Bail with Grace

Sometimes, the decision is reached quickly. A quick glance at your climbing partner, the way he holds his head, the hesitation and uncertainty that is evident as he hands you the rack. Without exchanging a word, you both know that it’s time to go down.

Graham Zimmerman hiking down from Prusik Peak in Washington’s Enchantment Range. It’s always nice to be walking out in the daylight!

Sometimes the decision to bail from a route is reached quickly, easily. Sometimes it’s an agonizing process: constantly watching clouds form and dissipate on the horizon; feeling lost and off route one minute, then finding clean cracks the next. A dialogue, both internal and external, see-saws between ambition and prudence, desire and fear.

This past season in Argentine Patagonia, I made decisions to bail both quickly and slowly. After a few initial successes (on Guillamet and Fitz Roy), I attempted routes in Saint Exupery, Desmochada, Aguja de la S, and another route on Fitz Roy. Attempted, and bailed from each. Every time, an unfavorable mix of weather, route-finding errors, ice conditions, and general hesitancy conspired to teach me how lucky I am when a climb actually goes as planned.

In fact, my friend Blake has argued that failure on a route might be a good sign. Maybe it’s a sign that you’re pushing your limits as a climber, tackling difficult and worthy objectives. Climbers that never bail may simply not be dreaming big enough.

Perhaps all this, though, is a triumph of rationalization. How to you untangle your real motivations? How do we know that we’re trying hard enough, using sound judgement and not being swayed by fear and malaise?

Joel, the “Birthday Girl” expressing himself after bailing from Aguja Saint Exupery. Photo by Cheyne Lempe.

These are good questions to ask yourself, but fortunately for me I don’t have to answer them in this blog post. This post is about how to bail from long rock routes, quickly, safely, and efficiently.

This advice, as almost all on my blog, is geared towards steep rock terrain. I won’t address snow or ice routes (v-threads, bollards, etc).

WHAT TO BRING

5-6mm cord is great for chalk belts, normal belts, rigging a shoulder loop for a camera case, rigging a pack for hauling, and many other simple tasks.

I do like thin spectra slings (60cm) for use while leading, so I mostly bring those on route, but I will replace double length (120cm) slings with tied loops (like this, but homemade) made with 6mm cord or flat nylon webbing.

In addition to all of that, for really long routes I like to carry an additional chunk of 5mm cord, maybe 10m. You can carry this in the bottom of your pack, or keep it racked so that you can use it as a cordalette.

Large stoppers are great for rap anchors, so add extra ones in the BD#8-12 size range to your rack.

A small knife is essential for cutting slings and cordage, and a lighter is nice for fusing the cord once you’ve cut it.

If you have to cut nylon cord, but lack a lighter, you can tie two overhand knots in the cord very close together, and then cut between the two knots. This way the fraying ends won’t spread down the cord.

Cutting cordage, sans lighter.

What NOT to bring: Rap rings and quicklinks! Thread your rope directly through the sling or cord. Unless you intend to establish a popular rappel route, carrying extra metal rings or links is just extraneous weight.

BUILDING BAIL ANCHORS

The easiest (and cheapest) bail anchor is a slung feature, such as a flake or horn. Carefully select a solid feature, and test for hollow sounds or shifting. Check for sharp edges that might saw into your cord. If you have a hammer on route, don’t be afraid to use it for testing, and breaking down vicious edges.

You can sometimes use a nut tool (or ice tool) to clean out dirt or pebbles from behind the slung feature, in order to better seat your cord.

If you cannot find a feature to sling, look for finger-sized cracks in solid rock. If you find a suitable constriction, large stoppers are cheap and bomber rap anchors.

A perfect “Atomic” nut, with a sling to thread.

If you find a fixed piton, left by earlier parties, it’s easy to back it up with a stopper of your own and equalize both pieces with some cord.

