Realistic Self-Rescue: Three Must-Have Multi-Pitch Skills Using Things You Actually Carry

Basic self-rescue knowledge should be a priority of any aspiring multi-pitch climber. Knowing and practicing these skills beforehand will save you lots of headache on the wall. Being self-reliant is the responsibility of each person—you are responsible for your own safety!
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Have you ever wondered if you actually have the skills to get yourself out of a sticky situation while multi-pitch climbing? If you haven’t, you probably should. You could start with a book like Climbing Self Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations. However, as you go through the procedures, you’ll likely notice the swath of extra gear recommended. Sure, you might have memorized how to counterbalance rappel from the book, but could you do it at the top of a pitch you’ve just led, without your cordelette and with just the handful of trad draws left on your harness—like in real life?

I asked myself these same questions during my climbing season last summer in Yosemite Valley. After ditching the cordelette altogether and minimizing my rack for long free routes, I wondered if I could pull off the key skills I thought I knew with the gear I actually carried. So, one rainy day in the Valley, a friend and I brushed up on self-rescue skills, seeing if we could pull them off with the gear we typically had with us on a standard multi-pitch free route.

As it turns out, all the scenarios we tried could be improvised with minimal gear. We distilled our on-harness rescue kit to just the basic things you’d probably carry anyway. No more multiple lengths of cord, multiple prusiks, or even cordelette. Combined with multi-pitch staples like alpine draws, a couple of lockers, and a chalk-bag belt made of 6mm cord, I’ve found that this minimalist kit can get you out of almost any sticky situation. What we ended up with, and what I still carry on my back gear loop every time I multi-pitch climb, was a small locker holding a few items. Below is what my personal “Oh-Shit-Kit” looks like. I encourage each person in your party to carry their own!

In addition to minimizing the kit, I also wanted to minimize the complexity of self-rescue knowledge for the average multi-pitch climber. In all of my climbing and rope-rescue experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that most self-rescue scenarios can be accomplished with just three basic skills, or some combination of them. These are Transfer of Tension, Improvised Rope Ascension, and Rappelling with Weight (object or person). Let’s dive in and learn how to do each skill with the Oh-Shit-Kit, as well as explore some scenarios that show how each skill can be useful.

Disclaimer: I do not have any AMGA guiding certifications, and these systems can likely be improved upon. This article seeks to fill a gap in current self-rescue literature and provide alternative real-world solutions to self-rescue scenarios where a cordelette may be unavailable. Practice with your own gear before relying on these skills.

The Oh-Shit-Kit

  • Small locking carabiner (Edelrid Pure Slider)
  • Small knife (Trango Piranha)
  • Personal rappelling prusik (Sterling 13.5-inch Hollow Block)
  • Guide-style ATC device (I use a Grigri for belaying during the climb, so the ATC mostly stays on the Oh-Shit-Kit)
  • Double-length Dyneema slings (120cm)

Note: Although the small knife is not used in this article, it’s still a valuable piece of equipment to carry on long routes, useful for tasks like cutting sun-bleached slings off anchors or even cutting your own rope to fashion an emergency bail anchor.

Want To Go Deeper Into Self-Rescue?

Sign up for our upcoming AIM Adventure U class Essential Self-Rescue for Climbers, taught by SAR veteran and AMGA guide Karsten Delap.

I. Transfer of Tension

As the leader of a rope-rescue clinic I took in 2019 told me, “All rope-rescue problems are some version of a transfer-of-tension problem.” The basic idea is to release tension off the primary capture system and onto a secondary system using a load-releasable hitch. This is useful for a plethora of scenarios, such as passing a knot, escaping a belay, or, like I did last year on Freerider on El Cap, accidentally lowering out the haulbags onto a knot on the anchor rather than the hauling device. In case you don’t have (or carry) your cordelette for the classic “prusik-Munter-mule-overhand,” here’s an easy way to accomplish the same task with your personal rappelling prusik and a double-length sling. (Note: You’ll need to know the Munter-mule-overhand. Visit climbing.com/escapethebelay for a how-to.)

Transfer of Tension—Belay Escape

These are the four basic steps for transferring tension off a system, such as when escaping the belay:

Belay escape 1 final-web

1. Attach your prusik onto the loaded strand, and attach a double-length sling (via girth hitch) to the prusik. Keep the bartack on the sling close to the prusik.

Belay escape 2 final-web

2. Tie a Munter-mule-overhand (MMO) in the double-length sling on a locking carabiner clipped to the anchor.* Leave about 6 inches of sling between the anchor and the prusik.

Belay escape 3 final-web

3. Tie a backup behind your MMO, such as a knot in the rope clipped to the anchor with the slack rope behind the MMO. This provides a safeguard were the MMO or prusik to fail.

