Friday, January 18, 2013

Rope-Soloing: Solar Slab and One-Armed Bandit

Rose Tower summit shot after rope-soloing One Armed Bandit.

The desire to climb big walls has been my driving force in climbing ever since I first read about it in John Long's book "How To Rock Climb" back when I was in middle school.  Since then I have been gradually building the skills necessary to get close to accomplishing some of these goals.  This process has always has been a pretty natural exploration and it's really helpful that the skills build on each other and that one thing leads to another.  For me the next step towards big wall climbing seemed to be comfortably rope-soloing multi-pitch routes (aid or free). Being able to do this serves many purposes and is an excellent test of efficiency and rope management on the wall.  For me the main attraction was having an entirely independent and self sufficient climbing experience on terrain that usually involves two people.  To me the process seemed challenging and work intensive but it also seemed uniquly satisfying and meditative. So after gaining some confidence in a single pitch environment I soon geared up from my first multi-pitch rope-solo of One Armed Bandit 5.7 (5 Pitches, 500'). 

The challenge for me was not going to be the climbing difficulty (5.7) of the climb, but rather successfully implementing the rope system in a timely fashion in order to finish before dark while keeping myself protected and not getting stuck.  Rope-soloing is considerably more complicated and physically demanding than the conventional two person rope team because while rope-soloing the lone climber is responsible for every aspect of the ascent and must lead, rappel/clean, and ascend each pitch before being able to move on to the next.  (Not to mention carry/haul all the gear, ropes and water.) This up and down repetitive process zaps strength and time while adding an extra challenge that the climber must be prepared for.  Beyond the physical depends of rope-soloing it is also more technically difficult and requires an expanded knowledge of anchor systems, lead climbing, rope management, problem solving, and obviously a thorough understanding of the solo belay system.  Although this knowledge isn't anything too "out there" the experience is typically more serious and is often made a lot scarier (exciting) by being all alone on the wall.  There are many dangers and risks that are unique to rope-soloing and this style of climbing should not be considered by anyone lacking the proper skills and experience. Climb smart my friends!

An abbreviated explanation of the multi-pitch rope-soloing process.

I am hesitant to write too much about the actual rope systems involved because I don't want to be too brief in my explanation causing some people to overlook certain important elements.  That being said, this is not a rope soloing lesson.  If you're interested in this process get proper instruction and experience while safe on the ground.  In this post I will simply explain the general concept and process that is required when rope-soloing free climbs with enough provisions and gear for a one day outing alone (Grade III or less).

The Ultra-Basics: The climber will begin by setting a "ground anchor" for upwards pull at ground level.  This is your belay anchor and setting this up properly is one of the most essential components of the system.  The climber attaches to the rope (on the side attached to the ground anchor) with their solo device of choice (Soloist, Gri-Gri, etc.) and begins climbing up, placing gear as needed while clipping it into the lead line to protect the pitch.  The tail side follows and also hangs down towards the ground where it is neatly stacked. Great rope management is your friend here and back up knots are your best and only companion.  Eventually the top of the pitch is reached and the lead rope is tied directly (fixed) into the high anchor in preparation for a rappel back down to the ground.  The climber now rappels back down the rope and cleans the gear from the rock on the way down.  Once back down to the ground the climber gathers the remaining items (bag, ground anchor, rope) and prepares to ascend back up the rope to reach the current high point above. The climber ascends the rope with bag (otherwise a haul must be set up) and docks the bag at the high point anchor.   Another "ground anchor" is set up form this high anchor point and the process is repeated.  In essence the solo climber... 1) Leads the pitch. 2) Rappels and cleans the gear. 3) Ascends back up the rope and brings all additional supplies.  This process is repeated until the route is complete! Having fun yet?! 

Solar Slab (on left) in the early morning sun during the approach. 

