Save Yourself! A Guide to Self-Rescue
You’re belaying your partner while he leads the sixth pitch of a cruiser 5.8 in the Cascades with two easy pitches left. It’s a bluebird day, you’re feeling strong, and your psych is through the roof. Your biggest concern is whether that celebratory summit brew in your pack is still cold, when suddenly you hear an ear-piercing shriek. There’s a moment of utter stillness before your body is yanked into the anchor. “Are you OK?!” you yell up to your partner as loud as you can, but hear nothing except the whipping wind in response. Only now do you see the thunderheads rolling toward you in the distance.
So… now what?
Climbing is dangerous. And that's part of the fun, isn't it? We learn many standard steps to manage risk and prevent bad things from happening: Double-check knots! Pack a headlamp! Back everything up! But someday the shit may hit the fan, and you’ll be faced with a scary and dangerous situation. Do you have the skills to get yourself and your partner back alive? Our focus in this package is developing your ability to rely on yourself.
Step one: Learn this foundation of self-rescue skills, understand their uses, and know how to adapt them to whatever situation you’ve found yourself in. We worked with Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (rockymountainrescue.org) and other SAR experts to highlight five basic skills and three important systems in which you’ll use them. Read on to discover techniques and information that might just save your life— or your partner’s.
5 Core Skills
The following five straightforward skills have a wide variety of applications in everything from aid climbing to self-rescue. Learn how to do these quickly and efficiently, and you'll have the building blocks to carry out much more complex climbing systems.
1. Prusik Hitch
This is a friction hitch that allows a closed loop of cord to be attached to a rope and hold a heavy load coming from above or below. Prusiks are versatile, easy to tie, and the equipment required is lightweight and minimal—all you need is 7mm cord that is equal in length to your height.
Applications: Escaping the belay, passing a knot, ascending/ descending a rope, rappel backup, hauling, crevasse rescue
Fig. 1 Take the knotted end of the cord and wrap it around the rope, going through the other end of the cord, similar to a girth-hitch.
Fig. 2 Continue wrapping two more times, for a total of three wraps. Three wraps is sufficient for cord; prusiks tied from nylon webbing might require more wraps.
Fig. 3 Pull the loose end of the cord so the wraps tighten onto the rope. Dress the hitch by stacking the coils neatly next to each other; nothing should be crossed, and there should be six coils in a row. Ideally, position the loop’s connecting knot (Flemish bend or double fisherman’s) near the prusik hitch, so it won’t get in the way when you use the end of the loop.
2. Flemish Bend
Also known as a figure-eight bend, this knot is excellent for quickly turning a strand of cord into a closed loop. It’s easy to tie and untie, even after being loaded.
Applications: Making a rescue loop out of cord, foot/waist prusik, joining two ropes
Fig. 4 Tie a figure eight in the end of the cord, as if you were tying in to the end of a rope. With the other end of the cord, start where the end of the original cord comes out of the knot and retrace the figure-eight all the way through.
Fig. 5 When you’re done, the cord ends should be facing in opposite directions, and the knot should be pulled tight with no crossing strands.
3. Munter Hitch
Every climber should know the Munter hitch. Clipped to a locking carabiner, it can be used instead of a tube-style belay device for belaying, lowering, and rappelling.
Applications: Escaping a belay, passing a knot, tying off a climber, belaying, lowering, rappelling
Fig. 6 Clip the rope through the locking carabiner.
Fig. 7 Make a bight in the rope above the biner and twist it into a loop, as shown.
Fig. 8 Slide that loop over the nose of the carabiner, close the biner, and lock it.
4. Munter-Mule-Overhand (MMO)
This knot is key to getting "hands free” on a belay, meaning you’ve tied off your climber so you can take your hand off the brake end of the rope. It builds off the Munter hitch, so a correctly tied Munter is the first step.
Applications: Tying off a climber, escaping a belay, passing a knot
Fig. 9 Take the brake strand of the Munter hitch, pull it above the biner and behind the loaded rope. Twist one side into a loop, and pull the other, longer one into a bight (in the image, it’s the right loop) about eight inches long.
Fig. 10 Pull the longer bight around the loaded rope and push it through the loop on the opposite side. Pull that longer loop tight, keeping in mind the new knot (the mule hitch) should sit just above the Munter. This combination is the Munter-mule hitch.
