Self-rescue on rock refers to the techniques and courses of actions taken by a rock climber to retreat or rescue their climbing partner from a situation which would have left them stranded or delayed to be rescued by external parties. It requires carrying lightweight rescue equipment such as pulleys and rescue cord, and an adequate first-aid kit for the types of injuries most associated with rock climbing (trauma, concussion, and shock). Quite often rock climbers have died because their climbing partners didn’t know how to reach them or because they didn’t carry first aid equipment besides a roll of tape.
To give perspective to the frequency of climbing accidents, since 1951-2013, 8,790 rock climbing accidents have been recorded in Canada and America by the American Alpine Club. Of those accidents:
Of those accidents, the primary reported injuries were the following:
This can be simplified to about 72.7% trauma, 5.1% concussion, 3.5% hypothermia, and 13.3% other injuries. A climber’s first aid kit should be centered around trauma, with some of the essentials for dealing with shock, hypothermia, and other common outdoors injuries (bites and stings, blood-sugar emergencies, burns, and heart attacks).
On average, there were about 30 deaths per year between 1951-2013, totalling 1,860 deaths for all 8,790 reported climbing accidents (21%). Furthermore, there were an almost equal division of accidents involving beginner climbers, experienced climbers, and professional climbing guides. Self-rescue training should begin with the inexperienced rock climber learning how to toprope, then continue to be a developing skill in-line with their climbing ability as they progress through their years of rock climbing. Any guiding company offers courses in self-rescue for top roping, seconding, leading, multipitching, and bigwalling, but it is up to you to undertake them and consider them essential at each level of your climbing ability.
For first aid training, I recommend taking the 80-hours Wilderness First Responder Course. It is designed for people in the outdoors and focuses on the types of injuries that rock climbers can experience. My personal study notes for undertaking a Wilderness First Responder Course in Canada can be found here.
For first aid equipment, I always carry the following (at either the crag or on a multipitch):
Everything should fit into a small drybag, except for the sleeping pad and survival blanket.
For self-rescue equipment, I always carry the following on an individual screwgate carabiner, and clip it to the back of my harness:
How to tie a grenade with the 4-meter rescue cord:
No matter what happens in a climbing accident, the first step is always this. You’ll be able to easily move around and assess the situation, and it’ll help unfreeze you from an initial state of shock.
1.a. Going Hands-Free from a Gri-Gri: If using a Gri-Gri in any belay method, tie an overhand on a bight on the brake strand close to the belay device. This prevents the rope from slipping backwards through the device.
1.b. Going Hands-Free on a Direct Belay with an ATC: An ATC in direct belay can be considered already hands-free. This is because the friction of the rope running over itself prevents the rope from slipping and lowering the climber.
1.c. Going Hands-Free on a Harness Belay with an ATC: Use the Slipped Half-Hitch and Overhand method:
1.d. Going Hands Free on a Munter Belay: Use the Slipped Half-Hitch and Overhand method:
2. Tying a Catastrophe Knot. Attach a double-figure-eight on the brake strand 2-meters away from the device to your belay loop on your harness. The 2-meter gap allows you some room for assembling the rescue system.
Survey the scene. There are three things to consider:
Decide on the best course of action. There are three options: ascend, descend, or shelter-in-place.
For rescuing the seconder:
For rescuing the leader:
Decide on the best progression of steps from your current belay method to your course of action. This is seeing how you can transition with the least possible number of steps, minimizing opportunities for error.
There are three belay methods with an ATC, Gri-Gri, or Munter Hitch:
From left to right: Direct Belay; Redirect Belay; Harness Belay.
1. Assisted haul. This is the fastest way to ascend a seconder over a long way, however it requires having three-times the rope available as the distance from the belay device to the seconder.
2. 3:1. This is the quickest hauling method to assemble and it is the best method to use with the seconder climbing in conjunction with it.
3. 5:1 Backside. Beginning with a 3:1, this method adds a bit of extra mechanical advantage to haul the climber.
4. 9:1. Created identical to a 5:1, but with a second friction hitch for an even greater mechanical advantage.
