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Author: Andrew Young




Rope Solo: How, Why & Why Not

Rope soloing is a highly technical expression of climbing. The alpinist climbs alone but uses a rope to safeguard hard sections of the route. In practice the climber needs to invent their own rope systems and have a greater understanding of their equipment. Andrew Young reports on a system he has used for climbing rock and ice.

Uradoshin Fall (WI4), Japan,
in great condition and weather.
It started raining just as I set
off and was snowing heavily 45 minutes
later, making for a difficult rap off
with frozen ropes. Very memorable.

Hinton, Gren Hinton. Not short of an opinion and not shy about giving it, but given the time of day you might be surprised by what a visionary this guy is. Yes, he rope-soloed the First Free Ascent of the full ‘New Gunbarrels’ and has also rope-soloed ‘Logan’s Run’. He is the only person, as far as I’m aware, to have used rope solo techniques at a high level in NZ. I met Gren at Arapiles a short time after his Mt Hicks exploits. It was summer, a drought, record high temps (43°C in The Pines) and record low numbers of climbers at The Piles. I was there for five weeks and there were few choices about whose stories to listen to. So it was that I became familiar with the concept and a few of the techniques involved in rope soloing.

This ‘article’ is not really intended as a guide on how to rope solo, but more as a review of my own experiences with trying to do it. I hope to open a few minds and give some insight into a subject that ain’t really that accessible. If someone else out there thinks this is for them, cool. If you think its madness, cool. The mountains are about freedom after all. Make your own choices.

First, you need to work out what type of hands-free belay device you will use to stop a fall. You have basically three options.
1). You can get the specialist devices from W.R.E.N industries, such as ‘The Silent Partner’
2). You can modify a Grigri
3). You can use your plain old Petzl Reverso.

1. The Silent Partner

Go to www.wrenindustries.com/silentmanual.pdf and if you can understand the manual you are probably competent enough to use the device. ‘Nuff said.

This is unquestionably thee way forward if you are only interested in solo rock-climbing. Its operation is piss simple, the drag is very minimal and it allows you to fall in any orientation (i.e., upside-down backwards off an overhang).

Although the rope-solo climbing sequence is described in the W.R.E.N. manual (and described in brief under the ‘Reverso’ section below), I'll draw particular attention to preventing self feed / slack accumulation on long pitches - since when you have climbed high enough above the anchor the weight of the rope pulls the rope back through the belay device in the wrong direction creating slack. Not cool if you decide to fall off!

Having lots of short tie-off loops (‘back-up knots’ as the manual calls them) tied from the ‘dead’ rope to the harness alleviates this somewhat. But, they are a pain to undo during the climb. I use no more than 3 back-up knots. There are a couple of suggested methods in the manual (p16), which are definitely effective, but both are impractical if you’re actually on anything hard and you’re trying to bag a free ascent. Tying a clove-hitch onto a ‘biner with one hand is easy enough and will absolutely prevent slack accumulation, but you will effectively factor 2 the placement in a fall. So I say that method sucks unless it’s a bolt. You can also tie a long prussik from a piece of pro at about 25m onto the rope which is what Gren uses. I reckon you’re gonna want two hands for this, so again, if you’re on something hard there went your free ascent.

The best way (sorry, ‘my opinion’) is just to clip your runners twice (i.e., clip, loop, clip). This is not a knot but I have found it creates enough friction to prevent the rope auto-feeding. In a fall the rope still runs around the ‘biner, albeit with a bit more friction. However, I’m using a reverso, not a silent partner, so you would have to test it out for yourself! You CANNOT use this device (Silent Partner) if there is any chance of it freezing up, so as a mountaineering device it has limited applications.

2. Modified Grigri

First, read and understand everything in the W.R.E.N. industries manual. Then go to www.ulrichprinz.com/alpin/equipment/selfmade/#grigri for a step by step guide including photos on how to modify then rig for rope solo. Study this THOROUGHLY - enlarge and print photos, practice everything like your life depends on it!!!.