Fig. 11 To finish the knot, tie a backup, in this case an overhand. Wrap the longer loop around the rope again and back up through itself, creating an overhand knot with the loop-tail running in the same direction as the load end of the rope. This overhand knot needs to sit almost on top of the Munter-mule.
5. Mule Hitch on a Belay Device
This is the same mule hitch used in a Munter-mule-overhand, but it’s tied on top of a tube-style belay device instead of a Munter hitch. The beginning steps of this version are slightly different because the brake strand isn’t run through the carabiner as it is with a Munter. It’s important to learn this method because most American climbers belay with a device instead of a Munter. While you’re tying this, it’s vitally important to keep the brake end of the rope bent sharply through the belay device. This ensures a tight belay for the climber.
Applications: Tying off a fallen climber, escaping a belay, passing a knot
Fig. 12 Pull a bight from the brake strand through the locking belay carabiner. The bight will need to be about two feet long.
Fig. 13 Run that bight behind the rope and twist one side into a loop (shown on the right side in the image above).
Fig. 14 Run the untwisted part of the bight through this loop and pull it tight.
Fig. 15 Now wrap the bight back around the loaded rope.
Fig. 16 Complete a circle around the loaded rope, and run the bight up through it to tie an overhand backup knot.
Fig. 17 Notice how the overhand backup sits close to the top of the mule hitch.
Field Uses: 3 Techniques
The following three techniques (ascending a rope, passing a knot, and escaping a belay) are the foundations of self-rescue. Practice at home until dialed. Then practice some more. We don't cover infinite scenarios that could befall you, rather skills that can be applied broadly.
Many techniques described in this article were adapted from Climbing Self-Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations, by Andy Tyson and Molly Loomis.
Field Use 1: Ascending a Rope (core skills required: prusik hitch, flemish bend)
Moving up and down a taut (fixed) rope is a vital and basic skill, and might be needed for anything from escaping a crevasse or climbing past a too-tough overhang to retrieving a stuck rappel rope or aiding an injured partner. Practice this skill to get smoother, quicker, and more efficient, so you won’t waste a lot of energy when an accident actually happens.
Fig. 18 You need two lengths of cord and two locking biners to build two prusik loops: one for your waist, and one for a foot. The waist cord needs to be as long as you are tall, plus at least six inches. Join the two ends with a Flemish bend (A). For the foot prusik, you need a cord that is twice your height. On one end, tie a figure eight on a bight with just enough of a loop to clip a biner to—this loop will be clipped to your belay loop as a backup (B). The other end gets a figure eight on a bight that leaves a loop six to eight inches in length; this loop will be girth-hitched to your foot (C). In the middle of the cord, tie a figure eight on a bight with a 10-inch loop that sits at about hip level (D). Note: This is what the setup will look like when everything is measured properly, but you will have to unclip from your belay loop and foot so you can do the next step: attaching it to the rope.
Fig. 19 Attach both the waist and foot prusiks to the rope with a prusik hitch. (If there are two strands of rope, make sure your hitches go around both strands.) Notice that the waist prusik (E) is above the foot prusik (F). Clip the belay loop-end of the foot prusik to your belay loop and lock the biner (G). Girth-hitch the other end to your foot (H). Push the waist prusik up on the rope as high as possible, so it goes taut. Sit back a little and let the waist prusik take your weight, then slide the foot prusik up as high as you can while still being able to step up onto it (I).
Fig. 20 Step onto your foot prusik (J) and stand up so that your body moves upward, pulling on the rope above both prusiks (K) for balance and to gain upward momentum. Now that the foot prusik is weighted, the waist prusik (L) can be moved upward again. Weight the waist prusik, then repeat the sequence, alternating weighting each prusik and moving them up the rope. To descend a rope, reverse the sequence.
Field Use 2: Passing a knot (core skills required: munter hitch, MMO, flemish bend, prusik hitch, mule hitch)
This technique comes into play when you have a knot joining two ropes, and you need to get the knot from one side of an obstruction (belay device, Munter hitch, prusik hitch) to the other. For example, you might need to lower a climber more than one full rope length with two or more ropes tied together. The technique shown here allows you to move the knot past your belay device or other obstruction even while the ropes are weighted by a heavy climber.
