Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How To Use a Pull Cord For Rappelling

The Pull cord (Reepschnur) method is a seldom used tool that allows one to make full rope-length rappels with only one rope. A non-load bearing retrieval rope is used to pull the climbing rope down afterward. A pull cord, generally 5-6mm cord, paired with a skinny single rope makes the lightest full-length rappelling combination.  I use a pull cord routinely during the winter months, and frequently use it year-round in an alpine environment as well. Like all other techniques, there are advantages and disadvantages to this method. Knowing when and how to use a pull cord safely is essential.

We'll get to the "how" down below. First, let's look at the advantages of using a pull cord:

  • A single rope is often easier to manage than a two rope system (half or twin), especially when guiding or climbing easier routes.

  • It's lightweight - This is the biggest advantage in my book. My 50-meter pull cord is only a little larger than a 1-liter water bottle, and similar in weight. When paired with an 8.9mm single rope you have a very lightweight alpine/ice rope setup. When the approaches are long and you're counting ounces this is a good way to shave weight and bulk from your kit.

  • It's a good system to use if you think most rappels will be short but there's a chance you might have to make a few longer ones.

And now the disadvantages:

  • If set up improperly you could die. There was high-profile fatality in Yosemite a few years ago due to an improper pull-cord setup.

  • 60m of very thin cord is difficult to manage.

  • Full-length rappels on a single 8.9 millimeter rope are zippy. Use a friction hitch to back up your rappel device.

  • The knots and carabiner used to block the rope can snag easily during your retrieval effort.

As you can see, the parameters for using a pull cord are narrower than the parameters for using a regular two-rope combination. It's snaggy, has very little friction and is a higher maintenance setup. However, if you work inside these parameters and stay organized it's a very effective tool.


When do I use a pull cord for rappelling? I use one a lot for long rappels in the winter, and I use them occasionally for shorter rappels in a rock and alpine environment. I have a 50ish-meter 6-millimeter pull cord and a 40-meter 5-millimeter pull cord. The long one gets used in the winter and in certain rock environments. The shorter cord gets used when I want to bring a short (30-40 meter) cord for certain alpine climbs that might involve rappelling during the descent.

Ice has very low friction, making rope retrieval after rappelling easy. When using the pull cord on rock or in vegetation the knot and carabiner can get snagged on tree branches, rock horns, and in cracks very easily. Care must be taken to avoid having to jug back up the rope or lead up to the jammed knot on a skinny 6mm cord. If it seems like the ropes may snag I usually opt to make two shorter rappels instead.


When using a pull cord you are essentially rappelling using a knot to block the rope on one side of the rings on a rappel anchor. Therefore, it is imperative you use a large knot that won't pull through the rings. As a back up there's always a separate bight knot with a locking carabiner clipped back to the rappel side of the climbing rope. In my experience the best knot for blocking is the figure nine (one more half-turn than a figure eight) which is bulky but unties easily. A few of the climbing magazines debriefed the Yosemite reepschnur accident several years ago and suggested using a flat overhand (European Death Knot) to block the rope. I have seen this particular knot pull through aluminum rappel rings on more than one occasion, leading me to believe this is a less-than-ideal setup. Why magazines don't fact check their info before it's published is beyond me and beyond the scope of this post (to see the identical poor setups in both mags click here and here). The bottom line here is this - if you want your rope to pull afterward use a bulky knot that won't get stuck in the rings or quick links.

You don't need to have rings on the anchor for this technique to work as long as the system is backed up by the bight knot and locking carabiner, however pulling the ropes afterward can be more difficult. The knot may slip to the wrong side of the webbing and there is usually greater friction without a ring on the anchor.

I try to stay organized when using this system. There are a few ways to avoid having the pull cord become a complete bird's nest. My normal system, and one that works well on multipitch ice routes, is to carry the pull cord up the route in the same small pack in which I carry my parka. It get's stacked in the bottom of the bag, below my belay parka.When I'm ready to rappel I set up the rappel rope and pull cord. I'll clip the small pack to a harness gear loop. As I rappel the pull cord flows neatly out of the pile stacked in my pack. If I'm using a pull cord on an alpine route a harness stuff sack works brilliantly and is lighter than a 16-liter backpack.

When I want to pull the cord and retrieve my climbing rope one person pulls while the other person stacks the cord back in the pack or stuff sack. This way the pull cord never gets tangled or unorganized.

Here are a few spots that a pull cord works very well:

  • North Face of Pitchoff, NY

  • Frankenstein Cliff, NH - If you don't walk off in the amptheater this technique works well.

