LOOSE ROCK TECHNIQUE


"This steep step was horribly friable. I could only press down on the handholds. A piton came away in my hands when I grasped it". R. Messner soloing the Civetta.

Occasionally, rock climbers will encounter sections of loose rock that can make a route more difficult and dangerous. No one wants to get whacked on the head by a loose rock or cause a rock to fall and injure someone else. With some changes in technique, loose sections can be climbed more safely.

People who learn to climb in a gym are used to very solid holds. Indoor climbing does not teach one to climb in a style that allows safe movement over loose rock. When outdoors. these climbers can pull rock down because they are unaware of modifications that need to be made to their technique. They often have little awareness that they are risk from loose rock when venturing outdoors.

Limestone routes often contain sections of loose looking rock. While these sections can appear loose, they are often relatively solid since the limestone blocks bond together. Granite routes on the other hand generally appear very solid. Loose looking granite is likely to be loose and dangerous since granite does not bond together at all. Sandstone varies from very hard to very soft. The softer rock tends to break and is quite dangerous. When sandstone is wet it breaks very easily, even a day after a rain.

In Ontario, freezing and thawing over the winter tends to loosen sections of rock. This is a problem on both Canadian Shield granite and Escarpment limestone. I notice that in the spring, holds that were solid the season before, sometimes break or feel loose. Also, after a long wet period, I have found that more rock breaks and comes down. Extra care needs to be taken in these periods.

Multi-pitch routes often have loose sections that can be hazardous. On these route rock can be dislodged from above for a variety of reasons including storms, wind and animals. Falling rock makes a distinctive whistling sound. Once you have heard it, you will always recognize it. On the second last pitch of "Sisyphus Summits" near Canmore a couple of brick size pieces of rock smacked and shattered into the wall about 15 feet away from Peter Penev and I. We luckily were not hit. When I topped out, I saw a squirrel hopping around near the edge of the cliff. The squirrel had knocked the rocks off.

Rain and high winds can also send down rocks. Peter witnessed a bad accident on a trip to the Adirondacks. After a heavy rain started, climbers retreated to the base and proceeded to walk out. Like most of us would do, they had removed their helmets on the walkout. The rain sent down some large pieces of rock, one that unfortunately found the head of a climber. We know now to keep our helmets on when rain comes and keep them on until we have cleared the cliff.

When climbing, if you pull off a rock or if you drop anything for that matter call "rock" to warn others below.

Here are some tips for operating around loose rock.

TIPS
 

  • To prepare for loose rock situations, visualize situations that involve falling rock and your reaction to the situation. By doing this, you are more likely to react safely when your life is on the line.
  • When climbing on loose rock, donít rush or panic, keep your head and maintain calm, you will make mistakes for sure if you do.
  • Look closely at potential holds. Test holds by tapping on them with the palm of your hand and pull lightly in various directions. Also kick lightly at footholds. You are trying to feel and/or see movement of the rock. Even if a hold moves, it may be OK to use it as long as you do not pull in a direction that will pull the rock off.
  • Climbing technique must be modified on loose rock. Try to keep three points on the rock so if one hand or foot pops off a hold, the other two points may hold the position. Try to use as much of the hold as possible so as to distribute the weight over more of the hold. Try to balance your weight more evenly over the three holds.
  • Climbing must be static. Movement must be subtle with no quick movements. Place and weigh footholds with great care and pressure them gradually. This means that dynamic moves should be avoided. More power will be required, especially lock off power to make reaches.
  • You may need to select a sequence that is more difficult to avoid loose rock. Keeping your hands in a lower position than normal is useful because if a hold does pop, it wonít whack you in the head. Similarly, using legs for power in a move rather than upper body is a good idea because the holds under most stress are below your head and wonít whack you in the head if they break. High steps and stem moves are useful in this regard.
  • Direction of pull on the hold is important to consider. Decide on the safest way to pull the rock. Reduce pulls in opposite direction to avoid pulling off the hold. Select smaller holds that are solid rather than bigger holds that may be loose. I find that generally cracks and pockets tend to be more solid and I look for these features in loose looking sections. You may end up making the move harder but will be safer.
  • Add more protection than normal in the solid sections but donít place bad protection. If there is a good hold that you need to use to climb, pass it and place a piece in it after you pass. Pieces placed in bad rock are dangerous if you fall because not only will the piece pop but a piece of broken rock may come down on top of you. Extend gear with slings so that the rope does not run across loose blocks.
  • Learn and practice down climbing as it is essential skill for retreating from a dangerous section. It must be practiced since different muscles are required in the movement.
  • Falling rock can cut ropes. On a route that has a lot of broken rock consider using double ropes in case one cuts and also to allow for protection options off to the side that would cause rope drag with a single rope.
  • Rapping can also pull rocks down on top of you or others. People rapping off "Snot Girls", a popular route in Mexico regularly cause rock to fall on people cragging below. Shorter raps tend to be better as you have more control of the rope when pulling it.
  • Years ago when I began the process of learning to climb, I was taught to anchor myself to a rock or tree when belaying at crags. I think that many climbing schools still teach this. Too many close calls have taught me to avoid anchoring myself and I consider this to be a dangerous practice. The only time I make an exception to this is when I am belaying a climber who is much heavier than myself. Tied in I am a sitting duck. Unanchored, I can move around and position myself so I can see the climber better and move out from under the climber. I am able to move under an overhang or similar cover if rock comes down. When rock hits the ground it often shatters. Shattered pieces act like a grenade and can do much damage. Donít belay directly under the climber. Before the climber starts up the belayer should plan what he will do if rock comes down.
  • Also make sure the unused part of the rope is not coiled under the climber. Iíve had a few ropes cut when I was careless and the rope was hit by a small rock.
  • The climber should let the belayer and others below know that he has come to a loose looking section.
  • Wear a helmet especially on a wall. When you hear the whistling of rock falling or hear the call of loose rock you need to take cover. If you are belaying on a wall and hear a rock, push into the wall, hunch your shoulders together and try to get under your helmet. Donít look up because seeing the rock wonít do you much good and may result in a rock in the face. Donít duck your head because it exposes your neck. I like the new helmets like the "Grivel" that are shaped more like a bicycle helmet and extend backwards to protect the neck and the spine. Try to set a belay that has some room to move from side to side so the belayer can get out from directly under the climber. If you know there is loose stuff above, try to hang the pack above the belayerís head to provide cover.
  • Be careful on ledges since there is almost always loose rock lying around. Your foot or rope can easily knock rock off.
  • Donít climb a multi-pitch route where other climbers are already climbing above, especially if they will be rapping the route as a descent. You are asking for trouble if you do. Something almost always comes down.
  • Try not to go off route because you are more likely to encounter loose stuff.
  • Go down if it gets too intense and dangerous. It's not that important.
Bob Bennell
May 23, 2000

 
 
 

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