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Storms and big wall climbing--When to bail?

Original Post
Dan Evans · · Phoenix, AZ · Joined Mar 2013 · Points: 85

I have finally acquired the gear to get my feet wet on some big walls and just picked up Chris McNamara's big wall/aid climbing book, as well as reading the article by John Dill on SuperTopo ( who talk about bail criteria on big walls secondary to bad weather. However, what I've gathered from the two readings is that the bail criteria is solely based upon how prepared you are in terms of layers, bivy gear, etc., and not so much the fact that you are 1,000+ ft up in a lightning storm. Given the nature of big wall climbing and sheer amount of people who attempt routes up walls like El Cap everyday of the year, it is hard for me to believe that they all bail at the sound of thunder. If this is the case or what is encouraged, then I stand corrected. But having just come from Yosemite last week, where thunderstorms were such a frequent occurrence it's just hard to believe that so many people would up and bail with all of that gear so readily given the amount of time, planning, and logistics that go into each ascent.

I guess the topic hits home even more for me now since during the same trip, me and my partner had a thunderstorm roll in while we were on pitch 6 of Snake Dike and had to haul ass to the summit, as rappelling at that point would have taken too long and left us completely exposed. Once we reached the top we stashed our gear and down-climbed several hundred feet to a covered position where we waited out the storm for 1.5 hours--luckily walking away unscathed despite numerous lightning strikes just overhead. On a regular multipitch, the decision to bail isn't all that complicated. Big wall climbing however, you have several days invested to include extremely heavy loads to deal with on top of just getting you and partner down.

As we all know, there is a lot to be said for experience gained outside of "the classroom" that cannot really be conveyed through a generalized How-To book such as that written by Chris. So my question is this, for those of you that have ample experience climbing big walls around the country/world, what is your experience with thunderstorms, waterfalls forming on route, etc. and at what point do you decide to bail? What measures do you take to mitigate these risks during your trip planning process? Let's just say that for this theoretical scenario that you have all of the necessary rain/cold weather gear, tent fly, portaledge, etc.

Questions I have are:

1.) If I am mid-way, or even 3/4 up a big wall (i.e. The Nose on El Cap), and a lightning storm rolls through--do you hunker down in the portaledge and wait it out? Or do you bail? Are portaledges adequate cover in this regard (common sense tells me no)?

2.) If you do bail, do you bail with your haul bag? Or does everyone work together to fix lines to get down to lower elevation in an expedient manner. If my life is at risk, I could give two shits about my haul bag which will easily add an immense amount of time and stress to my descent?

Any real life examples or references with such would be greatly appreciated.



Ryan Hamilton · · Orem · Joined Aug 2011 · Points: 20

I have no real world experience of having been in a storm on a big wall. But, having spent a decent amount of time on a portaledge on big walls I think they would be perfectly fine to wait out a storm. I packed an extra day of food an water for just such an occasion last Fall. Luckily it waited until the day after we got down to storm. I would just plan to have an insulated layer and some extra food and water and just wait for the storm to pass. 

Russ Walling · · · Joined Oct 2004 · Points: 3,246

Only bail if you think you are going to die...  

Always bring your gear down unless you are going back to your high point after the storm.

A summit push with abandoned gear below sometimes happens... then go get your stuff later after you get out of church.

Whaddya doing with a portaledge on the Nose anyway??

I've waited out a thunderstorm in an armbar... close to an hour of hail, rain, and lightning, with no pro.  I've summit pushed after throwing all the bivy gear and haul bags.  I've been plucked in a big storm ( ), and I've plucked many others in big storms.  YMMV

Mark Hudon · · Lives on the road · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 415

Since 2009 I've spent 26 nights under my portaledge fly. Sometimes rain looked imminent, sometimes it was dumping rain and hail, sometimes it was just cold. Twice, I've spent three nights in the same spot.

I'm always prepared for storms and always have enough food and water to wait them out. 

Dan Evans · · Phoenix, AZ · Joined Mar 2013 · Points: 85

Ha, in an armbar. I am referring to a theoretical situation because I have never big wall climbed before and therefore have no reference in regard to logistical requirements per individual routes.

Dan Evans · · Phoenix, AZ · Joined Mar 2013 · Points: 85

I guess I am not really worried so much about the rain, snow, hail, or the cold aspect of it all. I spent a good portion of my 8 years in the Marine Corps infantry being cold, wet, tired, and hungry thinking I was going to die so my question is more so in regards to lightning--something no amount of bravado is going to protect you from. Are there any rules of thumb in the big wall world in regards to lightning or does it remain pretty much the same as any other aspect of climbing (i.e. stay off the summit, etc.)?

Dan Evans · · Phoenix, AZ · Joined Mar 2013 · Points: 85

Great write up Russ. Glad to hear your buddy Erik made it out in decent shape.

Russ Walling · · · Joined Oct 2004 · Points: 3,246

Lightning is damn scary.  Basically just take off your Mr. T starter kit and hope for the best.  Bailing in lightning in a fully loaded wall scenario would probably not do much for you. By the time you got your circus sorted out to bail, the storm would be over or you would be dead already. 

CCChanceR Ronemus · · Bozeman, MT · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 130

Russ, that TR is so awesome!  You're a legend.  Alpine climbers are soft compared to you boys, we go down when it starts to get shitty!

Mydans · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2014 · Points: 70

A big part of the decision to bail is dependent on what route/formation you might be on.  Russ is right by the time you got your shit together and actually bailed if lighting was gonna get you it probably would have already done so.  If were talking about El cap there is good information in the guidebook about runoff and which routes are ok to do with an iffy forecast.  The nose  and a lot of routes to the left of it often have runoff which can mean you're sitting in a waterfall.  Some routes on the right side are so steep it can be raining and you'll never get wet.  The Zodiac and Tangerine Trip are both pretty dry in addition to some harder lines like Lost in America or Native Son.  If the forecast isn't great pick a route that is steep and doesn't get much runoff.  The other thing to realize is that even if you're fast bailing from up high will take hours.  I would recommend waiting it out in most instances if you have the right gear.  I have been stuck in a storm on the Captain and it was very unpleasant.  My partner and I were 14 pitches up Lurking Fear in Oct 2004 when a huge storm came in.  We sat it out for 30 hours or so but the runoff soaked us and we ended up bailing which was quite and adventure in its own right.  The storm continued for 2 more days so I'm not sure we would have survived in the wet and cold condition we were in, so it does depend on the situation.

My 2 cents

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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