Belay escape 4 final-web

4. Release tension from your belay device onto the MMO. 

These four steps completed, you have now released tension from the initial capture point and are ready for any next steps, dependent on the scenario. For example, you may have used this to escape the belay, and now that your device is free, you may need to ascend or rappel to your injured partner. If you later need to release the tension from the MMO (for example, back onto a belay device), simply remove any backups, take up slack in your new system, and release tension via the MMO.

Additionally, this concept can be used for another useful self-rescue skill: passing a knot on rappel.

CAUTION

Some real-world rescue scenarios may require different techniques than those described in this article. For example, if the injured climber is still conscious and can be lowered safely, this would be quicker than going through the transfer-of-tension steps. However, knowing how to do these steps is still a critical component to self-rescue. Think critically about how you would change your tactics in each scenario!

By nature, there are some scenarios in which self-rescue may not be possible, so when you’re out of cell-phone range, having an emergency beacon like a Garmin inReach Mini is a great tool for worst-case scenarios. I typically keep my inReach Mini in my chalk-bag pocket on long or remote routes.

Transfer of Tension—Passing a knot

At some point, you may core-shot a rope or may need to tie all your ropes together to get to the ground quickly, meaning you may need to pass a knot. Luckily, you can use the same transfer-of-tension skills we just learned! This scenario is easiest when rappelling on a single strand with a Grigri, and more difficult with a rappel extension and an ATC due to the extra length needed in the MMO to release weight below the knot and onto the rappel extension. If you foresee having to do this, consider rappelling without an extension. (Note: If you’ve core-shot only one side of your rope, avoid passing the knot by simply rigging your rappel as a biner-block and rappelling on the undamaged side on a single strand. See climbing.com/binerblock.)

Hanging about one foot above the knot, follow the steps from “Transfer of Tension—Belay Escape,” but modify as such:

Passing knot 1a final-web

1. Attach your prusik to the weighted rope/s above the rappel device and attach a double-length sling (via girth hitch) to the prusik.**

**Note: If using an ATC and a prusik third-hand to rappel—meaning your prusik is already in use—you can instead execute step 1 using a well-dressed prusik made with a sling. Knot the sling to reduce overall prusik length.

Passing knot 1b final-web

2. Tie an MMO in the double-length sling to a locker clipped to your belay loop.

Passing knot 1c final-web

3. Tie a backup overhand knot in the rappel rope/s about 6 feet below you; clip this to your belay loop. This backs you up to the rappel ropes in case your prusik or MMO fails while you are passing your device around the knot.

Passing knot 2 final-web

4. Release tension from the rappel device onto the MMO.

Passing knot 3 final-web

5. Pass the knot by removing your rappel device from above the knot and reinstalling it below the knot, with a third-hand backup prusik in place below your ATC (clipping the prusik to your leg loop is common when not using a rappel extension).

Passing knot 4 final-web

6. Release sling MMO tension and weight the rappel system. Remove the backup knot in the rope, and then continue rappelling as normal.

II. Improvised Rope Ascension

If you climb multi-pitch long enough, you’ll likely encounter a situation in which you wish you could ascend the rope. Maybe you rappelled past an anchor, your rappel ropes got stuck, or worse, you need to reach an injured leader. The last time I found myself using these skills was due to a twisted rappel rope that wouldn’t pull in Patagonia, and the time before that was when I took a big fall on the third pitch of a steep sport route in the Getu Arch in China and found myself dangling in space. Regardless, chances are you won’t have ascenders on you. Time to use that Oh-Shit-Kit! 

Double-Strand Ascension With a Guide-Style Atc Device

Maybe you rapped past your anchor (using a rappel extension) and you need to switch to ascending your ropes to reach the anchor again. Although the following steps are for a two-strand rappel, the same process applies for a single strand.

Ascension final-web
  1. Letting your third-hand backup hold the weight of your rappel, fashion a prusik above your belay device around both strands of the rope using another prusik, a sling, or your 6mm chalk-bag cord.
  2. Clip a double-length sling (or two girth-hitched single-length slings) to the prusik to serve as a foot loop.
  3. Stand up in the foot loop to create slack in your rappel extension. (In this scenario, I recommend creating the extension by using a single-length sling girth-hitched through your harness’s hard points and clipped to your device with a single locking carabiner.) Now clip a locker from the guide-mode hole of your belay device directly into your belay loop. The ropes should now be in auto-locking “guide mode” off your belay loop. Remove your third-hand backup from below your rappel device.
  4. Begin ascending by standing up in the foot loop and pulling rope up through the device to capture your progress. If the weight of the rappel ropes is making it difficult to pull slack through, saddlebag the rope ends to reduce the friction from rope weight.*** If you need to rappel again for whatever reason, simply reverse the steps above to transition back to rappelling with a third-hand backup. 