5. Ascend a fixed line. The last resort to ascending as it takes a considerable time to complete when compared to the other ascending methods. Have the seconder use Prusiks to ascend to a ledge or piece to secure to, then remove the Prusiks so the leader can pull up the slack in the rope.
1. Lowering the seconder to a ledge – possibly tying ropes together for an extended lower to the ground. If the seconder is injured, the first possible course of action is to lower the seconder to the ground. This can be easily done using the Gri-Gri or ATC lowering methods described below, and if necessary, tying every rope together and passing the knots through the lowering belay device for an extended lower. Once the seconder has been lowered to the ground, the rescuer can then fix the end of the climbing rope to the anchor, and rappel down to the seconder and apply first aid.
a) Lowering on a Gri-Gri. When lowering a person on a Gri-Gri, Petzl recommends adding a direction carabiner to the anchor. This allows you to control the speed of the lower.
b) Lowering on an ATC using the Ratchet Lowering Method. This method can be quickly transitioned to from direct belaying, however it should only be used for short distances due to how slowly it feeds the rope. Simply ratchet the belay carabiner up and down while the seconder loads the rope, and the rope will feed through the device. If there are two seconders attached to the device, tie an overhand knot on the brake strand of the rope that doesn’t want to be lowered.
c) Lowering on an ATC using the LSD Lowering Method (including the 5:1 Block and Tackle if weighted). The LSD lower uses an additional biner on the anchor to defeat the auto-locking function of the ATC in guide mode. This method can take some time to set up, however it is recognised as the safest and most effective way to lower someone with an ATC in direct mode. The sequence is as follows:
1. Build an autoblock with a Prusik on the brake strand above the catastrophe knot. Clip it to your belay loop with a locker.
2. Hang a locking carabiner off the anchor in front of the device.
3.a) If the climber can unweight the rope: Ask the climber to unweight the rope. As he does so, clip his rope strand through the locker and lock it, and then he can sit back. At this point you’ve defeated the device and a bit of rope will slip through—your autoblock should engage and you’re now in the LSD lower.
3.b) If the climber cannot unweight the rope: Use the 5:1 Block-and-Tackle Hauling Method to raise up the rope (see below). As you do so, clip the ‘freed’ rope strand through the locker and lock it. Release the Block-and Tackle. The device will be defeated and a bit of rope will slip through—your autoblock should engage and you’re now in the LSD lower.
The 5:1 Block and Tackle Method:
4. With one hand controlling the Prusik, and and the other hand holding the brake strand below the Prusik, slide the rope through the Prusik to lower the seconder.
d) Tying two ropes together for a extended lower. Always use the European Death Knot (Flat Overhand Knot). The EDK works with different diameter climbing ropes, static ropes, wet ropes, and frozen ropes. It is easy to inspect, easy to untie under normal loads, and is less likely to snag over edges and cracks when compared to using other knots. Here’s how to tie an EDK:
e) Passing a knot while lowering. Passing a knot while lowering is very similar to passing a knot while rappelling. Regardless of the belay device, the sequence is as follows:
2. Counterweight rappel to the seconder, then continue to counterweight rappel or tandem rappel from anchor to anchor to the ground. If there isn’t enough rope available to reach the ground in one lower, or lowering the seconder would worsen their injuries, then the rescuer can counterweight rappel to the injured seconder and then counterweight rappel together to reach the ground from anchor to anchor. This method is advantageous because it allows the rescuer to reach the seconder immediately in order to apply first aid. The sequence is as follows:
Part 1) Option 1: Lower to a natural ledge to unweight the rope. To transition into self-counterweight rappelling, the first step is to unweight the belay device. This can be achieved in one of two ways. The first way, which requires less effort, is to use the terrain. The sequence is as follows:
Option 2: Use a Technical Ledge to unweight the rope. If a real ledge isn’t available, or the victim is unable to unweight the rope, then a technical ledge needs to be created by the rescuer to unweight the rope from the belay device. To create a technical ledge, the sequence is as follows:
Part 2) Transition to Self-Counterweight Rappelling. From unweighting the rope from the belay device, the sequence is as follows:
Part 3) Transition to Partner-Counterweight Rappelling, beginning with creating a chest harness on the seconder to get them upright.