A newly built rap station on Cerro Fitz Roy. The red cord is our primary anchor, which will be left in place. It’s tied to a fixed piton and a stopper. A bomber cam above provides backup for the leader.

Or, cheaper still, use a rock as a stopper! Match a good bottleneck with the appropriately sized rock, and wedge it solidly. I would only try this in good rock (not soft sandstone). Sling a chockstone (natural or otherwise) so that the forces won’t lever it out of position.

With a perfect bottleneck, you can also use a knotted sling as a makeshift stopper.

A double overhand knot, which might work as a stopper for bail purposes.

This would be a good place to note that, while I’m commenting on the relative cost of leaving a chockstone or stopper or chunk of cord, of course your life is infinitely more valuable than any piece of climbing gear. So no matter what you choose to rappel from, always make sure it’s solid. And if leaving a cam or two is the only safe option, that’s still a small price to pay!

STARTING DOWN

Anytime you’re rapping off a newly constructed station, building a backup anchor is a great idea. This backup, usually a bomber cam or two, should be connected loosely to your primary anchor (the sling or stopper that you’ll actually leave). Leave the backup in place while the leader rappel, and the leader can bounce test the primary anchor while the backup is in place. Once the leader is down and off rappel, the second can remove the backup and rap solely on the now-tested primary anchor.

The rappel leader should have some sort of hands-free rappel device, so that he can swing over the face below and search for the next potential anchor. A grigri works well (with one end of the rope fixed), or simply an ATC with a prussik (also see this article on autoblock knots and adjustable leg loops)

In high winds, the leader should carry the ropes with him in butterfly coils. Otherwise, the rope may be blown far off around a corner and around a flake.

AVOIDING STUCK ROPES

Choose steep, clean features to descend. If the leader notices an obviously hazardous flake, he should attempt to trundle it (assuming no one is beneath). If the route down is littered with potential rope-grabbers, sometimes shorter rappels are preferable.

When pulling the cords, I use two different methods, depending on the terrain. On steep ground, I pull vigorously and give the rope a hearty flick. This will hopefully bring the end of the rope far out from the wall, safely flying through space.

The always stressful rope pull at sunset!

On lower-angled terrain, the “fast-pull and flick” method seems to create more problems, allowing big loops of rope to wrap themselves around features. Here, I prefer a slow and steady pull, so that the rope flows down the rock like trickling water.

IF THE ROPE IS STUCK

When the worst comes to pass and the ropes become stuck, don’t panic. Before you begin to really reef on the rope, exhaust every rodeo-inspired trick to flick or fling the rope free. If the rope is well stuck, main force can sometimes work. Pull as a team, or have one climber attach a device to apply his whole body weight. There are dangers to yarding on the rope: you may slice the rope over a sharp flake, or even pull a loose rock down onto yourself.

If the rope is hopelessly stuck, you have a decision to make: cut the rope and continue down with shorter cords, or go back up to unstick the rope. This choice will depend on how much rope you have in hand, how much further you have to descend, how quickly the weather is deteriorating, and many other factors.

If you decide to ascend to the sticking point and free the rope, you can tie in to the end of the longest rope that you have in hand and lead normally. If the rock above is unclimbable, the option of last resort would be ascending the stuck rope directly. You can place protection as you ascend, in hopes of limiting a fall if the rope suddenly became unstuck.

RAPPING WITH CUT ROPES

If you’re forced to cut a stuck rope, or if becomes hopelessly core-shot, you can still lash together a hodgepodge of ropechunks and other cordage to form a pull-line. Then, as I discuss in this post (under “Extendo-Rapping), you can still safely make raps equal to the length of your longest chunk of undamaged rope.

EXCUSES, BEER, AND NEW PLANS

Once you’ve safely reunited with the horizontal Earth, you have one more important task: excuses! It’s crucial for the team to stick to one story, make it as epic as possible…

Then perhaps go back to where you started in the beginning, sitting down over beers and dreaming of the next big mission!

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