***Note: If ascending heavy rappel ropes, saddlebag them on your harness—on either or both sides. This will make pulling rope up through the ATC much easier, reducing the friction caused by the rope tugging on your system.

Caution!

For new multi-pitch climbers, it can be difficult to find all the information needed to climb safely. Guiding-certification courses can be expensive, and mentors are increasingly hard to come by. Online resources from trusted sources are a great and inexpensive way to practice skills. For example, many mountain guides offer tech-tip videos online, and multipitchclimbing.com has lots of great resources for multi-pitch efficiency and self-rescue scenarios.

Single-Strand Ascension With a Grigri 

This is the easiest scenario—and one more reason to belay with a Grigri.

  1. Attach your prusik to the loaded strand above your belay device.
  2. Attach a double-length sling to the prusik. The length will be about perfect for a foot loop for most people.
  3. Take up slack in your Grigri as you step into the foot-loop sling. Slide the prusik with the foot loop up the loaded strand; repeat as necessary.

Ascending Rope From Tie-in

In this scenario, you might be hanging in space after a long leader
fall on an overhanging route, or maybe you fell off steep terrain and swung out while seconding.

  1. Attach your prusik to the weighted rope above your tie-in point as far as you can reach, and then attach your double-length sling to the prusik to serve as a foot loop.
  2. Create slack in your tie-in point by standing in the sling and clipping yourself to the prusik with a quickdraw.
  3. Rig an ATC in guide mode or a Grigri off your harness, and ascend as shown in the Double-Strand Ascension With a Guide-Style ATC Device section back to the rock. Clip in direct to a piece of protection, undo the system, and have your belayer take up slack. Done!

III. Rappelling with Weight (Object or Person)

Rappelling is an unfortunate necessity—as Ed Viesturs once said, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” It’s also often the most dangerous part of the climbing experience, with its full reliance on gear. Thus, it’s best to ingrain safe habits like using a rappel extension and a prusik, as well as making sure you’re rappelling on a system you’ve closed with knots in the rope ends, a clove hitch with the rope ends on your belay loop, etc. That said, the situation gets even hairier when suddenly you have to rappel with your buddy who can’t rig his own rappel, or you have to bail with your haulbags from halfway up El Cap (like on my first attempt at the Nose). Here’s the beta:

Heavy weight rap final2-web
  1. Make a rappel extension with your double-length sling. I girth-hitch the sling through my harness’s hard points, and then tie an alpine butterfly just before the middle point, so that the remaining loop is a bit longer. Having the shorter side on you gives you more reach and puts you closer to the action when rigging/untying MMOs off the anchor for multiple rappels.
  2. Clip your rap device to the rappel-extension masterpoint and thread your device as normal. Add your third-hand backup—prusik, autoblock, etc.—below the system off your belay loop (the best place when using an extension), then add a locker to the free loop of the rappel extension.
  3. Clip the heavy weight (person, haulbag, etc.) to the free locker at the end of the extension. Essentially, you are both hanging on the same rappel system, but you have control of the rappel device. (Note: Always double-check that the rappel anchor is strong enough to hold a two-person load!)
  4. Rappel as normal, with your legs wrapped around the haulbag or person, or by using an improvised sling litter for your partner (see below).
Caution!

When rappelling with haulbags, or when trying to find a new rappel route for the first time, rig the rappel as a biner block and send the first person down the blocked single strand on a Grigri—and with a lighter share of the load. This way, if they need to re-ascend the rope because they can’t find the anchor, they’ll be on a much-easier-to-ascend single-strand/Grigri setup. Then have the second person undo the biner block and rappel as normal on a rappel extension, ATC, and backup. It’s much easier to control your speed when rappelling with weight using an ATC and a prusik than with a Grigri.

Multiple Rappels With Weight

When doing multiple rappels, you’ll need to attach yourself and your accompanying weight to the anchor with a releasable system so as not to have to muscle the weight off the anchor each time.

  1. Girth-hitch another double-length sling (from your partner’s Oh-Shit-Kit, possibly) to the masterpoint loop of your rappel extension, or use the single strand of 6mm cord that acts as your chalk-bag belt.
  2. Once at the next anchor, use the extra double-length sling (or cord) on the rappel masterpoint to attach to the anchor with an MMO on a locking carabiner (see “Transfer of Tension—Belay Escape”), and back yourself up with a free quickdraw.
  3. After pulling the rope and rigging the next rappel, simply take up all the slack in the system, remove the backup draw, and release your sling MMO onto the rappel system.
  4. Continue rappelling to the next anchor, repeating steps 2–3 above to attach yourself to the anchor.

