Many an alpine climber has asked themselves the question, “To bail or not to bail?” There are many times when it’s appropriate to take a chance and press on through what may end up to be just a burp in the weather. But there are also many times when the contributing factors for success on an alpine rock climb just aren’t there and the party may end sooner than expected. When the skies open up with what seems like fire and brimstone, the daylight is waning or the team just can’t summon the gusto to complete the route, there is still an adventure to be had. Bailing is often frowned upon, for a multitude of reasons, but in reality it is often times the right call and can be easily justified. When your life or wellbeing is at risk, that is a lot to sacrifice for what, in the end, is only a rock climb. Here are a few tips to help you out in these situations.
1. Carry the Essentials
Anybody who has spent a decent amount of time in the wilderness never leaves home without the “10 Essentials,” but when climbing in the alpine, there are a few more pieces of gear required for a safe and successful escape. When I’m going into the alpine environment, I carry at least 30-40′ of extra cord or webbing along with a few bail ‘biners or rappel rings. In addition to these integral pieces of gear I carry extra stoppers (4-6, small to mid-range) and possibly a few pins for building artificial anchors where there is no option for building natural anchors. Leaving behind a few stoppers and a length of cord is a small price to pay for my safety and longevity.
A knife and headlamp are also essential to bring along on the climb. Even in “light and fast” endeavors these are super important items to have with you. Without a knife, there aren’t many options for cutting bail tat or cord. Without a headlamp, it will be very difficult to see at all when the sun has gone down.
2. Plan the Escape
It’s quite rare for me to be on route and not to be thinking about an escape plan. This doesn’t mean I have low expectations for success, but rather if the brown stuff hits the proverbial fan, I know exactly what my next step will be. On alpine climbs, it’s logical to simply back track from where you came, but that’s not always an option. For instance, on the Diamond (on Long’s Peak), the Casual Route‘s second pitch includes a significant traverse from right to left, not really allowing for a rappel back to that belay stance. In a scenario like this, I would be already scoping out features or scanning for current bail tat around flakes or horns. It helps to plan ahead for the worst case scenario and ask yourself questions like, “Will we rappel the whole route or are there sections we can easily and safely downclimb?” Strive to link features and/or backtrack to obvious stances. If possible avoid simply rappelling through terrain where a belayed downclimb could potentially be an option for the weaker climber. This can easily be done by utilizing a munter hitch from a solid, redundant anchor. Instances of this would be loose, low-angle terrain where the possibility of sending rocks or debris on your partner is likely.
3. Build Solid Anchors
In a retreat it’s easy to fall into the mindset of gear conservation, but at what cost? In my opinion, building a solid anchor of 3 stoppers is well worth the price of mine and my partner’s life. This should go without saying but oftentimes people will neglect to take this into consideration. If you arrive at an anchor where webbing and cord is faded, torn or slung around questionable features, strive to bolster the anchor with new cord and/or place additional gear to create a solid anchor. Just last week I was forced to bail from Hallett Peak’s North Face and came across an anchor slung around a large block that moved when I applied enough force to it. Instead of adding to the questionable nature of the anchor, I removed the sling from this block and built a stronger anchor a few feet lower. Not only did I make it out of that scenario safely, but parties in the future will not have to gamble their lives to that questionable block. Anchors built from multiple pieces or slung horns or blocks can also still be easily equalized- so make sure to equalize anchors!
In addition to building your own solid anchors, like I’ve stated above, inspect pre-existing bail anchors. Check to see if any webbing is torn. If it is, replace the bad webbing with new webbing. Also, inspect piton placements carefully- a corroded pin is not a trustworthy point of protection.
4. Use a Rappel Back-Up
Navigating through blocky, loose terrain or rappelling into the unknown requires the use of a friction hitch back-up on the brake strands. A loose block to the head can cause serious damage and rappelling off the ends of the ropes can be even worse. In addition to using a friction hitch back-up, tie knots in the ends of the ropes. While you are trying to maximize the distance you can rappel to the next viable anchor, losing control and going off the ends of the rope is far from ideal. Though it’s tempting to always want to rappel as long as possible, in loose alpine terrain or on a wall where horns and flakes are prevalent, avoid double-rope rappels to avoid snagging your ropes.
5. Communicate Efficiently
Another advantage to keeping rappels short is clear communication. It is by far easier to communicate verbally and visually with your partner over a distance of 100′ rather than 200′. Using clear, enunciated commands will clear up any possible confusion and keep the pace steady when bailing in volatile weather. “Off Rappel!” and “On Rappel!” are simple, easily enunciated commands to use in high winds or when out of sight from your partner. In high wind situations or on long rappels, I will often times use an overly gesticulated waving motion with my arm to signal I’m off belay. Other folks use rope signals but I often find these unclear and confusing. By whatever means you wish to communicate is great, but be sure to make these signals clear, concise and understandable by your partner or partners. In downclimbing situations a simple verbal signal of, “Secure!” will suffice.
6. Analyze Ability and Perceived Acceptable Risk
If at any moment during the approach or on the climb you feel you are in over your head, communicate this with your partner. It’s a skill to be able to analyze your own ability and to not get sucked into the glory of sending rad alpine routes. Having clear and open lines of communication with your partner before you commit to the climb is the safest way to avoid putting yourself in any potential dangerous situations. Having the same climbing ability while training in the gym doesn’t equate to the same amount of perceived risk in the alpine world. Being honest with yourself and your partner will keep you out of compromising situations and will allow the two of you to choose objectives that are better in line with your acceptable amount of risk.
Of course you could always hire a guide to teach you the ways of the alpine… The Colorado Mountain School would be happy to provide you and your partner with a guided alpine climb or with instruction to ensure the safety of your future! Good luck out there!