Editors’ Note: The method described here is employed when lowering a climber off a tube-style belay device clipped to the master point on an anchor, but the same skills can be applied to any situation when passing a knot might be necessary. For clarity, the system is illustrated under no tension.
Fig. 21 When the knot is one foot from the belay device, get hands-free by tying a mule hitch on the belay device. Instead of an overhand backup, clip and lock a biner onto the strand leading down to the climber.
Fig. 22 Prusik-hitch a loop of cord below the backup biner on the load side of the rope (A). Clip another locker on the same side of the anchor, and attach the cord with a Muntermule- overhand (B). Slide the prusik down to tighten; now you have a backup for your hands-free system. On the knot side of the rope, tie a Munter-mule-overhand in the section of rope beyond the passing knot (C) on a locker connected to the master point.
Fig. 23 Undo your original belay system completely (D), so the prusik cord will take the load. Untie the overhand and mule hitch on the cord, and use the Munter (E) to slowly transfer the load to the new belay system: the Munter hitch you tied beyond the passing knot (F).
Fig. 24 Remove the cord completely (G) and untie the overhand and mule hitch on the new belay system. The knot is “passed” and you can continue lowering the climber with the new Munter (H).
Field Use 3: Escaping a belay (core skills required: munter hitch, MMO, flemish bend, prusik hitch, mule hitch)
If your partner gets injured while leading or following and can’t move, you may need to get into a position where you don’t have the responsibilities of belaying to help him or her. Don’t be scared away by how complicated this system looks at first glance. You will be taking the simple core skills described in previous pages and applying them in a logical order to free yourself from the loaded belay rope and thus, assist your immobilized partner. Escaping the belay is the first step in many rescue scenarios, and getting this dialed makes you an exponentially more competent climber and partner.
Editors’ Note: The following steps are based on belaying a leader with a tube-style device off your harness but can be adapted to a variety of belaying situations. It also assumes you have an upward-protected anchor, meaning you have at least one bomber piece of protection (preferably two) that is placed to protect an upward pull.
Fig. 25 The first step of escaping the belay is to get hands-free. Tie a mule hitch with an overhand backup on your belay device (A). Now you need to connect the climber’s rope directly to the anchor. Set up a length of cord into a closed loop using a Flemish bend, then use a prusik hitch (B) to attach that cord to the rope. Use an MMO to attach the cord to the anchor’s master point (MP). To do this, add a locker to the anchor and tie a Munter hitch with the free end of the loop and pull out all the slack. Put the Munter into a lowering position by pulling enough on the load end so the hitch rotates through the biner. Then tie an MMO in the cord (C). Now, push the prusik up along the rope so there’s no slack in the system (D), but make sure you can still reach the prusik.
Fig. 26 The weight of the climber needs to be transferred from the belayer to the cord. Undo the mule-overhand on your belay device, and slowly let slack out (E) until the cord goes taut to hold the rope in place (F).
Fig. 27 Clip another locking biner onto the anchor and tie a Munter hitch on it (G) with the brake strand of the belay rope that’s still in your hand. Take out most of the slack, but leave enough between yourself and the new Munter hitch to remove your belay device.
Fig. 28 Keeping a solid brake hand on the rope running through the Munter, take your belay device off the rope and pull in the rest of the slack. Now tie an MMO in the rope (H).
Fig. 29 Untie the mule-overhand on the prusik cord, and using the Munter hitch that is still there, slowly let out slack until the climber's rope is tensioned on the anchor. Untie the Munter in the cord (I). Fig. 30 Remove the cord entirely from the rope and its locking biner from the anchor. Now you’re left with the weight of the climber completely on a locking biner on the anchor with an MMO to hold it in place (J).
These four books are the absolute best resources for all things involving technical climbing skills and self-rescue for the vertical world and beyond.
- Climbing Self-Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations, by Andy Tyson and Molly Loomis ($19.95; mountaineersbooks.org)
- Self-Rescue 2nd (How to Climb Series), by David Fasulo ($16.95; falcon.com)
- Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 8th edition, by The Mountaineers ($39.95; mountaineersbooks.org)
- Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills, by Craig Luebben ($22.95; mountaineersbooks.org)