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Save Your Rope (Or Yourself): Learn to Use Directionals

A directional is a piece of gear, be it a bolt or a cam or a nut, that places your climbing rope in the most appropriate location for zigs and zags on a climb.

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How many climbing routes can you list that are a perfectly straight line from the ground to the top? It’s safe to say that more routes than not have a slight amount of lateral movement, whether it’s a full pitch of traversing or just a wandery sport route that has you moving right or left.

A directional is a piece of gear, be it a bolt or a cam or a nut, that places your climbing rope in the most appropriate location for these zigs and zags, and there are three main instances where you might need a directional: toproping, rappelling, or traversing. The gear itself might be fixed, like a nut or cam that’s welded into a crack, or it might be a bolt that you need to place your own quickdraw on and then remove when you don’t need it any mo re. Many times, descriptions for multi-pitch routes will have information on fixed directionals that should be used, including any directionals for the descent. This assistance is required to position the rope so it’s running in the correct and safest direction, hence the name, whether it’s to protect the climber from a big swing, prevent the rope from running over a sharp edge, or just make it easier to reach a lower set of anchors on rappel.

Below we outline the specifics of when you might need a directional in these three situations, as well as how to use one properly for safer climbing.

Single Pitch: Toproping

Learn This: How to Use Directionals

The main reason to use a directional for toproping is to prevent the climber from taking a big pendulum swing, as well as to make it easier for her to get back on a route after falling off. If someone just led the route and all the draws are clipped, just climb up on that side of the rope, unclipping draws as you go. If the rope is not running through the draws, you might need to clip a particular draw or two in order to keep the rope running where you will actually be climbing.

Imagine a line straight down to the ground from the anchors, and then look at where the bolts are in relation to that line. If at any point the climbing route is more than about three or four feet from the imaginary straight line, consider putting a directional there by simply clipping the closest bolt with a draw and clipping the climber’s side of the rope into that draw. This will keep the climber in line with the actual climbing route instead of just the anchors, which will prevent wild swings if you fall. Make sure to have the climber unclip that piece as she moves up, and if someone is going to toprope right after, the climber should reclip her rope into the piece as she lowers so the next person has a directional.

A few notes: Clipping a directional for toproping will use more rope than if it were running straight down, so take that into account when figuring out if your rope is long enough and knot the end. Some sport climbs will have a perma-draw in certain spots to make cleaning the route less complicated, meaning it runs the rope in a way that makes it easier to access the bolts lower on the route. Typically these are the same directionals you should use when toproping.

Multi-Pitch: Protecting Traverses

Learn This: How to Use Directionals

Moving drastically from left to right or vice versa requires regularly placed protection to prevent the follower from taking a big and potentially hazardous swing. Sometimes a route will have fixed pro, so use it! Many times you can find info about traverses and permanent protection in a guidebook, topo, or on Mountain Project, so it helps to do your research beforehand.

Protecting the follower from a swing might also mean preventing the rope from running over a knife edge during the pendulum, which can easily slice a cord in half when it’s weighted. If there isn’t fixed pro, consider where the rope is running and what a fall by the follower would look like. Are there any obstacles he could hit if he swings? Is there a sharp edge anywhere that the rope would abrade on? Will he be able to get back on the route if he falls? Place protection that will prevent a fall and the resulting swing if any of these outcomes are possible.

Descent: Rappelling

Learn This: How to Use Directionals

When rappelling long routes, each anchor isn’t usually stacked on top of the other anchors in a vertical line. Often when there is a significant amount of horizontal distance between anchors, there will be some sort of fixed gear to ensure that the rope is hanging in the proper spot so the climber can easily get to the next anchor.

The first rappeller should rap down to be about even with the fixed gear, or slightly below it. He might have to swing over to reach it, and once he does, he should clip the strands of rope above his belay device into the fixed gear and continue down to the next anchor. It’s always a good idea to use a rappel backup, but it’s especially important here so you have the use of both hands when trying to clip the gear that you’re swinging to reach. When the second rappeller reaches the gear, he should unclip the rope below his device, then one of two things should happen. If there’s another person rapping, reclip the strands above the belay device and keep moving down. If he’s the last person rapping, he can keep moving down without reclipping. To make it easier to reach the next anchors, he should have his partner (who is already at the lower anchor) grab both strands of the rope and help pull him over to the anchor. //