Retreat seems to be a taboo topic in climbing. Most climbers donít want to discuss retreating because it is thought of as negative thinking and defeatist. At times weather, time constraints, accident, objective danger, lagging motivation, fatigue and/or you just can't do the route will make retreat necessary. Obviously retreat is more problematic on longer routes. When you get up, you will have to get down and that is a retreat of sorts.
Most climbers are loath to admit that they have contemplated retreating let alone actually retreated. Guidebooks give a lot of information about the ascent but often provide no more than a few arrows and notations of rap stations for the descent. Overall little information is available in the literature. Sane discussion of the topic of retreat is rare in the climbing community yet, some of the most serious risk situations for many climbers are not found on the ascent but on the descent.
Before starting the climb, just as you would plan your ascent pitch by pitch, plan your descent. Check the topo and ask around for beta. Look for retreat options at different points on the climb, traverse ledges, rap stations, intersection with other routes.
I have found that two experienced people working together without mishap, can descend in about 1/4 to 1/3 of the time it took to ascend through straightforward rapping. Of course all parties are different and travel at different speeds. Retreats involving down climbing and/or traversing will take longer. It is a good idea to plan a bit of extra time for the descent to avoid rushing because of darkness, weather changes etc.
Practice tying key knots before the climb so that you are skilled enough to tie them in the dark or when very tired or injured.
Visualize typical emergency situations and imagine your response to them to prepare yourself in the event that a real emergency were to happen.
As you climb, watch for ledges, overhangs that provide shelter, rap stations and other routes that might be close by. Look back down occasionally as you ascend. Watch for features that have a recognizable shape. If you do have to reverse the route, your observations will be invaluable especially if darkness or poor visibility sets in.
Decisions to retreat are not easy to make. In modern life, people tend to depend on rational, logical processes and as a backup emotion to make decisions. Our intuitive sense seems to be poorly developed compared to the other decision making processes. People who have been in life threatening situations, often report a process that takes control of them and makes correct decisions as if on autopilot. This is intuition. I have felt this a number of times. At first I fought the feeling and tried to control things with my logical mind but over the years I have learned to trust intuition and am getting better at recognizing it. To survive, we probably have to use all decision making systems and choose that which is right for us in a given situation.
It is important to know that group processes can be very powerful and can influence a persons decision making. Sometimes this can be a good thing especially when climbing with experienced people, but it can often cause disaster with group members doing heroic things to prove themselves to other members.
I believe that it is important to travel quickly, especially on long routes. To do this, we must travel light and leave behind superfluous equipment. Some items are necessary even for the minimalist. Instead of a first aid kit, I take some climbers tape. With this tape I can improvise splints bandages etc. I also carry a small sharp knife that stays closed unless I intentionally open it. A knife is essential to cut stuck ropes and webbing. I throw a small headlamp in my pack, but a very light flashlight would do. This is needed for finding rap stations in the dark, tying and checking knots, and finding the way safely on walk downs. A few extra slings for backing up rap stations and a cord to make a Prusick are also important to take along.
Rapping can be very dangerous activity and many accidents have occurred
Be careful with fixed rap slings at rap stations as they can be very dangerous. The sun and other weather conditions weaken exposed slings drastically in a short period of time. Ropes that were previously pulled through the slings further weaken them. The theory seems to be safety in numbers where bundles of slings are found at a fixed rap station. These bundles may not be safe since they often consist of many very weak slings. Its a good idea to cut away some of them and add one of your own.
Shorter raps, especially with one rope, are better since shorter ropes are easier to manage and are less likely to get stuck. Also if one rope gets stuck, you have the other to use. For single rope raps, ropes with two different weaves meeting at the center point are useful because the center point is easy to find. This is especially useful in the dark since the center point is fairly easy to find and you probably are not able to see the rest of the rope.
It is important to tie a knot in the end of the rap ropes to avoid rapping off the ropes. This unfortunately happens more often than we would expect. Some climbers use a single fisherman in the end of each rope. I tie the two ends together with a figure eight knot. Whatever knot you use, it should be large enough that it will stop you if you rap to the end of the rope and pulled very tight because a lot of force may impact it and it must hold.
If you use two ropes to rap join the ropes together with a double fisherman, a figure eight or an overhand. The overhand knot is less likely to get caught when pulling it down and may be the best choice when rapping sections where a lot of flakes cracks and knobs are present. Otherwise, I believe that a climber should select a knot that they feel most confident using.
Climbing with two 9 mil. ropes is common in Europe and has some advantages. Less rope drag is encountered and there is no need for trailing a rope. Also the knot that joins the ropes for rapping is smaller and less likely to get stuck. However, most climbers don't have the cash to lay out for two ropes. As an alternative, trail an 8 or 9 mil static line to be used for rapping and climb on your crag rope. On a rap station that has a carabiner or rap rings, set up the rap with the knot arranged so that it is on the opposite side to your thicker line. As a result you will pull the small diameter rope when you are both at the rap station below. This is an advantage since the smaller diameter rope is more likely to get cut than the larger diameter rope and the knot will still hold you because it will not run through the ring or carabiner. This is especially important if you are rapping sections that have sharp edges or ledges that the ropes will pull over.
Learn to rap with different devices in case you drop yours and need to improvise. Learn to make a double carabiner brake and learn to do a body rappel. These can be used in circumstances when nothing else is available.
Most climbers would tell you to use a prusik to backup a rap. However, I have rarely seen any experienced climbers using a prusick when rapping. I believe that climbers recognize that speed is essential and that it takes too much time to use a prusick. I don't use one when rapping except in situations that I deem to be higher risk such as potential for rock fall, impending darkness or bad weather. The second person to rap can be protected by the first one down. By pulling hard on the ropes, the climber below can stop the descent of the person rapping. If I am first down I always hold the ropes in case something happens to my partner and I can control his descent from below.
Simultaneous rapping is very fast but very dangerous. Two climbers rap together, each climber on one rope of a rap set up in the normal fashion. When speed is critical, this method might be useful.
When you have the least amount of time, night is close or a storm is nearby, you can be sure that your rope will get caught in rocks, cracks or flakes when you pull it. Try flipping the rope from different angles. Then try pulling it from different angles. Sometimes the rope wedges tighter in the rock. Try whining and crying. You can cut the rope if you have recovered most of it. Another option is to climb up the rap route using the part of the rope that came down but this may not be possible. Your last option is to jumar or prusick up the wedged rope. This is scary since the rope could free itself at anytime. Free climb as much as possible moving your prusick with you and place pro wherever possible on your way up.
On some longer routes, rapping the route is not feasible, and walk downs are necessary.
Walk downs can be easy and obvious or they can be complex mazes like some in the Dolomites or Red Rocks. These are not easy to read and often involve easy down climbs. If you go the wrong way the situation can become serious very fast. Information from other climbers is critical before you start out.
Weather can make walk downs treacherous especially those involving sections of down climbing. Once when visiting Joshua Tree, six inches of snow fell overnight. We climbed the next day. The guidebook described a casual walk down the slab behind the climb but this was no longer casual with six inches of snow on it; in fact it was treacherous. While this was not a particularly dangerous situation, it serves as an illustration that weather can change the nature of a descent very quickly.
The climb is not over until the climbers are down safely. To achieve this climbers need to plan their descent and retreat options, reserve enough of their energy and allow enough time for the descent.
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