Option 1: Create a Chest Harness with a double-length sling. Known as a Parisian Baudrier Chest Harness, this harness will not constrict the victim’s chest. The sequence is as follows:
Option 2: Create a Chest Harness with two single-length slings. Known as a Crossed-Sling Chest Harness. The sequence is as follows:
If the victim needs addition neck support, wrap a second chest harness around the Neck Brace Collar and attach it to the climbing rope above the initial chest harness.
Part 4) Finish Transitioning to Partner-Counterweight Rappelling. Connect yourself to the seconder’s rope from your belay loop to a Prusik above the chest harness Prusik with a 4-meter cord. The setup is now complete. Continue rappelling to the next anchor with your seconder. If the seconder is unconscious and the rock is vertical enough, you can wedge yourself between the seconder and the rock to ‘backpack’ the seconder down (see below).
Part 5) Passing a Knot While Rappelling. You can tie multiple ropes together for counterweight rappelling. The sequence to pass knots between ropes are as follows:
(Insert images of each step for passing a knot while rappelling in counterbalance)
Part 6) Transitioning from Anchor to Anchor with an injured partner. The method illustrated utilizes a leash coupled with a load-releasable hitch. This system is used in the event the victim is severely incapacitated and you anticipate difficulties releasing the victim from the anchor. The sequence for this method is as follows:
Optional Part 7) Tandem Rappelling. Tandem rappelling can be used once the first anchor is reached together. This allows the rope to run directly through the anchor, since the rope won’t move across it while loaded. The disadvantage however is that it requires time to transition to, and it positions the climbers quite below the anchor. The seconder can be kept upright by connecting the chest harness to the belay device carabiner.
Be aware that rescuing a leader can be dangerous and may break the cardinal rule of self-rescue: that the anchor must be completely reliable before engaging a rescue system. Unlike all the methods described above for rescuing the seconder, which assumes the top piece/anchor is completely reliable, rescuing the leader may not allow inspection or reinforcement of the anchor before engaging systems. To further complicate matters, complex terrain, traverses, or half ropes split to a great degree can cause some of the methods to be impractical. If unsure of the safety of the system, it is best to locate assistance and not engage a self-rescue system. Otherwise, you may endanger the leader, yourself, and possibly the lives of others.
This system is relatively simple, but can be dangerous. The top piece has not been inspected or reinforced, so the rescuer must assess the overall risk and utilize his or her best judgment if choosing to proceed with this type of self-rescue. On the bright side, the top piece has held the force of a leader fall, so hopefully it will be secure.
Before lowering a leader however, make sure that it is the best course of action. Lowering the leader into a position where you are unable to reach him or her is not the best solution. You may also end up in a situation where the leader and “rescuer” are both stranded off route and out of reach of suitable rappel anchors. Before lowering the leader, if possible, the leader should clip the rope with a leash (unclipping and reclipping during the descent) to remain within reach of the rescuer on overhanging or traversing terrain.
Depending on the situation, counterweight ascending can mean the following courses of action. The all begin the same way however (steps 1-3).
Step 1: Use the terrain to your advantage. Lower the leader to the best location possible.
Step 2: Go hands-free and tie a catastrophe knot.
Step 3: Release yourself from the anchor.
Step 4: For ascending the rope, the rescuer has three options:
Step 5: Once the rescuer has reached the leader, they can apply first aid and transition to counterweight lowering by attaching themselves to the climber’s end of the rope with a Prusik.
1. Escape the belay. If the leader can’t be lowered to the ground by the belayer, the belayer can transfer the belay device from their harness to a tree in order to go get help. To achieve this, follow the following steps:
(Insert images of escaping the belay)
2. Lower the leader to the ground, a ledge, or an anchor with a Prusik backup.
(Insert images of lowering from a harness belay)
3. Have the leader reset the top anchor. If there is insufficient rope to lower the leader to the ground, have the leader reset the lowering anchor to one of the bolts or pieces of protection on the climb. The method is as follows:
4. Tie two ropes together for an extended lower. If a second rope is available, tie it to the end of the lead rope and perform an extended lower.
To pass a knot while lowering off a harness belay is the same as passing a knot while rappelling:
(Insert images of passing a knot while lowering)