  • Lake Willoughby, VT - This works well although care needs to be used around snaggy cedar roots and branches

  • Stony Clove, Catskills NY - The Curtain, That Climb, Sorenson's

  • Most granite rock areas - The rock is generally smooth and snag free at many clean granite cliffs

  • Catskill Ravines - When you start thinking about places where top belays are common yet you still need to rappel there are endless possibilities. You can bring a 35-meter climbing rope and a 35-meter 5-millimeter pull cord for a very lightweight backcountry alpine setup.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

First Impressions - La Sportiva Baruntse

I have big feet. Finding appropriate climbing footwear is a challenge. Last spring, after a trip to the Ruth Gorge and a trip to Rainier my feet were a mess. During our descent off the summit of Rainier I was taking double doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen simultaneously. When I removed my boots in camp the tip of my right sock was bloody, my big toenail was detached from the nail bed and the whole area was pretty tender. Yuck.

In June, after returning from Rainier, I decided it was time to pull the trigger and buy some new boots. I ordered a pair of La Sportiva Baruntse and the La Sportiva Nepal Extreme, both in size 49. Most bootmakers don't make mountain boots that big. In fact, to my knowledge the only boots made above size 14 are the Nepal's, Baruntse's and the Lowa Civetta.

Rock and Snow ordered the boots in June. I had the Baruntse boots in a month (they must have been in the U.S already. The Nepal's didn't arrive from Europe until September.

As it's been a warm and relatively dry winter, I haven't put too many days on either boot yet. However, I can comfortably say the Baruntse works better for frontpointing on steep ice than any boot I've ever worn. You can effortlessly stand all day on the frontpoints, and the additional sole rigidity makes climbing steep ice in my less aggressive Sabretooth crampons feel easy. I can't wait to use them more thoroughly during my upcoming trip to Newfoundland in February.

They're warm too. I wore them for one day of guiding when the high temperature for the day was 1 degree Fahrenheit. If you have chronically cold feet, as I do, check out the Baruntse.There's also a great review of the boot over at Cold Thistle.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Love At First Feel

Certain features beg to be climbed. Splitter cracks, lone ice pillars, iced-up corners, and chimneys all make classic winter climbs. Think about it. Many classic winter routes follow memorable features. The Black Dike on Cannon Cliff is a giant corner system. The Promenade at Lake Willoughby climbs a free-standing pillar through it's crux. Bird Brain Boulevard in Colorado is an endless chimneying odyssey.

Many of the routes at Platte Clove in the Catskills follow very cool features too, and this makes them outstanding and memorable lines. Chris Beauchamp and I found a nice little cliff in the woods at the end of last winter. This cliff has a few very classic lines.

When we discovered this cliff we were astonished. By Catskill measures it's a "backcountry crag" but it's not very far from the road, and it's quite visible from a few roadside overlooks.

I've climbed at this wooded cliff a handful of times now, and all of the lines there are fun, many are mixed, and most are surprisingly moderate. Last Thursday I headed there with Joe Vitti, Chris Beauchamp and Harry Young. One of the best things about the Catskill cragging areas is that you can invite a crowd, swap ropes and try new routes. When you go with people who laugh easily, crack jokes, and like to take pictures it's even better.

Here are a few shots of the lines at this cliff we're going to call the Dark Side.

There's nothing like a slippery M6 hand and fist
crack to get you warmed up...

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Catskills Get Some Press

I crunched some numbers during the past few weeks. Throughout the past 7 seasons I've spent almost 200 days in the Catskills during winter seasons. It feels like I've spent about as much time yammering people's ear's off  about how great the climbing is. It seems people are starting to listen. Rock and Ice and Climbing are both running pieces about climbing in the Catskills this month. It's a funny coincidence that they both ended up running at the same time. The Climbing article, titled "Big Kat", is about the author's quest to climb Kaaterskill Falls.

The Rock & Ice piece was something Chris Beauchamp and I began to think about this past winter. Chris submitted the photos to Jeff Jackson near the end of last summer. He agreed to run an article if someone could put together a 2000-3000 word supplement for Chris's photos. I worked with Jeff Jackson on the article during the fall.

The result, in my opinion (and I'm biased here), is quite beautiful. Chris's pictures are nothing short of amazing, and capture the feeling of mixed climbing in the Catskills better than any photos I've seen before. His use of artificial lighting, something that's rare in climbing photography, makes each image unique.

The images have a depth to them that I really haven't seen in climbing imagery before. The image of Lucho Romero on Straight to Hell captures the feeling and the beauty of Catskill climbing in the cloves better than any other image.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Black Diamond Glissade Glove

Finding well-fitting, durable handwear is a challenge most winter climbers face each season. Gloves are expensive, easy to lose, and usually don't last very long. Additionally, it's good to have a quiver of gloves for warmer and colder conditions, a set of gloves that work really well for harder ice pitches and a thin, sticky pair for hard mixed climbing.