This is what Gren was using, but here are some serious limitations. a) You need to be using at least a 9.8mm rope, anything less will result in severe rope glazing or even total failure. So, you’re in for more weight on the approach, more drag on the climb and more reverse self-feed of the rope. b) The Grigri is too aggressive at arresting falls. You should use Beal or preferably Edelweiss (which wear better) ropes to minimize your impact forces as they stretch well. But still, it’s a worry. Unless you’re clipping bolts, I personally don’t like this device. c) If you go upside-down backwards you will likely keep goin’ since the Grigri won't lock. d) You can’t use a double or twin rope system when rope cutting is a concern.

Advantages are a) you’ve got one device for ascent, descent and jugging back up to clean your pitch before the next one (yes, you have to do everything twice, but more on that later). b) The drag through a well modified Grigri is very minimal.

3. Petzl Reverso

Well this is what I use. I can’t find a site to refer you to so I will try my best and put some photos in. Please read everything on the other two methods first as a lot of it is transferable. The Reverso set up and the basic climbing sequence is as follows:

1. Clip a locking biner into your belay loop. Back up your belay loop with spectra/dynema if you don’t want one loop holding your falls.

2. Clip the small ring of the reverso so that the big ring faces straight back up at you (below).

3. Make the mother of all anchors at the bottom of your climb. If on pitch #1, it has to resist being pulled up. After this, it has to be equalized against pulling up in a fall or down if you manage to fall back onto the anchor (i.e., factor 2 falls). Tie one end of the rope to this (figure 8 on a bight).

4. Pull the rope up from the anchor, half twist and push a bite through the reverso. Clip the bite and the large ring together with a locking biner. The rope from the anchor should be on the bottom, the unused rope on the top.

5. Put a short sling around one shoulder and under the opposite arm. Clove hitch and loop this chest/shoulder sling into the top biner (from step 4) until things are quite tight but comfortable when standing upright.

6. Make tie off loops with the unused rope. I go about 10M, clove hitch and snap-link biner clip to main tie in loop, 15M, clove into leg loop, 15M clove into leg loop, 10M free hanging rope knotted at the end.


7. Climb. The rope will feed through the device automatically as you ascend and lock when you fall. Test the system by pulling the rope leading from the anchor abruptly up above the reverso. It locks right? I’ve jump tested the system - you might want to consider doing the same. You have to unclip your tie off loops when you hit them. Keep an eye on it so you’re not in the middle of a crux section. Also, EXTREME CARE is needed to avoid catching the loops on icicles, flakes, ice screw handles, natural pro...

I have managed to balls this up more than once, beware the Grivel 360 ice screw handle! It is usually possible to down climb one move to create slack to shake the loop free.

8. Place pro! Gain rope slack for clipping by pulling down on the rope leading back to the anchor. BEWARE of pulling slack up thru one of your tie-off loops in a desperate rush to clip a runner. Sounds mentally retarded but, I’ve achieved it and gotten 5m above before getting snagged. Oooops!!!

9. Once you are 15 metres or more up, drag and reverse self-feed becomes evident. ‘Double clip’ your runners by clipping once, making a single loop and clipping again. Going through twice creates enough friction to reduce auto-feed in most cases, but the rope still runs through the biner in a fall. This is much better than clove hitching them or whatever (W.R.E.N. manual suggestions) because that means your fall will essentially factor 2 the piece. You can also do my method easily and quickly with one free hand. So, you can still smoke yer durry or pick yer arse with the other one (consult M.S.C. ‘Mountaincraft’ manual for technique and other fashion tips).

10. Rest if you’re freakin’ out. To gain tension pull the unused rope end through the reverso. To un-jam, either climb up until you’re pulling up on the top biner through the chest sling, or just yank on that biner. If you’ve fallen and jammed and are fucked, you will need to use prussicks or pull up and clip onto pro or something to get your weight off then rap back down. Anyway, if you’re still following this you probably don’t need a lengthy explanation of how to self rescue.

11. At the top, let’s assume you’ve got another pitch. Make your anchor - remember up and down. No worries if you’ve got bolts or are on good ice. Big worries if you’re on a natural pro rock route. A lot of skill and experience and possibly even luck will be required for the later.

12. Rap, clean, re-ascend. Rap down, using the reverso per the manufacturers instructions and clean the gear. I usually clove back into the top piece for purely psychological reasons. I use a single Petzl Ascension and a Petzl Pro-traxion for jugging back up. I should use the mini-traxion. I could use the reverso - (hmmm, must practice that). Get back to your anchor and repeat from step 1.

