Walking the Rope

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

When working his route Le Rêve (5.14d/5.15a) in Arrow Canyon, Nevada, Jonathan Siegrist was forced to skip a clip in the middle of the extremely overhanging crux section, where he fell dozens of times before sending. That meant he was left hanging in space well below the point where he could grab the cliff-side rope or draws and simply pull himself up. To get back on the rock and try again, he adopted a trick known as “walking the rope.”

This technique lets you pull back onto an overhanging climb without boinking or lowering off completely. “Boinking,” or pulling up on the rope and then letting go while your belayer quickly takes up slack, only gains a few inches at a time and wastes valuable energy. Lowering off wastes time. By “walking,” you use your legs and core to climb back up the rope quickly. It takes some practice to master, and it requires hip flexibility and core strength to do it efficiently.

Step 1: When you’ve fallen and you’re hanging in space, out of reach of anything but the rope that is tied to your harness, make sure your belayer is alert and knows what you plan to do. Now lean back in your harness so your back is parallel with the ground and perpendicular with the rope running up to your highest clip.

Step 2: Lift one foot (either is fine, but it will be easier with your dominant foot) and place it against the rope, just above your knot, so that the outside edge of your foot is on the rope. (This is where flexibility helps.) The inside arch of this foot should be facing you. Keeping your foot on the rope, sit up and grab the rope with both hands—one hand below your foot and the other just above.

Step 3: Keeping your core tight, move the hand that was below the foot above the upper hand. Now pull up with your arms and push down strongly with your foot. Keep pushing down with your foot, and go hand-overhand up the rope until you’re in a standing position.

Step 4: From this standing position, you may be able to reach the cliff. Let go of the rope and grab a quickdraw on the route, or grab the cliff-side rope if you can’t reach a draw. Now, alert your belayer and release your foot from the rope. Important: Once your weight is off the rope, it will pull quickly through the gear, especially if your belayer has been pulled off the ground by your fall, so keep your limbs out of the way to prevent burns or bruises. Hold onto the draw while your belayer pulls in all the slack. If you grabbed the cliff-side rope, you’ll lose some ground while the slack pulls through, but you should end up a few feet higher than you started.

*If, after walking the rope, you still can’t grab a quickdraw or the cliff-side rope, tightly hold your side of the rope at about head height, alert your belayer, release your foot, and let go. There will be several feet of free slack in the system, so your belayer should be prepared to drop or take up a lot of slack. You should stay about where you are—considerably higher than a normal boink would take you. Either walk the rope again or commence boinking if you have only a bit of ground left to gain.

Trending on Climbing

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.