Learn This: Advanced Rock Climbing Rescue Techniques

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Julie Ellison
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There’s an understood credo in climbing that every climbing team is responsible for their own safety, and knowing how to escape from a bad situation, whether it’s injury, weather, or rockfall, should be in every climber’s bag of tricks. Unfortunately, since learning and practicing these skills takes time away from actual climbing, very few climbers educate themselves about these essential self-rescue skills, and even fewer climbers regularly practice them. In an effort to expand and improve upon my own knowledge of self-rescue, I attended an Advanced Rock Rescue course offered by the REI Outdoor School. The class emphasized two skills—hauling and lowering—as the most important techniques to learn when first delving into self-rescue. While there are numerous ways to haul and lower, we’ve outlined simple and efficient methods that are versatile for a number of situations and easy to learn by beginners and longtime climbers alike.

Start Here

One of the first things veteran guide and senior instructor Paul Haraf made clear during the class is that there are infinite situations that might require some level of self-rescue, from spraining your ankle and not being able to complete a climb to a belayer being knocked unconscious from a falling rock. Because you can never predict what the exact circumstances might be, the most important factor are to have a thorough knowledge of what the systems are, how they work, and how to quickly and safely set them up. If you’re well-versed in the systems, you can apply and adapt them to whatever situation you might find yourself in. That said, the majority of self-rescue scenarios will involve minor injuries that prevent you and your partner from finishing a route. Because of this, hauling your partner up to you and/or lowering him to the ground or a previous anchor are the most often-used techniques. The skills outlined here involve top-down rescue, meaning you’ll be hauling or lowering a follower (as opposed to a leader when belaying from below), with an auto-blocking belay device set up correctly on a solid anchor. Lastly and perhaps most important: Practice, practice, practice! Haraf suggests setting up a practice station in your house so you can do it whenever you have a few free minutes.

How to Haul Your Partner

The most basic system is a 3:1, also called a Z-pulley, meaning that for every three feet of rope you move through the system, you’ll raise the climber one foot. A 3:1 system also means that you’re reducing the weight of the hauled load by two-thirds, so in a frictionless world it would take 50 pounds of effort to raise a 150-pound climber. Of course, the real world has friction with the rope, the anchor, the rock, etc., so that number isn’t exact, but it’s relatively close.

Hauling Rescue System Rock Climbing Skills

1. Build a prusik (A) with a closed loop of cord on the weighted strand, and tie an overhand in the bight (B) to shorten if necessary.

2. Clip a non-locker inside the prusik loop, and then clip the brake strand of the rope into the biner (C). Slide the prusik down the rope as far as you can.

3. Using your legs (not just your arms) and your body weight, pull the brake strand (D) up toward the anchor. Once the prusik engages, this will raise the climber.

4. Keep pulling until the prusik is in a position where you can’t pull efficiently any more. At that point, slide the prusik back down the rope and repeat. The auto-blocking belay device will hold the climber while you reset the system.

How to Lower Your Partner

Lowering a climber with an auto-blocking belay device set up on the anchor is a topic fraught with debate. There are many schools of thought on how to do it safely, but in this skill, we’re going to skip that controversy entirely and instead lower with a Munter hitch. This involves putting the follower on a friction hitch with a backup (Haraf says, “Never trust anyone’s life to a single friction hitch!”), removing the belay device from the system, building a Munter, and using it to lower with an auto-block backup that’s clipped directly to your belay loop.

Lowering Rescue System Rock Climbing Skills

1. From the belay device, take a few feet of the brake strand and tie an overhand on a bight, then clip that to the anchor with a locking biner (A). This will be the backup for your friction hitch.

2. Using a long cordelette or sling, tie a Klemheist on the climber’s weighted strand of the rope (B).

3. With the other end of the cord, tie a Munter-mule-overhand on a locking biner that’s clipped to the anchor (C). Slide the Klemheist down the rope as far as you can.

4. Transfer the weight of the climber from the belay device to the Klemheist by wiggling the biner clipped through the loop of the belay device back and forth (D). Keep wiggling it until a few inches of rope have moved through the device and the Klemheist has engaged, holding the weight of the climber.

5. Remove the belay device (E) completely from the setup, and with that section of rope, tie a Munter onto the locker that was holding the belay device on the anchor.

6. Pull slack through the Munter and tie an auto-block hitch with a closed loop of cord onto the brake strand (coming from the Munter) and clip it to your belay loop. Slide it up toward the Munter and sit back on it so it’s engaged.

7. Untie the backup overhand that’s clipped to the anchor (A). Slowly untie the Munter-mule-overhand on the cord, using the Munter part to transfer the weight of the climber from the cord to the rope. Then remove the cord entirely.

8. The climber’s weight will be completely on the Munter hitch, your brake hand, and the auto-block backup.

9. With one hand on the auto-block and another higher on the brake strand, gently squeeze the auto-block so it disengages. Lower the climber as you normally would, using the auto-block as a backup.

General Rescue Tips

  • Clip into the anchor with a clove hitch on the rope, which allows you to change your distance from the anchor and get into a better position to see your follower.
  • The anchor should be high, about chest height or above. This will help the rope run easier over any ledges or avoid them completely.
  • You want at least a 3mm difference in diameter between cord and rope for maximum friction when applying hitches.
  • Organization leads to less chaos, so put your own clip-in point on your side of the anchor and face biner gates up for better access and easier clipping/unclipping.
  • Prusiks can only be built with cord; a Klemheist can use cord or slings.
  • Every inch counts in these systems, so when sliding hitches and pulling rope, move them as far as possible every time, but keep them within reach. This might also mean tying an overhand in a prusik if it’s too long.

For tons of class options from beginning rock climbing to advanced anchor clinics, check out rei.com/learn for listings in your area.