Back cleaning technique


Original Post
Eric Roe · · Cheney · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 0

Let's say you're running out of gear on a long pitch. Or maybe there's too much rope drag. So you decide to grab a few pieces you've already placed. You could:

>down climb
>lower, possibly placing a second piece as a backup if the first isn't bomber
>something else?

Should you leave a certain number of pieces below your high point in case it rips in a fall (after you get back up, or while down climbing)

In general, does anyone have tips? Or am I overthinking this / gonna die? Clue a noob in on the tricks of the trade

Marc801 C · · Sandy, Utah · Joined Feb 2014 · Points: 65
Eric Roe wrote:Let's say you're running out of gear on a long pitch. Or maybe there's too much rope drag. So you decide to grab a few pieces you've already placed. You could: >down climb >lower, possibly placing a second piece as a backup if the first isn't bomber >something else? Should you leave a certain number of pieces below your high point in case it rips in a fall (after you get back up, or while down climbing) In general, does anyone have tips? Or am I overthinking this / gonna die? Clue a noob in on the tricks of the trade
Like so many other things in climbing, no rules - there are way too many variables at play; it's entirely situationally dependent. You need to look at your rope, pro, slings, as a safety *system*, not a collection of individual pieces, and then assess the current situation in light of that system.
Bill Lawry · · New Mexico · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,497

Put some pieces in - rig that like an adequate top rope anchor - and lower off ... assuming a basically straight up pitch so far

Brian Prince · · morro bay, ca · Joined Mar 2010 · Points: 1,160

I'd say fk that waste of time. Be better/smarter/bolder and eliminate the need.

Eric Roe · · Cheney · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 0
Brian Prince wrote:I'd say fk that waste of time. Be better/smarter/bolder and eliminate the need.
So don't get into the situation in the first place? Genius! Why didn't I think of that.

I'll put it in my toolbox along with other great strategies like "Don't get knocked out by rockfall by dodging falling rocks", and my favorite, "Avoid rappelling off the end of your rope by not rappelling"
Jason Kim · · Encinitas, CA · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 270

You might not like the wise ass nature of his reply, but Brian has a point. If you're up high on a long pitch and find yourself out of gear, you've already made at least one mistake. Perhaps you didn't carry enough gear, or you breezed by a nice belay stance 30 feet below.

Before getting to that point where you need to back clean a bunch of gear to finish the pitch, it's wiser to just keep an eye out for a good belay and build an anchor, and bring your partner up. Even more so if you're a beginner, and if you're talking multi-pitch.

You might not do it yet, but you will start to keep a mental note of the pieces you are placing and you'll know exactly what you have left, which makes it easier to avoid this situation in the first place.

If you are going to lower off your top piece, you're basically top roping, so build yourself a 3 piece anchor and treat it as such. If you don't have the gear to do that, you've already f'd up. So in that sense, yes you are overthinking this. Just try your best not to get yourself into that situation in the first place.

I think it's wise, as a beginning trad climber, to only climb up what you have a decent shot at climbing down. That might be too conservative an attitude for some, and it will certainly slow your progress through the grades, but it just might save your ass while you are learning the craft. After you have a couple hundred pitches under your belt, you can push yourself and stay relatively safe while doing it.

As for myself, I am usually able to see this scenario develop long before it becomes an "oh shit!" moment, and I mix in some short stints of down climbing and back cleaning as I go. Or I just build an anchor before the planned ledge or whatever, and we go from there.

Bill M · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Jun 2010 · Points: 321

That is a hard one to comment on. I have realized I was running thin on gear, continued to climb, conserved what I had left and ended up without shit to setup an anchor. I have never lowered off to "harvest", but I have made sure to keep the choice pieces on my rack and hung on them, while I creatively placed what nuts I had left.

My only advice would be don't climb at your limit with a light rack.

Brian Prince · · morro bay, ca · Joined Mar 2010 · Points: 1,160
Eric Roe wrote: So don't get into the situation in the first place? Genius! Why didn't I think of that. I'll put it in my toolbox along with other great strategies like "Don't get knocked out by rockfall by dodging falling rocks", and my favorite, "Avoid rappelling off the end of your rope by not rappelling"
Hey man, I think that's solid advice! hah If it's some gnarly adventure onsight and you did your best.. yeah it happens, I know! I'd say make it safe if you can, or lower and pray if you can't :) . maybe pull rope and lead back up in that case. duh.

come on.. gimme a little credit. Don't get knocked out by rockfall by being smart and climbing carefully and/or wearing a helmet. Nothing you could have done? Well there's for sure something you could have done in this lame back cleaning scenario you got in. Focus on some o that stuff.. talked about above. And please don't rap off the end of your rap by being smart, again. I'll try and do the same

You did preface this thing with a thought that you might be over thinking this particular issue. I guess I'm saying yes to that. And yeah, the no rules thing applies.. certain number of pieces? pshh jeeze.
Eric Roe · · Cheney · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 0

@Brian Sorry if I sounded a bit snarky haha.

I do appreciate all the advice everyone!

Bill Lawry · · New Mexico · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,497

Likely, it won't happen very often. Maybe once a decade?

Still, it doesn't take much - a poorly written route description, needing to protect more frequently than expected, etc..

JK- · · SLC · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 58

"When in doubt, run it out!"

Only mostly kidding. If it's easy enough to terrain to down climb to back clean, its probably easy enough to run it out a little more, unless you're looking at high consequence falls.

As others have mentioned, the sooner you realize you're going to run into trouble the more options you have. Shortening a pitch and belaying your partner up ASAP is in my opinion usually the most efficient way to solve it. They have to climb eventually either way, and this eliminates the time spent getting back down and then back up, especially since most of the best ways down involve building an anchor anyway.

