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Scary multipitch experience -- how was it avoidable?


Original Post
Zac Hummel · · Denver, CO · Joined Dec 2017 · Points: 0

Hi All,

I had a scary experience the other day that I felt was worth sharing. We were 3 pitches up on a moderate multi-pitch route on a windy-as-shit day.

About half-way through the pitch I reached a ledge (out of earshot of my partner). A dirty, flaring crack with a few face holds went straight up and left to what looked liked a nice hand-crack 20ish feet up. I began pulling the moves up the crack, thinking to myself that it felt significantly harder than 5.8, but that I would just get to that nice looking hand crack above. I placed a couple decent nuts, pulled another few moves, and just as I got within clear site of the hand crack it hit me how dumb I had been. The beautiful-looking hand crack was, of course, not beautiful, but even more flaring and dirty than the crack I had been climbing. I had no way of getting more protection in and was so pissed at myself for climbing the dirty looking crack in the first place. No biggie, I'll just downclimb to the ledge and see where I had gone wrong.

Yet, as I reversed the moves and began downclimbing, the rope was not feeding down to my belayer. Instead, I could see it accumulating into a nice pile on the ledge I had just passed 20 feet below me. Enough slack had built up that the two nuts I had placed would not have been enough to keep me off the ledge if I popped off. The pump-clock was screaming. I knew I just had to keep calm and make absolutely certain that I didn't fall off.

With a huge sigh of relief I reached the ledge and saw that I had taken the wrong crack system to get here -- I was about 10ft' left of the actual route. The rest of the day went like clockwork.

After running the situation through my head hundreds of times, I can't help but think that (aside from the rope piling up on the ledge) there wasn't a whole lot I would have done differently. I really should have seen beforehand that the rope would not feed back to my belayer if I was to downclimb (hindsight is 20/20) -- but until I had this experience, how would I have been able to envision that? Especially when in the moment I genuinely thought I was on route. After all, I was confident in the nuts I had placed, and there was nothing wrong with me climbing up to the beautiful-looking-hand-crack as long as I knew I could climb down and also be somewhat protected while doing so. Instead, all of the sudden I was 20+ feet off the deck completely unprotected.

Obviously, it's completely my fault for putting myself in that situation, but thought it was worth sharing with people so others can learn from what could have been a terrible experience. Instead it was an awesome day of learning -- is it messed up that I kind of just want to do it again?

Cheers

Alex Gwerder 1 · · Denver, CO · Joined Jul 2016 · Points: 0
Mark Frumkin · · Bishop, CA · Joined Feb 2013 · Points: 1

Get a new belayer!

Vaughn · · Colorado · Joined Mar 2011 · Points: 50
Zac Hummel wrote: 
Yet, as I reversed the moves and began downclimbing, the rope was not feeding down to my belayer. Instead, I could see it accumulating into a nice pile on the ledge I had just passed 20 feet below me. Enough slack had built up that the two nuts I had placed would not have been enough to keep me off the ledge if I popped off. The pump-clock was screaming. I knew I just had to keep calm and make absolutely certain that I didn't fall off.

That's a pretty odd situation, I'm glad you didn't get hurt.

It seems like you would have hit the ledge from your high point and the problem was that you couldn't back yourself out of having climbed too far. Once you realized the rope piling situation, could you have placed more gear and then climbed down and left the gear there temporarily? Then you could've built an anchor on the ledge, brought your partner up, and the retrieved the left gear?

Cole Dunbar · · San Francisco · Joined Apr 2017 · Points: 0

Another option while you were down climbing would be to go on direct to a nut for a little R&R before finishing the flared down climb. You may have even been able to flip the rope over the ledge to get your belayer to take up the unwanted slack. 

climber pat · · Las Cruces NM · Joined Feb 2006 · Points: 241

If you had a stance or trusted the nut to go in direct you could pull in some of the slack and tied an overhand knot and clipped it to your belly loop.  Or do a short rap off your good not to the ledge.  Or self-belay off the good nut, possibly adding another nut for redundancy.