Back when climbers used leashes glove selection seemed less important. If your hands were getting tired you could tighten down your leashes and keep moving. With leashless tools, thin gloves with a good grip are mandatory.

I have tons of gloves in my closet at home, but only a few pairs get used regularly. The gloves that I do use regularly can be divided into two groups - work gloves and sending gloves. Work gloves are used for belaying, rappelling, climbing easy pitches and for approaching. They get trashed. These gloves need to be durable, waterproof, relatively warm and not too expensive. I will frequently wear out 2-3 pairs of "work gloves" each season.

My work glove of choice over the last two seasons has been the Black Diamond Glissade. At $59 a pair of Glissade gloves costs far less than most other waterproof gloves. With a leather palm, Thinsulate insulation, a gauntlet shaped wrist, and a BDry insert these gloves get the job done and won't break your bank.

How does Black Diamond make a fully waterproof, full-conditions glove for $59? Well, for starters, they're made outside of the US. However, the real alchemy here involves the BDry insert. Black Diamond started using BDry four or five seasons ago as a substitute for Gore Tex in their less expensive gloves.

How does BDry work? It's simple really, they sandwich a glove-shaped plastic bag between the shell and the insulation in their gloves. This brilliant decision makes for the most waterproof gloves I've ever worn. Until the plastic lining breaks, no matter how worn the glove is, it will remain waterproof.This is more than I can say for many of the Gore-tex gloves I've used in the past.

Why is Gore-tex such a popular application in gloves? If I could venture to guess, I might say it's because W.L. Gore is an industry giant that makes companies contractually "agree" to use their products regardless of whether it works well or not. Gore-tex, which really isn't very breathable, relies on an effective DWR (durable water repellent) coating to be effective. A garment's exterior fabric must remain dry, creating an air layer for the semi-permeable Gore-tex to allow moisture, in the form of water vapor, to pass through. As soon as "wet out" of the exterior fabric occurs Gore-tex stops being breathable.

On a pair of gloves, which get rubbed, brushed and pulled at constantly, the DWR coating might only last one day at wear points. What's the point of having an "expensive" breathable membrane then? I'm not sure there is a point. It's a gimmick.

The BD Glissade gloves have no Gore-tex, and they've never let me down. As long as I don't sweat too much, these gloves will stay dry all day long. I've used them for backcountry skiing, ice climbing, working mixed routes, climbing Rainier and as a basecamp glove on the Ruth last spring. They are cheap and durable.

I've led plenty of WI 5 in them too. For really technical pitches something with a bit more dexterity is nice, but for pure slugging these gloves work very well. They're good for moderate mixed climbing too.

The only drawback to the Glissade I've found so far is that the leather on the fingers doesn't wrap around the edges. Like most less expensive gloves, there is only leather on the palm. I'm okay with this, for the price of one pair of Gore-tex gloves I can have two pairs of gloves that will comfortably last the entire season.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Be Careful Out There

From what I've seen thus far, this season takes the cake for "worst ice season" since I began ice climbing.

I got out Friday and climbed in the Catskills, catching the end of a short spell of cold weather. Conditions on the thinner routes in the Devil's Kitchen were alright in the morning. By the end of the day strong sun and warm weather made for abysmal conditions. It was fun while it lasted. Purgatory, Smear and one of the corners were even lead.

Climbing in the Devil's Kitchen, Friday
January 6, 2012

It sounds like there were a lot of people looking to climb in the Catskills today. The Adirondacks too. It's hard to make the right decision when you've driven a long way and want to do nothing more than to swing some tools. However, it's probably best to do something else instead. After all, it is called ice climbing because the medium we're climbing is supposed to be frozen.

Do you know how much force it takes to make a giant delaminated sheet of ice fall off of a cliff? Neither do I - it's impossible to say and it's not something we can control. Sometimes all it takes is the weight of one climber to make an entire climb collapse. Positive Thinking collapsed several years ago while a climber was leading the first pitch. The leader was killed in the incident. Last season an entire slab of ice unexpectedly let go in northern Vermont on a warm day. Luckily no one was hurt. A friend watched the entire top pitch of Plug and Chug at Lake Willoughby fall off in one piece on a sunny warm day. Wow!

Just remember, once an ice climb delaminates, the only thing holding it in place is the ice itself. When it gets above freezing that ice begins to act more like water. It's going to flow downhill rapidly.

Next time you're considering a day of ice climbing, check the forecast. If it's way above freezing during the day and barely below freezing at night the best thing to do might not be ice climbing. Just my two cents.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Good Forecast For Ice

It looks like we may have some decent ice in the Catskills by the end of this week. Better late than never, I guess.