If you're dead set on backcleaning you can lower down, down climb, or fix the rope and rappel down/jug up. Which of those is most efficient depends a lot on the terrain and your comfort level with different options.

Shane Steele · · Grand Marais, MN · Joined Oct 2015 · Points: 235

In most every case with climbing I believe the "rule" is: don't be complacent. Climbing is dangerous and we need to have our shit together before we tie in. If you rap off the end of your rope, you fucked up. Don't let yourself get into that situation!

If you're truely high up on a pitch and need to salvage some gear for protecting the rest of the climb and or fixing rope drag... yeah don't get yourself into the situation by using strategies already mention on this thread. Depending on how high you are you may not even be able to fix rope drag down low.

Ok, but to attempt to answer your question, if I absolutely had to go back down and back clean from high up on a pitch and didn't notice my rack quickly disappearing I would be sure back up my top piece with something and equalized it. I would be sure to leave enough gear in the rock that I still have a strong safety net of protection below me. Keeping in mind that taking out too much gear could lead to potentially big falls should gear fail. This is all very situational of course and may be much simpler or much more complex... best way to keep things simple: don't be complacent!

Wilson On The Drums · · Woodbury, MN · Joined Dec 2010 · Points: 945

As a timid leader, I typically read route descriptions with gear beta. If I'm on a sustained and consistent climb (say #2 cams) I will just bump up the piece as I go along. I'm pretty sure this is what people do on wide cracks with big gear. Once I'm in a groove I'll run-it-out appropriately. Thankfully I've never had to lower to retrieve gear, because like I mentioned, if I know I need that piece, I'll bump it up while I'm climbing until I feel as though I'll no longer need it up higher.

will smith · · boulder · Joined Jan 2008 · Points: 35

Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe, and who cares what anyone else thinks.. You should be climbing for you and you only, you can't climb when you are dead or injured.

Bill Lawry · · New Mexico · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,497

JK - and others - said something applicable in so many situations, slightly modified:

The sooner you realize a series of actions will take you to trouble, the more options you have.

Greg D · · Here · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 871

Lowering off will diminish your sense of accomplishment and is kind of lame and should be considered a last resort in my opinion.

Down climbing, on the other hand, is a very valuable skill that you may truly need some time to get yourself out of trouble when you don't have solid gear to lower off.

MacksWhineturd · · Squaw · Joined May 2016 · Points: 0

Slap a couple cams in there, lower down and get the piece you need, pull the other side of the rope to get back up. Never back cleaned while free climbing tho.

Russ Keane · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2013 · Points: 140

To the OP:

Down-climbing is really, really hard. You will burn more physical and mental energy than it's worth, to get that one piece back that you already used, or to fix rope drag. As for building a little mini TR-anchor, this is also time consuming and consumptive of precious energy. Even route finding issues, where you backtrack and fiddle up/down/back/forth, are really costly. It all just kinda kills your momentum.

The whole thing with leading on trad gear is to stay smooth, mellow, and moving upwards. You don't have all day. Improvise with what you have on your rack, and make it to the next full belay station without too much fuss.

Jason Kim · · Encinitas, CA · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 270
Russ Keane wrote:To the OP: Down-climbing is really, really hard. You will burn more physical and mental energy than it's worth, to get that one piece back that you already used, or to fix rope drag. As for building a little mini TR-anchor, this is also time consuming and consumptive of precious energy. Even route finding issues, where you backtrack and fiddle up/down/back/forth, are really costly. It all just kinda kills your momentum. The whole thing with leading on trad gear is to stay smooth, mellow, and moving upwards. You don't have all day. Improvise with what you have on your rack, and make it to the next full belay station without too much fuss.
If you practice down climbing at all, as any trad climber really should, it isn't much harder than climbing up. At least not at the modest grades, or through non-overhanging terrain.

Your comments about conserving time, energy, and maintaining upwards momentum, at the (potential) cost of insuring the team's safety doesn't apply to what most of us do, which is casual/recreational climbing. I didn't get the sense that the OP was referring to some sort of epic race to the top of a marathon climb. If he's just cragging or enjoying himself on a moderate-length multi-pitch, I would (respectfully) question some of your advice.
Ryan Hill · · Oakland, CA · Joined Dec 2009 · Points: 30
Eric Roe wrote:Let's say you're running out of gear on a long pitch. Or maybe there's too much rope drag. So you decide to grab a few pieces you've already placed. You could: >down climb >lower, possibly placing a second piece as a backup if the first isn't bomber >something else? Should you leave a certain number of pieces below your high point in case it rips in a fall (after you get back up, or while down climbing) In general, does anyone have tips? Or am I overthinking this / gonna die? Clue a noob in on the tricks of the trade
All are good options. I don't think you need to build an anchor to lower off of (if you are running low on gear you likely don't have the ability to build an anchor), but a back-up piece is a decent idea. If my last piece is sketch and you are out of gear I usually do a mix of lowering and down climbing until I get to the gear I want / need. Despite the snarkiness of some comments in this thread I'd say that everyone will have this happen to them at least a few times a year if they are pushing themselves. Having a plan is a good idea.

This weekend I was on a route and climbed past a good ledge to anchor on. I got about 30ft higher and realized I wouldn't be able to get to another decent ledge before running out of rope / gear. At this point I put a nut in as a top piece and down climbed to the ledge, pulled the rope and built an anchor. I'd say this is pretty common practice.

Of course, you can also just run it out and finish the pitch. This obviously is the riskiest position, but it is something you'll likely get comfortable with as you start to learn your ability and how to read a route. I also did this over the course of the weekend, having run out of hand-size pieces on a route and being 25 ft below anything that would work as an anchor.

Anyway, have fun and keep dodging those rocks.
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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