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Big Walls, Big Storms: How to Endure… or Bail

Being up high in bad weather is both dangerous and... well... kind of inevitable. Here's what to do when it happens to you.


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Climbing Magazine has been publishing technical skills pieces for five decades. Here, we’ve collected several short pieces that appeared in the magazine’s Tech Tips department in the early and mid 2000s and yet remain as relevant today as the day they were first published. 

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1. “Oh Sh*t: That’s a storm!”

It happens to the best (and even the fastest) of us. Hundreds of feet off the deck, you suddenly find yourself trapped, pinned down by an ugly beast spitting white-hot lightning and drowning the rock. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when dealing with objective hazards like lightning but here are a four main ways to decrease the potency of your epic.

Know how to go up when free climbing is out of the question — break out the shoulder-sling aiders and prusiks.
Know how to go up when free climbing is out of the question — break out the shoulder-sling aiders and prusiks.

Don’t panic.

Storms aren’t like dogs — they can’t smell your fear. Nevertheless, being methodical in your response to the situation will up your chances of survival. This includes you and your partner keeping your cool by not giving voice to worst-case scenarios. Encourage each other (“We’ll get through this,” not “We’re gonna die!”) and concentrate on your breathing. Many people hyperventilate in tense situations, exacerbating their anxiety and making it hard to think clearly. Remember the simple things, like donning extra clothes before you get wet and cold.

Weigh your options.

Don’t immediately assume that your best option is rappelling. Depending upon how high you are on the route, it may be best to climb up to safety or find a sheltered place to stay put until the weather passes. Scope out other escape options, such as ledges you can traverse to easier ground. Keep the lines of communication open between you and your partner, even if that means seconding a pitch in the rain to reach her on a higher ledge versus unproductive shouting. Any decisions are best made together.

Move quickly but safely.

If you decide to rappel, do it quickly and decisively. Don’t hem and haw over leaving your favorite cam as part of an anchor, fiddling with less-precious nuts when it’s obvious the cam is safer. No piece of climbing gear is worth more than your life, or your partner’s! If you decide to go up, don’t muck about trying to keep your ascent all-free if the rock is wet. Place solid gear and pull on it, hang on it, or stand in it (you can jury-rig “aiders” with shoulder or prusik slings or a cordelette) to make upward progress. It’s faster to free climb (when safely possible), but it’s also easy to slip on wet rock and a broken bone will quickly complicate your epic. Always carry prusiks and know how to use them. With the rock soaked and not free climbable, it’s much more efficient to second a pitch with prusiks than by aiding.

Pray.

It can’t hurt, can it? I’m not necessarily a religious man but I’ve found myself pleading with God a few times while rappelling in thunderstorms. Having a mantra, be it prayer or otherwise, will allow you to focus and keep your head. Even the lyrics from a favorite song might help. Something from the Doors comes to mind…

—Matt Samet

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2. “Let’s Get the Heck Out of Dodge!”

The single most important thing when retreating in a storm is to maintain steady downward progress. Foremost, this means avoiding a stuck rope. As you descend, be mindful of rope-eating blocks or flakes. If you encounter a rope-eater, set your next rappel anchor on or near it, instead of continuing down to a lower stance. This way, if the rope does snag when you pull it, you’ll be right there to clean up the mess.

(Illustration: Jamie Givens)

In High Winds

Instead, instead of trying to toss the rope down the cliff, keep it with you as you rap. Flake the extra rope through a sling and wear it like a saddlebag off your gear loop, feeding it out as you descend. When it comes time to pull, you’ll have to take your chances. Wait for a lull in the wind, and try to reel the rope in quickly before it blows around the corner and lassoes a flake.

Double-rope rappels

Double-rope rappels are tempting, but doing shorter raps is often more efficient overall. Short raps are easier to pull, there’s no knot to get stuck, partner communication is easier, and your second rope (if you have one) becomes a full backup rappel system if the line snags irretrievably. However, if you’ve been working down scrappy mixed terrain using one rope, don’t hesitate to break out the second if you encounter a clean ice field or rock wall, or if finding an intermediate anchor becomes a problem.

One major drawback to doing shorter rappels is that you need more anchor points, which often means leaving more gear. Make a mental note of any fixed pins on the way up; these can be equalized with a nut to make a quick and inexpensive anchor. Consider carrying a spare set or two of old stoppers to leave behind, and remember that you can improve marginal placements by welding them with a hammer or ice axe.

Equalizing

For equalizing, use your cordelettes first, cutting off just the amount you need for each anchor to minimize waste. It’s not necessary to leave carabiners; just thread the cordelette directly through the eye of the pin and the wire of the nut. You also don’t need a carabiner on the master point—for clean rappels, it is adequate to feed the rope directly through the cord. If you do want to leave a carabiner for ease of pulling, you can make a poor man’s locker by taping shut the gate of a non-locker.

Long Descents

For really long descents, carry spare cord for anchor building. Fifty feet or more of 6mm cord stashed in the bottom of the pack could be a godsend.

—Mark Synnott

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3. “Wait! But I’ve already set up the Portaledge!”