Bill Czajkowski · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Oct 2008 · Points: 30
climber pat wrote: If you had a stance or trusted the nut to go in direct you could pull in some of the slack and tied an overhand knot and clipped it to your belly loop.  Or do a short rap off your good not to the ledge.  Or self-belay off the good nut, possibly adding another nut for redundancy.

This.

rafael · · Berkeley, CA · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 50

The easiest way to not need a rescue is to not put yourself in the situation to begin with.
In this case, taking a few more seconds or minutes in the ledge before you got off route to read the area carefully would have kept you out of the situation. The dirtyness of the crack you picked should have set off warning bells, and a reconsideration of route choice. Of course some climbs are up dirty cracks but in this case that was not true.
Another reason to have taken a little longer was you couldn't communicate by voice with belayer, making every choice much much more serious, so you really wanted to not get in trouble.
Glad you made it and turned around when you needed to!

Zac Hummel · · Denver, CO · Joined Dec 2017 · Points: 0

There really wasn’t any more options for gear in that flaring crack (there probably was if I wasn’t so pumped lol). I recall at the time having the thought of going in direct, but was a bit too frantic to find a stance to do so

nathanael · · Riverside, CA · Joined May 2011 · Points: 431

When you fuck up climbing you sometimes find yourself in dangerous situations. You stepped up to the plate and managed the situation well, downclimbing to safety.

The situation you described: half-way up a pitch, out of communication with my belayer, possibly significant rope drag, and with a ledge below me, is not uncommon, but it is fundamentally dangerous. If I choose to continue climbing at that point I basically treat it as Do Not Fall territory, and I trust my belayer to keep me on belay but can't ask for too much more than that. If you feel comfortable soloing the next 50' to get clear of the ledge, then you may proceed. If not, you should strongly consider stopping to belay (or re-evaluating your route finding).

rafael · · Berkeley, CA · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 50
nathanael wrote:If you feel comfortable soloing the next 50' to get clear of the ledge, then you may proceed. If not, you should strongly consider stopping to belay (or re-evaluating your route finding).

Yeah, def building a belay in the ledge was a really good option, especially since communication was hard. You can scope the route finding while belaying the second as well

Tim Meehan · · Boulder, CO · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 285

I don't use radios, but this is a common situation where I imagine wanting one, to tell my partner I am downclimbing and to take in slack. Maybe we should be working out signals with our partners, in advance, for signaling downclimbing. Or, when we know we will be out of site of one another, reiterate the need for the belayer to check occasionally for slack buildup.

David Gibbs · · Ottawa, ON · Joined Aug 2010 · Points: 2

Was there enough gear on the ledge to build a belay?  If so, that would be my first choice.

I'd also be a bit worried about your belayer -- why did they not notice the reduction in tension on the rope, and none going out?  Even if the rope didn't fall off the edge, they might have tried taking in some slack and pulled it off.  Though, with enough rope drag -- perhaps not.

Ted Pinson · · Chicago, IL · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 210

Ummm...don’t climb in Eldo?  Haha, but here are some thoughts:

1) don’t climb on extremely windy days, or stay close to the ground.  This may have helped with your communication issues, and being high up can be freaky in extremely windy conditions (I remember ducking for cover and holding on for dear life once in Red Rock).

2) Keep pitch lengths shorter.  In this situation, it sounds like you might have had the option to build an anchor and belay your partner up.  Sometimes, two heads are better than one, and you guys could have talked it through.  Also, if you HAD fallen and injured yourself while off route and in poor communication...that would have been bad.

Buck Rio · · MN · Joined Jul 2015 · Points: 0
Zac Hummel wrote: Hi All,

Obviously, it's completely my fault for putting myself in that situation, but thought it was worth sharing with people so others can learn from what could have been a terrible experience. Instead it was an awesome day of learning -- is it messed up that I kind of just want to do it again?

Cheers

Sometimes we don't get hurt through sheer luck. It has probably happened to all climbers, whether they were aware of it or not. 

