Unbelayvable: Extreme Rope Soloing

Scary (and true) tales from a crag near you

Every Monday we publish the most unbelievable stories of climbing stupidity submitted by our readers. See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition online or in print.

A belayer. Use one. Photo: macgreenhalgh/Flickr; http://ow.ly/AcS3Z

>>I had someone set up a toprope anchor for me, to save me a walk up the cliff. They set it back from the edge, so I couldn’t visually inspect it, but I assumed it was fine. Our first climber fell several times before lowering from the top. I went second and (fortunately) didn’t fall. As I said “take!” at the top, I noticed a burning smell. Before weighting the rope, I looked over the lip. My rope was threaded directly through a 25mm nylon sling, only it wasn’t 25mm anymore. It had melted down to 2mm. If I’d weighted the rope I would’ve taken a 25m backward ground fall.
—Stretch, via Climbing.com

LESSON: This is what can happen when you trust a random person to build your anchor. It’s worth the peace of mind to do it yourself or send someone you know up there so you can be sure your anchor is safe. And if the rogue anchor builder is reading this: Nylon should never rub against nylon. While nylon has an incredibly high tensile strength, it will melt at about 470°F, a temperature easily reached from rope friction alone. Throw two locking carabiners between the rope and the webbing and you’re good to go (assuming the anchor is otherwise bomber).

>>I was at the top of a route, waiting for a woman to set up a rappel. She pulled up the rope, put the middle in her belay device, and tossed the ends. She was about to unclip from the anchor when I stopped her. She’d forgotten to put the rope through the anchor!
—Zach Coburn, via Facebook

LESSON: Catastrophic mistakes like these can be avoided by simply testing your system while you’re still in direct. Every time you rappel, start by pulling yourself up tight on the rope and weighting it before you unclip yourself from the anchor.

>>We passed a guy on the second pitch of his route lead belaying himself with a tube-style belay device. He was free climbing from an anchor he’d built and was placing quite a bit of gear. He told us that he just had to grab the brake strand really quick if he fell. He proudly proclaimed that he’d caught himself this way before (and tore up his hands in the process). At the base, his friend, who was wearing a tree-climbing harness, explained that he would be belaying, but his shoulder was bothering him.
—Jason, via Climbing.com

LESSON: This is so crazy that we’re astonished he even caught one fall. Safe rope-soloing requires specific gear and confidence with fairly complicated systems. Seek proper instruction. Counting on yourself to catch the brake strand in mid-air during a fall is like waiting to put on your helmet until you see falling rock. Idiotic. Either the tree-climbing friend should suck it up and give him a belay, or he shouldn’t climb at all. For a primer on solo toproping systems, check out Basic Self-Belay Techniques, but we still recommend that you go out with an experienced buddy or guide before going to solo by yourself.

See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition online or in print. Got an unbelayvable photo? Send it to unbelayvable@climbing.com.



Previous Comments

Once we were climbing in Margalas, Islamabad. My foreigner friend asked me to belay while he went lead climb on a 30m route. He is really an experience climber, at least more than me and he did the climb well. While I was lowering him down and he was almost 6-8m from ground when suddenly another friend shouted out. "Zaki, Take" and she pulled the rope and so did I. I was in a shock when I saw just few meters of rope was left and there was no knot at the end. We managed to connect another rope, changed the belayer and lowered him down. We found out that the rope my friend used to climb was 50m, it belonged to me, he believed it to be the other friend's rope which looked same like mine and it was 60m. Lesson: Always confirm the length of the rope before climbing on it and always check your belayer for the braking end knot whether the belayer is experienced or not.

Zaki Kazmi - 08/16/2014 5:42:55

Before rappelling....Don't be a H.A.R.D head * H - harness: Is your harness connected to the system correctly? carabiner locked? * A - anchor: is you anchor solid * R - rope: is your rope connected to the anchor correctly and are the ends managed? * D - device: is the device connected to your rope and harness correctly? Climb safe!