After a successful ascent of One Armed Bandit I wanted to keep the soloist energy flowing and decided to aim for something much longer and more exposed than my previous ascent. I decided on Solar Slab 5.6 (13 Pitches, 2000') which was a sunny and classic long route I've been meaning to climb for a while.  The soloist approach allowed me to wake up early and easily get out there before any two people could probably organize themselves. Getting there first also meant I had the longest amount of daylight to complete the climb and without having any complications from other parties I was able to maintain my climbing cadence naturally.  I made quick work of the first 4 pitches up the Solar Slab Gully (an easy approach 5.3 scramble) up to the top of the lower tier to start my day.

After this I began climbing up the higher tier and into the heart of the route where I implemented the rope-solo system until the top.  This route has all bolted anchors which sped up the process a good deal, but my first anchor off of the big ledge was still a gear anchor because no bolted anchor existed at such a good stance. (Most people don't need an anchor at the ground here.) I set up my belay and immediately left the ledge and climbed up until the next anchor was reached after about 150'. I began getting into my rope-solo groove. So back down to the ledge I went, then back up to my high point with all my stuff in no time. I re-set the system and began climbing upwards again towards to next anchor above.  It was on this pitch that I started hearing distant voices of another party coming up gradually beneath me.  I fixed my line and started rappelling down just as the leader beneath me rounded over and onto the big ledge below.  This lit a fire under my already psyched ass and I knew it was time to cruise this thing! It was my goal to not get passed by any other parties and I knew I could keep a similar pace to an average team of two climbing Solar Slab for the first time. So I reached the anchor below and quickly grabbed my bag and hastily flung it over my shoulder in preparation for ascending back up.  Immediately I heard a loud bang/bounce noise and realized I had just sent a full Nalgene bottle flying out of my still open pack. "Shit, ROCK!" I yelled in loud embarrassment and watched the bottle hit the ledge two pitches below and explode with a Bellagio-esque fountain display.  Luckily the team beneath me was well out of the way, but still my mistake hung heavy on my head for the rest of the route and I was reminded I had ALOT more stuff that could still be dropped with much more adverse results.  I kept my pace but now with a new attention and focus to these "smaller" details.  Luckily for me the water bottle incident turned out to be my biggest blunder of the day and was only minimally stupid since I had came prepared with another full liter in the bottom of the pack anyway. From now on, everything gets a keeper loop. 

Solar Slab summit shot after 6 hours on route.

I continued upwards (and downwards) in a meditative yo-yo like trance always compelled to stay moving towards the summit.  Although the party beneath me was gradually gaining ground, I was able to stay ahead of them until the very last pitch when a big natural ledge is reached and easily shared.  From here I let them pass and apologized for the accidental water display earlier.  They seemed unfazed and were in return quite curious of my solo methods and even took the time to compliment me on my speed (thanks guys!).  We talked casually as their leader headed upward and we exchanged the last small amount of beta and descent info before the summit.  At this point I was pretty relaxed and took my sweet time climbing the last pitch and was soon scrambling to the summit.  Once arriving at the top I took in the amazing view and breathed a sigh of relief as I checked the time and realized I had climbed the route in 6 hours.  I was pretty psyched on the time (for doing it in this fashion) and started contemplating what other long routes might be possible solo in a day.  In reality the whole route could more easily be free-soloed (without a rope) in considerably less time but to me that wasn't the point.  I set out to implement an advanced and efficient rope-solo system to accomplish the route entirely independent and protected.  These methods and skills will continue to develop as I plan explore the more difficult and aid intensive routes solo this spring in Zion.  The perma-pyshc is still very much alive!


Maria said...

I would love to be back for more such nice stuff. Keep up the good work.
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Florin-Ciprian Andrecuţ said...
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Florin-Ciprian Andrecuţ said...
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Florin-Ciprian Andrecuţ said...

Congratulation Matt
The article was very interesting to read for me, a good touch point with rope management. The neatly stacked of rope has the same importance like your solo device and anchors and obviously the rope solo climbing is much more hardly that team climbing, without the climbing equipment management, just for difficulty of route.
Congratulation again......and keep your mind free.