - 04:23pm PT
crackfiend said:

I prefer having my rap device extended and the haulbag clipped to the extension with its own tether. This way the weight of the pig is not directly on your harness, you and the pig hang from a communal clip in point. I like to dock the pig with a muenter mule or other releasable hitch so I can rig the rappel ( usually with autoblock backup off my belay loop) and slowly ease the weight of the pig on the rappel device.

clipping the pig directly in the belay loop is not bad when the load is light but when its heavy it really pulls hard on the harness and is right in your junk.

I agree.

In addition, maneuvering the pig around obstacles on off-vertical ground (such as the East ledges decent) is easier if it is not tied in directly to the harness.

I liked the bits about dealing with the fear. It is good to recognize it is normal, you would have to be pretty odd not to get it, and you can deal with it.

Mountain climber
The Ocean
  Jul 4, 2012 - 10:29am PT
Bailed from bottom of Triple Cracks on Sheild. This was my first overhanging bail that would take us off route lower down after the roof.

My mistake was thinking we would go faster (four days).

At day 4 were were at TC and down to 2 quarts with 2 days to go at our rate. Been dehydrated before not my thing. No guarantee of water on ledges above. I've read the stories about the pioneers of Yosemite Walls Like Salathe and how little water they took. I still have no idea how they could do it.

Basically down aiding on overhanging walls is really quick and simple with a gri-gri repel. Rap as far as can before losing contact with wall keeping in mind to use easy C-1 placements or fixed gear earlier if available. clip line into a peice and go. It's fun not to have to worry about a fall or a peice pulling or messing with your etrier's

The Shield roof was easily reversed on repel/self belay with gri-gri. It was entierly fixed cept for a yellow alien placement. Backcleaned everything in the roof so second could just rap past the roof and anchor and jug back up to the anchor right below the roof.

We lowered the bags with the static line and the down-leader tended it with a short tag line tied in at top of bag. This meant occasionally lowering the bag a bit during the down lead due to short tag line. No big deal.

Apparently someone watching us thought something terrible must have happened for anyone to bail from so high on the Sheild. Mid back-lead of the roof a helicopter stopped by and watched us for a short time before it dawned on me that they might think us candidates for rescue. I radiod my partner and told him not to wave just give a double thumbs up and smile. I did the same and the chopper peeled off.

Lowered bag past roof anchor and tied it off with the tag line about 20 feet below the anchor.

Fortunately there is another routes anchor directly below the shield roof negating the need to reverse the traverse pitch back to triple D cutoff. I had noticed this on the way up and was glad to have it in mind as it meant we could easily make it to Mammoth in a few hours from the triple cracks.

Mammoth had some stashed water so all was good once we got there.

Bonus booty for my partner was a small bag of aromatic supplies he had dropped from the roof a couple evenings before. He was in tears when he found it next to his foot as he got off repel on Mammoth ledge.


Lot of lessons learned from ths experince.

KEY! Take your time. This is not something folks tend to practice and even with practice it is not something that you will do enough for it to become automatic and simple. Talk it out think it out. The order of the steps necessary to deal with the belay and lowering systems .. how you plan to pull ropes. Which line to pull, which side of the repel to fix if second has to jug up it to get to anchor.

COMMUNICATION.. Have radios.

1. The shield is a fantastic route I highly recommend it.

2. Downleading as expected can be extremly fast and efficient. We blasted through 3 days of climbing in about 8 hours without being in a terrible rush. We had one snafu along the way that cost significant time. Worked out fine.

3. It's good to be familiar with with the terrain below that is off route. Consider alternative descent options always. (my mountaineering mindset came in handy on El-Cap)

4. Sometimes a failure can be a very cool experience and feel like a type of success even if disappointed about a foolish simple error that costs the summit.

RE In this case I wish we had had some bad weather. I would have filled a few bottles of water and we would have summitted.
Don Paul

Social climber
Washington DC
  Jul 4, 2012 - 02:49pm PT
Great epic story. Here is the gumby version. I went up to do the shield once, with a guy who'd never been on el Cap before, and only had small wall experience. Looking up from Mammoth, he realized it was bigger than he wanted it to be, and it was time to go down. We had a massive haulbag on that route, and I remember on the way down, I clipped the bag into the anchor, on top of whatever we had going on there, and the 300 lbs or whatever was enough to immobilize the ropes and everything, and I was not strong enough to lift it off the anchor. That's a mistake you dont make twice. After reading your epic story I think we probably would have run out of water too, and had no clue how to bail. At the time, I had learned that after about 4 pitches on steep aid routes (ie zodiac) it was "harder to go down." Gulp. I was told you had to down aid every move. Certainly makes those routes scarier, but I guess its not true.

Trad climber
Fresno, CA
  Jul 18, 2012 - 07:00pm PT
Yow. Having just been to Yosemite this weekend, looking at El Cap, I will leave that until next lifetime, to the younger crowd. Good imagery, however, I sort of felt the fear just reading it.

Trad climber
Boulder, CO
  Apr 6, 2015 - 10:12am PT
Using 2 biners with your rap device, instead of 1, will increase the friction and make it a lot easier to control the rap with the added weight of the pig. I also like do this on any rap that is anything less than super simple.

If bailing an overhanging route with a pig:
a. The first guy (down-leader) places directional pieces as he single-rope raps.
b. meanwhile, the 2nd lowers the bag on the haul line, with the lower-out line attached to the down-leader. Consider using a break-away attachment, so in case the 2nd (who might be injured/compromised, and the reason you're bailing) loses control of the lowering, the pig doesn't yank the down-leader to their doom.
c. when the down-leader gets to the next anchor, reel in the lower-out line and dock the bag.
d. The 2nd re-rigs the single-rope rap into a double rope rap, the 1st pulls the lead-line taunt, and the 2nd raps and cleans the pitch.
e. rinse and repeat.

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