Advantages of this system. a) can use small diameter ropes =8.0mm (there is a mini-reverso for thinner ropes). b) you can use twin ropes. c) it won’t stop you quite as abruptly, so your pro placements should hold. d) it works in nasty mountain conditions - doesn’t get clogged - even clears ice off the rope on the rappel.

Disadvantages. a) more drag. b) really more drag when the angle eases off (=65) making top-out a pain in the neck - literally. It’s best and often necessary to feed a bit of extra slack first. c) I need to test this, but I don’t think upside-down backwards falls are a good idea. However, you’ve got your back up knots.

Rope Soloing in General

Why do I use the reverso system? Mostly because I can use a single 8.5mm ½ rope. Fuckin nutter I hear you cry. Well, probably, but I kinda think of the rope solo system being something you should use when climbing within your limits and hopefully saving your life if you break a hold, get hit by rock/ice fall, rip out of the ice...

When you use ½ ropes you’re meant to use two, clipping on alternate sides. But when you fall you fall on one! So, no worries whether it can hold your fall. Obviously, there is more worries of it cutting. So, it depends what you’re climbing, totally. The reverso allows me to double up the rope and do a short pitch on two halves if I want to. I also carry a 6mm cord for doing full length rappels. I could always clip that together with the 8.5mm for a twin rope system. The Edelweiss ‘Sharp’ 8.5mm is the only sensible rope to be using. If you insist on using a rated single rope, get the Beal 9.1mm. If you weigh > 90Kg you better chop one of yer legs off. Although, using a heavier rope will affect you less.

It’s all about being minimal, because you ain’t got no-one else to help carry all the crap. Which brings me to this. Gren is about 6’5’’ and climbs 9 months of the year. He’s self employed as a high-rise window cleaner in Melbourne. His system for cleaning involves a lot of rope jugging. He’s a little bit like very strong. Nah bollocks, he puts the ‘i’ in machine!

For a wee runt like me, carrying all the shit is an issue. Yates Screamers are out. I clip into my ice screws with 42g locking biners, just one, straight to the handle. My screamer is the 8.5mm rope! I use v-threads for anchors and carry fewer screws. Blah blah you get the idea? This is hard work! Try jugging a 60-metre pitch to clean gear. Try jugging 25 metres hanging in free space. Dragging the rope up with the sling around your chest on lead does nothing for your breathing above 2500 metres. And you’ve always got the full weight of the rope on your harness because of the tie off loops. A serious limitation to the feasibility of this system is how flogged you get!! Oh, and if your away for more than one day you get to carry all the cooking stuff, tent/bivvy gear... Umm, yes, it probably is also a little less safe than having someone else around too. So, start with something easy and single pitch and five minutes from the car!

Well, before you get put off by all that negativity... it can be kinda nice not to have someone else around. Lets not dwell on the ‘bigger the challenge, bigger the reward’ shit. Its nice to go your own pace, make your own judgements, decide your own level of acceptable risk and when you decide to bail, no one can bag you b’cos no one was there to see how shit the conditions were.

Looking down a rope-solo climb
on the Sebastopol Bluffs,
Mt Cook National Park

For me anyway, it doesn’t look like rope solo is the way forward for getting the first winter solo of ‘Tingler’ (Gren fell off it). Although, I’d have to say the solo approach up the Hooker is the bit that scares me more. Whatever, rope-soloing has certainly allowed me to get on some decent climbs and have very memorable experiences. In Japan, I’ve used it at sport (bolted) crags on the easier routes up to 5.10c and quite a lot on water ice up to WI4+. In New Zealand I had a couple of outings on the Sebastapol Bluffs (Shark Attack, Ernie, Magic Messiah pitch 1 & 2), Castle Rock (Escalade, Gargoyle) and a bit of ice around Mt Cook and The Remarkables. Sebastapol was perfect for it - long pitches, bolt belays, a bit of trad on some pitches.

I read a really good article in the back of ‘The Climber’ mag a couple months back. Kate Finnerty getting her ‘wahoo’. Well, I reckon it’s about going forward… and we all seem to hit levels in our climbing that are hard to go forward from. Even climbing several rock grades below my best red-point, rope solo gives me serious wahoo!

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