So you want to know how climbers get their gear back.
It’s an understandable question, because at first it may be hard to wrap your head around it. Nevertheless, retrieving your gear is actually easier than you might think. After reading this article, you’ll know how climbers successfully recover equipment they place on the wall…
Please take notice that this article is not intended to replace proper climbing instructions, but is merely written to give you a general idea of what techniques climbers may use to retrieve the equipment they place on the walls.
In many things, it takes two to tango, and the same goes for most climbing styles.
This is relevant, because when it comes to the question how climbers get their gear back, the answer depends on whether we’re talking about a duo ascension or a solo summit. In this article, we’ll cover both.
The short answer to how climbers retrieve their gear is this: The lead climber places the gear on the way up, and the second (climber) retrieves the equipment as he follows in the vertical footsteps of the lead climber, while being belayed by the lead, who is now anchored in. When climbing solo, retrieving the gear is a bit more cumbersome and will have you:
- Rappel down
- Stop at the gear in the wall
- Tie a knot in the rappel rope to free up your hands
- Retrieve the gear, either by using a nut key or by wiggling it loose with your hands
- Optional: haul yourself back up again
Keep in mind that rappelling is by far the most common cause of (fatal) accidents in climbing. I strongly suggest that you also get instructions in real life by a professional climbing instructor before you attempt to use any of the techniques described in this article yourself.
Let’s first get into more detail about retrieving gear when you’ve got a climbing partner to help you out:
Retrieving your gear when climbing with a partner
The lead climber first places trad climbing gear such as cams, nuts, hexes and quickdraws. Cams and nuts are placed as temporary anchors on the wall, to which you will clip quickdraws, through which the lead climbers hangs the climbing rope. This is what secures both him and the second climber during the second ascension.
When the lead climber has finished the pitch, the lead will attach himself to the anchor point on top. This can either be an anchor that is pre-existent, or he will set one up himself. Once he is secured by the anchor and has backed himself up properly, he then signals this to the belayer, who will seize to belay him when it’s confirmed. The lead climber will now be promoted to belayer, at what’s called the ‘belay station’ in climbing lingo. The second climber can now start climbing.
The second climber is secured by all the trad equipment the previous lead has put in place and through which the belay rope hangs. As the second climbs up the rock face, he can now remove one by one all the climbing gear that the lead had put in place. He can do this, because he is now secured from the top by the lead climber at the belay station.
Once the second finally gets to the belay station, he is now carrying all the trad equipment. This is one of the reasons that it is a custom that the second climber becomes the lead climber for the next pitch. When multi pitching, lead and second swap roles each pitch. I’ve written more at length about how to multi-pitch in this article.
Anyway, in short, retrieving your climbing gear when climbing with a partner goes as follows: the second climber cleans up all the gear after the lead climber as the second ascends.
In case of a solo ascension
As we mentioned in the introduction, getting your gear back when you’re climbing solo, is a little bit more complicated.
In most cases, you’re still able to get all the equipment back, though.
These are the steps you’ll need to take:
1. Rappel down
Set up your anchor and rappel down. There are different techniques you can use to get the rope itself back. We’ve written about that in more detail below.
2. Stop at your gear that’s in the wall
When you see the first piece of equipment that you need to retrieve, stop giving yourself slack. Make sure to stop at such height that your equipment is roughly between your belly button and chest. When the gear is either too high or low, it can be hard to release the pressure that’s holding your cams and nuts in place.
3. Tie a knot in the rappel rope
Now tie an appropriate knot in the rappel rope, exactly where your brake hand would otherwise have been. This of course reliefs the duty from your brake hand so that you can actually use it to get your gear back.
4. Retrieve the gear ( with or without the use of a nut key)
This step pretty much speaks for itself: go get your gear!
Still, there’s one thing you want to pay attention to.
Gear can get stuck on the rock. Especially when you’ve taken a fall, the force from that fall sometimes jams your climbing nuts into to the rock in such way that it’s impossible to get it back with bare hands.
This is why most climbers choose to carry a nut key as part of their trad /lead climbing equipment.
If you’re looking to buy a nut key, you don’t have to go all out on an extravagant one. Cheap ones do the trick just as good. The most important thing is that they’re long and thin enough to get inside the cracks where your nuts are, whilst being strong enough to sustain the pressure you put on it to get your equipment back. And they should be easily carriable as well, which is why most climbers choose not to improvise one themselves.