You lived to climb another day, take what you learned and get wiser. That is all you can do.

Personal anecdote that dovetails to your story...drive all night from Minneapolis and pull into Estes park about noon. Decide to climb a warm up trad route at Lumpy. Had White Whale(5.7) in mind, accidentally get on Melvin's Wheel(5.9), and proceed to climb up some vanishing cracks well left of the real route. I spot the bolts WAAAY over to the right and literally have to drag the rope up with me over terrain much harder than the 5.7 I thought I was climbing. Bring up my partner. Look up and see a wide crack(3rd pitch), I don't have gear for a wide crack, White Whale doesn't take wide gear??? So we decide to bail even though the next pitch looks super sweet, oops, our single 60m rope doesn't reach the ground, I rap to a point I can get a couple o nuts in and hangout while my partner gets down to me and we have to leave the gear...price of admission I guess.
Russell Bangert · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Jun 2011 · Points: 52

climb with more competent climbers, or at least find one to mentor you so you can then teach your friend climb without communication. you should be able to climb multipitch without having to say a word to each other. having a clear cut operating procedure that removes questions that otherwise require verbal communication is key to preventing situations like this and moving quickly. also trying to avoid being unable to communicate verbally and out of sight of each other is a good rule of thumb.

ya need to be paying attention to what kinda drag is in the system and how much slack is out by checking to see if you can feel your climber, especially if you go an amount of time without having to pay out slack.

sounds like you handled it well, you kept your cool and turned a dangerous situation into a learning experience. keep trying to do that. 

Russ Keane · · Asheville, NC · Joined Feb 2013 · Points: 160

"Get a new belayer!"

Could the belayer have done anything?   You're not supposed to take/tug unless asked to.  

Russell Bangert · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Jun 2011 · Points: 52

you absolutely need to be checking to see if you can feel your climber when there's a fair amount of drag, and they're out of sight and communication, especially when you haven't had to pay out slack in a while. what you just blindly throw out slack in this situation thinking your climber is moving at a stead pace?

there's a difference between taking, tugging and checking to see if there's a ton of extra slack in the system. 

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526
climber pat wrote: If you had a stance or trusted the nut to go in direct you could pull in some of the slack and tied an overhand knot and clipped it to your belly loop.  Or do a short rap off your good not to the ledge.  Or self-belay off the good nut, possibly adding another nut for redundancy.

Re: option one, note that you can manage a tie-in one-handed with a clove hitch. Clip a biner (preferably locking but beggars can't be choosers) to the belay loop, clip the lead rope in, pull it up through the biner until all the slack is out, and then throw on a clove hitch. (I'm amused to be recommending this, since in another thread I argued that there is no need to be able to do that.)  Even fancier, a munter mule can be tied one-handed too.  If you did this, then any place you could get a hand free (and not get too pumped) you could pull up the slack you created by down-climbing and so keep the slack out of the climbing rope.

As for the belayer, I  wouldn't ever want my belayer tugging, even lightly, on the rope when I'm leading, as there are too many times when I could be in a precarious position and get pulled off by such a tug, even a light one. And if friction has made the rope pile up on a ledge, then tugging is the only way to detect this.  This is not a situation that could have been solved by "better" belaying!
Russell Bangert · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Jun 2011 · Points: 52

when there's drag and they're out of sight, you're not going to be tugging on your climber. i've caught my partner down climbing out of sight multiple times by pulling a tiny bit which has caused tons of slack to come pouring down the wall.

if someone's out of sight, and you haven't been having to pay out any slack for an unreasonably long amount of time, it's pretty safe to assume that they're down climbing, or at a solid stance trying to rethink their life choices. 

Russ Keane · · Asheville, NC · Joined Feb 2013 · Points: 160

"you absolutely need to be checking to see if you can feel your climber"

I had not considered this.  To prevent the rope piling up on a ledge if the leader happens to be down-climbing?   This seems an odd assumption to make.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Trad Climbing
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