How to Big Wall Climb - Retreat, Bailing and Fear Management
This is part of my How To Big Wall Climb project. View the table of contents here
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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: www.supertopo.com/topos/yosemite/stayalive.pdf
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 daisy chains
3 locking biners
gear for anchor
auto locking belay device
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
To be continued...
Click here to see what is currently on my El Capitan rack