Climb enough big walls, and sooner or later you’re going to spend a night in Hell. The most terrifying night of my life occurred while attempting a winter ascent of El Cap’s Zenyatta Mondatta. Our double portaledge spent most of the night bucking and swaying wildly through the air—with us inside. By morning the rainfly was shredded, and my partner and I were lying in frigid pools of water. As with most big-wall epics, this one could have been avoided. Here are a few things you can do—that we learned the hard way—to see yourself safely through the storm.

Rig for a rodeo.

Anchor the bottom of your ledge to keep it from flying away from the wall in strong updrafts. This “lower” single-point suspension, which clips onto the underside of the bed’s four corners, is essentially a mirror image of the ledge’s standard single-point upper suspension. The crux is finding a suitable anchor point anywhere from four to seven feet directly below the middle of the bed. Any kind of protection will work, but remember that it will be subjected to a vicious upward pull from the wind. After the ledge is set up, rappel down and equalize all four points of the bed into the lower anchor using rope, webbing, and aiders. Make sure to snug the system extremely tight so the side of the ledge will lie flat and firm against the wall.

Put the pigs in the barn.

If possible, hang the haul bags under the ledge. Clip a sling through the bottom straps of all the bags and fasten it to the same anchor that holds the ledge down. When the wind gets rowdy, this will keep the bags from flying up and smashing into you.

Seal up the fly.

The best way to keep the inside of the ledge dry is to use a bomber, seam-sealed expedition rainfly. Regardless of how impenetrable your fly looks at first, take the time before heading up on the wall to go over every seam with rubberized seam grip. Look for any places where webbing runs through the fly, like the anchor point. Coat the webbing thoroughly so that it won’t absorb moisture.

Bend a pole.

Keep the fly from flapping in the maelstrom by bending a tent pole (which you should always use with your fly, storm or not) along the length of the bed, flush against the fly. This keeps the fly taut so that it won’t whip about in the wind, and stops the damp material from drooping onto you in your already tight living quarters.

Safe, sound, and dry.

Most people like to anchor themselves with the rope, which must run out of the ledge to the anchor. Even if you leave a loop hanging down, water will eventually wick up the rope and into the ledge. Plus, you’ll have to leave an opening for the rope — one that will quickly become an entry point for moisture. Better to clip straight into the power point on the inside of the fly with a double-length daisy chain.

Batten down the hatches.

Try to anticipate everything you’re going to need and get it into your ledge before sealing up—you do not want to open the fly once the storm starts. If the wind is horrendous, it may be difficult to get the door closed again, and you risk damaging the zipper.

—Mark Synnott

4. “Oh look, lightning! Mind holding the cams?”

Imagine this: As you lead out from the belay on the last pitch of the Petit Grepon in Rocky Mountain National Park, you notice a menacing, inky black cloud clawing its way over the 13,500-foot summit. With no place to go but up, you silently curse yourself for not getting a proper alpine start to avoid the inevitable afternoon thunderheads.

Lightning-related accidents kill approximately 200 people each year. Those who spend their time in high, exposed terrain are at a greater risk — especially climbers and mountaineers carrying metal gear. With a basic understanding of lightning-related dangers, you can become adept at managing this potentially deadly hazard.

Tech Tip - Alpine - Lightning aversion

Start smart.

Before leaving for the mountains (or up the wall) bone up on local knowledge about the weather patterns of your destination and take note of the time that cumulonimbus clouds (the dark, anvil-headed demons that sprout lightning) develop. Place your camp in a location that minimizes your exposure, and plan an itinerary that allows you to be through high-risk zones, such as peaks and high passes, early in the day. On your ascent, note possible escape routes, constantly watch for building weather, and set a turn-around time to ensure safe retreat.

Sniff out the strike.

Signs of imminent strike include a crackling noise in the air, a burning odor in the air, your hair standing on end, and metal objects emitting a bluish glow known as St. Elmo’s Fire. If you see any of these signs or if the “flash-to-crash” interval (the time between lightning and thunder) is 15 seconds or less — indicating a strike fewer than three miles away — leave the area immediately.

Seek safe terrain.

Stay focused and brainstorm a plan for retreating or getting to a safe place on the route. Don’t think twice about leaving gear behind for a bomber anchor and rapping to safety. Look for large ledges where you can unrope and ditch your climbing rack. When possible seek lower, protected terrain such as a talus field or an area of small trees amidst larger ones. Ground currents tend to follow the path of least resistance, so avoid wet, lichen-covered rock; drainages; standing directly under tall trees; water-filled cracks; shallow caves; and being connected to wet ropes and metal climbing gear.

Assume the position.

If you are pinned down by a sudden storm, try first to get off of the route. If that isn’t possible, seek out a ledge and squat or sit (but do not lie down) on some sort of insulative material such as a sleeping pad, rope, or pack (without metal framing), and keep your hands off the ground and apart from each other. This will decrease the chance of your body becoming a conductor and protect your vital organs from having an electrical current pass through them. When possible, spread out members of your party by at least 15 feet; if one person is struck, the others will have a chance to resuscitate him or her. Put on your rain gear to protect yourself from hypothermia and stay in the protective position until the flash-to-crash duration increases, indicating that the storm is retreating.

Be ready for the worst.

If someone is struck, the most significant danger is cardiopulmonary arrest. A victim’s airway, breathing, and circulation should be assessed immediately. Know CPR and institute it if necessary, then get the victim to a medical facility ASAP for evaluation.

A few simple steps can be your key to avoiding a ride on the lightning express.

—Ty Millford