Creating a Sling Litter

20200515-3.2 Sling Litter-web

Make a litter by fashioning a chest harness and knee support out of slings, and then clipping them to the rappel masterpoint (as demo’ed below by the author). Using two girth-hitched single-length slings, position the hitch in the middle of the patient’s back and put their arms through the slings, clipping both strands in the front to the rappel masterpoint to provide upright support. If they need leg support, you can also girth-hitch their legs with a long sling/s and clip it to the rappel masterpoint.

Worst Case Scenarios

Now that we’ve learned the three key skills—transfer of tension, improvised rope ascension, and rappelling with weight (object or person)—let’s look at how we might combine them to resolve two more complicated “worst-case” self-rescue scenarios.

As a climber, there is one scenario that no one wishes to be in, and it goes like this: You are belaying your partner on a multi-pitch climb, and she/he has climbed more than half of the rope length. They take a big fall, injuring themself badly, and are unable to climb (or worse, are unresponsive). They can’t be lowered back to the anchor because they climbed past the halfway point of the rope. So what do you do?

Analysis:

Your two main goal as the belayer/rescuer are to:

  1. Make contact with your partner and address any immediate life-threatening medical needs.
  2. Get you and your partner safely to the ground, hopefully to meet with a rescue or evacuation team

Solution:

  1. In order to make contact with your partner, you’ll want to first lower your partner down as far as you can to lessen the distance between the two of you.
  2. Using your Oh-Shit-Kit and skills learned in the “Transfer of Tension” and “Improvised Rope Ascension” sections, escape the belay and begin to ascend the rope until you reach your partner. Take all of your current anchor material with you, because you will have to build a new belay mid-pitch.
  3. Once you reach your partner and all life-threatening injuries are addressed, find a place to build a new anchor.
  4. Using the setup described in “Rappelling with weight,” attach your partner to the free locker on the end of your rappel extension and attach yourselves to the new anchor with the weight-releasable system using the method described in the “Multiple Rappels with Weight” section. Create a sling litter for your partner if necessary.
  5. Rappel with your partner until you reach the ground as described in the “Multiple Rappels with Weight” section.

If you have just led a pitch and are belaying your partner from above, probably the worst thing that could happen is your partner goes unconscious, again more than half a rope length below you. Maybe it’s a rockfall strike or some other medical emergency. Though this scenario is highly unlikely, it could happen; here, we’ll use many of the same three skills we’ve learned with our Oh-Shit-Kit to find a solution.

Solution:

  1. Using skills learned in the “Transfer of Tension” section, transfer tension off your belay device and onto a sling MMO onto the anchor. Don’t forget to tie a backup knot to the anchor with the slack rope in case the prusik or MMO were to fail.
  2. With your partner's weight on the sling MMO, clip the slack rope behind the MMO through a locker or two non-lockers you’ll leave at the anchor, and then to your belay device set up as a rappel (preferably with a Grigri). If using an ATC, make sure to use a backup third hand. These are the beginning steps to setting up a counterbalance rappel that will let you get you and your partner down to the next anchor. (Note: In a true emergency, it’s fastest to leave this anchor in place. If you have the time and are at an anchor with rappel rings, you can take extra steps to thread your end of the rappel rope through the rings first so that you don’t leave any gear behind.)
  3. After your rappel device is set up, release the tension off the MMO and onto your rappel device such that you are now counterbalancing your partner's weight through the anchor with your own weight. Leave the prusik on the climbers’ strand of the rope.
  4. Use the now-free double-length sling to pre-rig the same rappel extension detailed in the “Rappelling with Weight” section and clip the masterpoint of the rappel extension to the prusik on the climber-strand of the rope that is still there.
  5. Undo your personal attachment to the anchor to begin rappelling down the single strand to your partner. You will need to control both your own rappel device and tend to the prusik on the climber strand so it slides with you as you descend.
  6. When you reach your partner, leave the prusik engaged about 1 foot above their tie-in and clip the free locker on the end of the rappel extension to their belay loop.
  7. Continue rappelling, leaving the prusik engaged above their tie-in point. As you rappel, you will lower both of you down at the same time until you reach the next anchor.
  8. At the next anchor, take another double-length sling from your partner, or use your 6mm chalk-bag belt cord to attach the masterpoint of your rappel extension system to the anchor with an MMO as outlined in “Multiple Rappels with Weight,” using a loose quickdraw to backup the MMO.

Release your weight onto the MMO, pull the rope and rig the next rappel, and continue double-strand rappelling as detailed in “Multiple Rappels with Weight.”

Christian Black hails from a small town in Texas you’ve probably never heard of. After studying geology at the University of Texas at Austin and joining the climbing team, he packed his car and headed west. He soon landed a spot on the prestigious Yosemite Valley Search and Rescue team, for which he now spends his summers volunteering.