Air: Descending a Climb with an Unexperienced Climber
Posted by Joseph Anderson
Descending a climb with an unexperienced climber.
When making the decision to take a less experienced climber on a climb that is more than one pitch, thoughtful consideration of the descent is paramount to safety and enjoyment. Hopefully you’ve chosen a climb appropriate for your partners climbing ability but regardless, keeping them safe while ascending the route is typically a much more straight forward skill set than the descent. As many descents consist of tricky route finding and potential for tricky down climbing today I want to focus on descending via multi-pitch rappelling. On a typical multi-pitch climbing ascent all climbers remain tied into the rope system at the same point throughout, the rope system remains closed, and with your diligent direction your climber’s technical responsibility should remain low. As long as they don’t untie themselves from the rope they should always remain in a closed system and in a top rope setting. Once you initiate the descent this all changes. Let’s assume your bouldering competition winning friend is completely new to the rope climbing game and any rope work what so ever puts a glazed look in their eyes. Every time your friend tries to accomplish all but the most rudimentary rope handling assignments on their own you’re just crossing your fingers that it’s going to be done properly. The bottom line is that when there is a transition from one rappel station to the next you must assume that everything they do needs to be done with you watching over their shoulders. On a rappel descent a mistake will not end well. The good news is that with two tips you can always get your new climbers back down to the ground safely. Tip number one: Pre-rig the rappel In most cases it makes the most sense for you to descend first. Once you’re into the next anchor and you yell up “off rappel” you are either crossing your fingers that your buddy gets all that stuff you just explained to them right, or you are at ease because you know that they are already safely on rappel and have nothing to do at all but rappel. In order to do this before you leave their side you need to put their rappel device on the rope above getting them ready for a rappel. Since you are going to be rappelling first you need them to not be clipped directly into the device but rather you can connect a shoulder length sling from their belay device to their harness. You will want them to be hanging, or at least partially hanging on their sling before you leave. Once you take off they should not have anything connected to the anchor. You are hanging on the rope via your rappel device and the system is closed because you’re a responsible climber and tied knots in the end of the rope and also using an autoblock.
Tip number two: Lower your climber. When lowering you need to (A) Be able to see your loweree during their descent in order to insure they have arrived at your target belay station or ledge and (B) Make sure the system is closed by tying off the other end of the rope. The reason to lower really depends on the time and place and there are definitely times where lowering is easier than pre-rigging. A lower can also be a way to back up their rappel. Letting them rappel first puts them more in control of what they are doing but technically it is still a lower because you are giving them a belayed back up with the other end of the rope. When lowering my inexperienced climber I am either lowering them to an easy to find anchor with a user friendly ledge to stand on and I can easily see them clip their backup sling into the anchor and lock it or, I am lowering them to a very big and comfortable ledge. Nevertheless, they remain on a belay from the top throughout the whole process to the point in which I join them after rappelling myself.
Naturally these tips are intended for the experienced climber who understands how the skill set works after reading the text. If these tips remain confusing in any way shape or form please come in and get some more hands on training.