CLIMBING in WET CONDITIONS
"The climbing was delicate without being difficult, for crack and cleft were drenched by streams of water from the melting snowfield above".  Gaston Rebuffat

From time to time, climbers get caught in storms, or they come across wet sections of rock caused by residue from a previous storm or seepage on a route. This is more problematic on multi-pitch routes where quick retreat is improbable. On limestone it is common especially in the spring for water to seep through cracks within the rock and emerge in surface pockets and surface cracks. Cracks can often hold moisture long after a storm especially on faces sheltered from the wind and sun. Lichen on the surface of rock absorbs moisture and becomes very slippery. Sandstone when wet can break with much less force. Slabs become treacherous when wet.

Once when climbing the Split Pillar pitch in Squamish, not realizing that the lichen was still damp from a storm the day before, my foot popped off twice. I was able to hold my position and avoid a long fall but felt quite frightened. It wasnít until later that I realized what the problem had been.

Negotiating wet or damp sections can make climbing more difficult and dangerous. However, with some changes in technique, damp and wet sections can be climbed. It is a good idea to practice this skill from time to time so that you will be ready when the time comes. Who knows when you might need it? Here are some tips for negotiating damp or wet sections.

TIPS

  • Keep your head and maintain calm. Donít rush, you will make mistakes if you do. Be ready to retreat if necessary. Once while climbing on Devils Tower, a thunderstorm came suddenly, complete with lightning and heavy rain. It was very scary rapping the last pitch with electricity buzzing all around. I should have retreated sooner. Before the ascent, it is a good idea to study retreat options, especially on longer routes.
  • Climbing technique must be modified on wet 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. This means that dynamic moves should be minimized. Climb static, testing and feeling holds. This will require more power, especially lock off power. Movement must be subtle; no quick movements. Place and weigh footholds with great care. Be careful using knee drops as the rotational movement of the shoe can cause it to slip in wet conditions.
  • Keep your body under you with your elbows straight under your hands so as to reduce the vector force outward. Reduce outward pulls as much as possible. Your hands will not hold on wet rock if you pull outward. The pull must be as close to straight down as possible.
  • To see their feet, most climbers ease their body out from the rock and look down. You probably wonít be able to hold this position in wet conditions. Instead, look sideways over your shoulder to look for foot holds.
  • When laybacking and stemming, bring your feet higher than normal to increase friction to reduce the possibility that they will slip. This will require more power.
  • Look for edges for both hands and feet, even if they are smaller holds, since your hands and feet will hold better on these type of holds.
  • Look for rough features on the footholds and stand on sharp features when possible. Shoes will stick better since the moisture will sink to the low point in the rough area and the rough parts will stick into your shoe. If there is no further water coming down, slopers can be relatively dry since the water drains off the sloper more quickly. But be careful, a high angle sloper will be hard to hold onto even if it is just slightly damp. Sometimes it is possible to crimp at the back of a sloper where it has not become as wet.
  • Add more protection than normal.
  • If there is more than one way to climb a section, consider variables such as protection possibilities, amount of lichen, availability of shelter such as overhangs above, availabilty of sharp edges, and location of water flows.
  • Slabs are extremely dangerous when wet. Derek Hersey, the great soloist was killed on a 5.9 slab that he normally climbed easily and had done many times before when it became wet from a sudden rain. It is very hard to stay on a slab in wet conditions.
  • Cracks are often damp even when the rest of the rock is dry since they get little sun and are protected from the wind. It is much harder to hold a jam in a wet crack.
  • In a big storm some routes can become waterfalls quickly. These waterfalls can knock loose rocks off ledges. When retreating donít stand around the base of the wall. Get away from it or stand under an overhang. Keep your helmet on until you are well away from the cliff.
  • Resort to aid climbing if it gets real bad or if it is easier to continue up to a shelter or the top than descending.
  • When the rope is wet, belay devices do not catch a fall as quickly as normal. They tend to slip a bit since friction is not built up like in normal conditions. I have found that the Grigri slips a lot when the rope is wet. Once I fell about twenty feet on a fall that would have normally about 12 feet. This was due to slippage of the wet rope through a Grigri.
Bob Bennell
May 31, 2000

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