Multi-Pitch 911: How to Escape the Belay

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Halfway up a multi-pitch route, your partner falls, seriously injuring himself. He needs help, but you’re stuck in the belay system—you need to escape the belay in order to get to him or summon a rescue. As a three-year Yosemite Search and Rescue member and climber with 13 El Cap ascents, I’ve learned that this is one of the most invaluable skills for self-rescue. Removing yourself from the system and transferring your partner’s weight onto the anchor enables you to access the fallen climber, go get help, and decide which steps to take next.

Equipment List

  • Belay device of choice
  • 15–20-foot cordelette, its ends tied together with a double fisherman’s knot (you can also use a short prusik cord and double-length sling, clipped together with a locking carabiner)
  • 4–5 locking carabiners

Check your anchor

Before escaping the belay, you first need to ensure that you have a solid belay anchor. If your partner has fallen above you, the anchor needs to be multi-directional for the load transfer—adjust or add to your anchor accordingly. This can often be difficult, as the leader may have the rack with him. If you’re on a ledge and not weighting the belay, adjust the pieces one at a time; you might also grab the leader’s first piece. If you’re on the ground, sling a boulder or tree. Either way, make certain your anchor suits your needs.

Transfer the load

Now, with a good anchor in place, you’re ready to transfer the load. To begin, tie off the belay device with a mule overhand (see sidebar on facing page). This knot will allow you to safely go hands-free as you shift the load onto the anchor. To transfer the load:

  1. Using your cordelette, hitch a prusik on the rope’s weighted end, above your belay device. Ensure the prusik is dressed nicely, with the double fisherman’s knot out of the way so that it bites the rope.
  2. Using the remainder of the cordelette, clip a locking carabiner to the master point on your anchor and tie off your prusik with a Münter-mule (see sidebar below)—flip the Münter so that it’s in the lowering position and take the slack out of the cordelette, then add the mule.
  3. Back up your system: Take the slack end of the rope from below the belay device, then tie another Münter-mule on a separate locking carabiner on the masterpoint. Not only does this serve as a backup, but you may need to use it later to lower the load.
  4. Double-check that the prusik is firmly on the rope and that there’s minimal slack in the system. Remove the mule overhand at your belay device and slowly lower the load onto the prusik—and hence the anchor. Remove your belay device from the system.

Prepare to lower

You don’t want to transfer your partner onto the anchor without having a way of releasing the load. This is where the Münter-mule comes in.

  1. From the previous steps, the load should now be on the prusik, with the rope configured in a Münter-mule backup. Adjust the backup to remove slack from the rope, keeping a hand on the brake side—it’s still acting as a backup to your system.
  2. Untie the mule on your cordelette/prusik and use the Münter to slowly lower your partner’s weight onto the rope. The weight should now be on the backup hitch, setting you up to lower your partner in the future if necessary.
  3. You have successfully escaped the belay! Re-rack the cordelette and any carabiners no longer in use (these can be useful later). You should now be out of the belay system and ready to assess your climber (for more on assessing the situation, visit climbing.com/escapethebelay). 

Assess the situation

After escaping the belay, you need to assess the situation. Take into account your gear and your technical and first-aid knowledge. To consider:

  • Call for help: The first thing you should do is get assistance. Do you have a cell phone? Are you able to yell to nearby climbers? Can you drop a rope down to make it easier for rescuers to access you and your partner?
  • Access your partner: Evaluate if you can safely access your partner. It may be as simple as rappelling to your partner and then buddy rappelling to the ground. If the leader has taken a fall past the halfway point on the rope, you may consider prusiking up the lead line, using your partner above as a counterweight. You will be heavily weighting their last piece of gear. Think carefully about the viability of this idea—if the gear is marginal, consider waiting for help.
  • Consider further self-rescue: If you can access you partner, do you have the skills and equipment to render first aid and/or self-rescue both of you to the ground? How many rappels will you need to do? Do you have enough gear to build anchors on the way down? Have you buddy-rappelled before? Will you be able to manage your partner’s injuries during the descent?

Taking self-rescue classes, reading technical manuals, and practicing in the field will help you be more prepared, self-sufficient, and adaptable in rescue situations. 

The Münter-Mule 

Used for belaying, lowering, and rappelling, the Münter-mule resembles three strands, with two of the strands wrapped around the carabiner acting as a “collar” around the middle strand. The knot has two parts:

The Münter

RockClimbing2E-306A_gn-web

Your lowering hitch.

  1. Using a section of rope, create two circles that cross over themselves, forming two Xs. Ensure that the rope going into the first X is on the bottom and that the rope coming out of the second X is on top.
  2. Hold the two Xs in your fingers and fold them toward each other like you would pages in a book.
  3. Clip the carabiner through the folded loops. You now have a Münter hitch. The rope should feed easily through the carabiner by pulling on each end separately, and stop when both ends are pulled simultaneously. To ensure that the knot is in lowering mode, pull the load-side strand, flipping it through the carabiner.

The Mule

Consisting of a slipknot plus overhand, the mule ties off the Münter.

Make the slipknot:

RockClimbing2E-306B_gn-web

1. Make a loop with the brake strand of the rope, ensuring that the rope going out of the X is on the bottom.

RockClimbing2E-306C_gn-web

2.Pass the rope underneath the weighted strand and form a loop on the other side of the rope.

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3.Feed the bight around the weighted strand and pass it through the loop. Slide this up to your Münter and tighten.

Make the overhand:

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1. The slipknot should form a U-shaped adjustable bight. Take this bight and wrap it around the weighted strand to form a loop.

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2. Pass the bight up through the loop, creating a double overhand wrapped around the weighted strand.

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3. The final bight created by the overhand should be pointing toward the load. Tighten this and the Münter hitch will no longer need a hand to hold it. You’re ready for hands-free.

Alexa Flower spends half the year in Yosemite, climbing and working on search and rescue. She has climbed over 20 big walls, most recently as part of the first all-female Zodiac-in-a-day team on El Capitan.

All photos are used with permission from Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills, 2nd Ed. (Mountaineers Books, 2014) by Topher Donahue and Craig Luebben, available where books are sold and online at mountaineersbooks.org.

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