5. Untie the knot
Now you’re ready to release the temporary knot.
Don’t forget that your brake hand is on duty again.
Repeat this process until you’ve retrieved all your climbing equipment.
7. Haul yourself back up with an ascender
If there’s a walkable route that gets you off the summit, you can choose to go back to the belaying station, and walk off the back of the mountain.
If you’re wondering how you can get back to the belaying station without having to climb the rock (ascending the line), people use ascenders for this, like this one by Petzl.
How do climbers get their rope back after rappelling?
This question puzzled me for ages.
After all, the rope is supposed not to come loose (for obvious reasons!) when you’re rappelling down. So how do you get it back when you’re back on the ground, without having to ascend back to the top again?
Turns out, climbers have cheeky ways of solving problems. Some of them are dangerous, too.
There’s several ways of getting your rope back after rappelling that I know of. I’ll go over them in order from relatively safe to more dangerous.
1. Descending on both ends of the rope
One of these is to rappel down descending on both rope ends. This way it’s your own body weight that’s the counter balance. It’s one of the safer ways to go about a descension.
Tie two stopper knots at both ends of the rope. This is crucial, because you could otherwise fall off when you’ve reached the end. When you throw the rope down, make sure both ends touch the ground, so you won’t be hanging in limbo when you get to the bottom.
Once you get to the end of your rope, you get off the anchor (after temporarily attaching yourself to the wall) and you pull on one side of the rope. This will drag the other end of the rope back to the top, until it eventually passes through the anchor point and comes falling down. When you’ve got another pitch to descend, you can simply anchor again at the pitch you’re at, and repeat the whole process.
2. Use a carabiner and / or a figure eight descender
With this strategy, climbers only descend on one end of the rope.
The other end of the rope is jammed with a metal object that is larger than the ring through which the rope passes. This way the rope cannot slip through the ring, so that you can safely place your weight on the other side of the rope. It’s proper safety procedure to back this system up as well.
Once again, to all new climbers out there, be adviced that it’s best to talk to a professional climbing instructor when you’re looking to learn about the several safe ways in which you can deploy knots to safely go about this rappelling technique. In my opinion, nothing can replace proper real life climbing instructions when you’re looking to physically do it yourself.
In any case, retrieving the rope after descension from a single ropes end involves the use of a pull chord. A pull chord is a lightweight chord with a smaller radius, that you can tie to the other end of the rope. Once you’re down, you can simply pull this chord to pull your actual rappelling rope through the ring and have it fall down back to you.
In some cases it is advised to carry a second, regular climbing rope, instead of a pull cord. On sharp cliffs, for example, having a backup rope is no luxury. When your rope gets stuck on a multi pitch, you don’t want to have to climb back to the anchor without being secured by a proper climbing rope either. Most of us aren’t Alex Honnold, and this would effectively entail free soloing back to the anchor.
3. Ghosting techniques
These are by far the most dangerous of all techniques to retrieve your climbing rope. They’re actually invented not to even let an anchor behind.
The point in ghosting is to leave no trace. So you basically retrieve all your gear. Equipment that climbers use to get their rope back while ghosting can include:
- a fiddlestick
- Sand traps
Both advanced climbing rope retrieval techniques will get your rope back, but they go about it in different ways.
The fiddlestick is basically a stick that’s stuck between a knot in the rope. When you pull the pull cord that’s attached to it, the knot comes loose and so does the rope. It goes without saying that the rope should never be pulled during the rappel, or you’ll come falling down.
The sand trap, on the other hand, is an ad hoc anchor. It’s a bag that you can fill with sand. Using the geometry of the ledge on which it rests, it enables you to rappel down – if the volume of sand and geometry combined can hold your weight. Rappelling should be done smoothly, so as to limit the kilonewtons of force you’re putting onto it. When you’re safe and sound on the ground, a second rope can be pulled which releases the sand and makes it easier to pull the bag down.
I classify both of these ghosting techniques as advanced and highly dangerous.
Other techniques that are used to get your rope back include:
- The ‘Toss & Go’
- Simultaneous rappel ( also known as the ‘Aussie rappel’)
- Rope blocks
- The Macrame Knot
I hope you learned something today about how climbers generally go about getting their gear back. Please keep in mind that this article was intended to answer the general question “how do climbers get their gear back”. This article was never intended to replace proper instruction by a professional. Your safety is your responsibility.