Tim Burke - 08/15/2014 9:22:00

I was soloing Royal Arches a few years back and caught up to a party near one of the last pitches rated 5.6. I was chatting with the 2nd while the leader was getting near the top of the pitch. He let me pass and when I got to the leader she was set to "belay" her partner up and was just sitting on this sloping ledge not clipped into anything. I was in shock and politely pointed this out. Her response was, "what are the chances of him falling on something like this". I didn't say anything else but a lot of things went through my mind like what if a rock hits you, what if your partner thinking he has a belay and wanders off route to try some alternative route (this was where the route traverses and there are some alternative boulder moves that can be done), and really WTF. Lesson here is know your partner.

Jeff - 08/14/2014 3:58:41

We were climbing in Yosemite Valley recently with some international climbers who we had met that day. I had just rapped off a route and was asked by one of them if he could lead the route using my gear as his was back at camp. I let him lead it and decided to follow and clean the route. As I cleaned the route I realized that despite telling everyone in camp how he had climbed the Nose (turns out he only followed the route) almost every one of his gear placements was completely worthless! Even worse, he had me top roping on a rappel anchor that was only two pieces of cord, one of which was quite old and a single wire gate carabiner. I was nervous enough rappelling off of it but top roping with just a single wire gate made my jaw drop..... Lesson learned: Always be sure of how experienced your partner really is. There is a big difference between someone who can follow a hard route and a competent trad climber who can safely lead a route and rig a safe anchor.

Hugo watt - 08/13/2014 8:33:52

A friend and I were establishing a new trad route, with me in the lead. When I reached the third belay point, a bit frazzled after a gnarly "X-rated" section, I started to place gear for an anchor. I placed a Tricam in a slightly flaring crack and a big, seemingly bomber hex in another, and immediately called off belay because the stance was so good. I figured we could save time, as my second could start getting ready to climb, taking down the other anchor, etc... while I improved the station here with a few more pieces. Then I noticed that the Tricam wasn't quite as stable as I'd hoped, so I started to fiddle with it, trying to place it better. At last I had it placed well -- I thought -- and leaned back to test it with my body weight. POP!! Out came the Tricam, my flailing body projected backwards into empty space -- only to be caught by the (thankfully) bomber hex, the only thing between me and a long, ugly fall that may have ended very badly. A bit shaken I got back my stance and placed several more pieces, vowing to never, ever, EVER make this mistake again.

Carter - 08/12/2014 5:18:49

A climbing partner and me were on a artificial climbing wall,9 meters high, which has a 2m roof on top ( not climbable roof) to protect the wall from rain and the elements... On the left side of the climbing wall there was a overhang, which used the roof for the anchor (threaded chain with a carabiner). I made my way up to THAT ANCHOR by an easy route, reclimbing it a second time to remove my own quickdraws from the easy route. Then i climbed and got lowered of that hard pink route severel times, with the rope only redirected through that chain anchor. Then we pulled the rope and choose a route on the right side of the wall and two guys went for the lead on the pink route..... Interested, how those guys would perform on that route, i watched them a little bit. He climbed up, past the crux in the middle of the route, placed 1 more quickdraw and clipped, but didnt place the last quickdraw before the anchors because being to pumped. He told his partner to take and weighted the rope, suddenly there was a loud metal noise and this guy was falling down the half height of the climbing wall. The chain with the carabiner was hanging above his tie in knot! Thankfully he didnt get hurt much.... What has happened? As later it turned out, somebody might have unclipped the carabiner from the chainends, moved the chain to a different spot and clipped the Carabiner to ONLY 1 CHAINEND!!! I guess when i was toproping the route before, the only thing that kept me from taking a probably fatal 9 meter groundfall was that 1 link of the chain got jammed underneath the roof, SCARY! After that all Anchors got fixed, so nobody could manipulate them.... Lesson learned, always check the anchors before trusting them!

Andi - 08/12/2014 2:35:17