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The basics of self-rescue - 2

The basics of self-rescue - 2

Posted by Allister Fenton on 24th Sep 2020

So comes the end of self-rescue September. I’ve spent a lot of time researching techniques and skills to give you guys the best knowledge and help you make informed choices with gear, but by far the biggest take-away from this, for me has been the need to practise these skills regularly. Time is a luxury you don’t have and knowing what to do is different to figuring it out as you go from a time and resources perspective. So I’ve drawn up a list of things that I think are important to practise and added some points for you to think on.

Something that hasn’t been given enough attention is the mental prep for dealing with an accident or emergency, especially if your friend or climbing partner is injured. It’s hard to focus and remember things in a high stress environment and even though you might know what to do and how to do it when you’re sitting at home or practising them, being cognizant of how stressful and traumatic it will be will help you a lot when the time comes.

Visualise yourself in a rescue or self-rescue scenario

Mental prep is a valuable tool for stressful situations where you need to keep your cool and perform at your best. That’s why top sportsmen put so much effort into it. Picture yourself (first and/or third person) as you calmly assess the situation, take an inventory of what gear you have at your disposal and start a rescue plan. Not having some essential gear on you because you escaped the belay quickly (and left it on the anchor) in your rush to get to your partner isn’t very cool.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. This means that moving deliberately and doing things right first time is much faster than having to correct a mistake because you were rushing or too freaked out to focus on the task at hand. Now is not the time to drop gear, or be so incapacitated by the fear of dropping gear that you’re moving at half speed.

Keeping it simple

Have a look at the gear you already own and think about how it could be used in a rescue. Often people talk of complicated techniques and gear that are hard to remember or not often on your harness while you’re climbing. Rather think about the gear you carry all the time and how it can serve double duty in a rescue. You’re more likely to remember how to do a tandem abseil with slings than a tandem abseil with a rescue spider (a cordelette tied in a specific way). Plus remembering a rescue spider is tricky, but adapting slings to a new purpose is a smaller leap for the brain.

Improvising for gear you don’t have

Sometimes we don’t have the things we’d like, so practicing a scenario where you’ve dropped your belay device, a prusik or your three spare locking carabiners etc. helps you mentally prepare for adapting to the situation in the moment and exercises your creative brain power, which is arguably the most important rescue tool. Knowing and practising rescue techniques means your creative juices can be directed to solving the smaller issues that pop up along the way.

Knowing the limits and strengths of your gear

Do you know how strong your quickdraw carabiners are when they’re loaded over an edge? How strong is your rope when tied with a figure of 8 compared to a bowline? Generally, the loads seen while climbing are minimal compared to the rated strength, even a big fall with a high fall factor doesn’t come close to the breaking point, but with two people and rescue loads, knowing what your gear is capable of is key for maintaining some sort of safety factor.


It takes tying a knot correctly 7 times for you to remember it (or something like that), so keep a piece of accessory cord in your car, in your handbag, near the couch where you watch TV or wherever you can practise. Being able to tie them quickly and neatly on demand is very useful, for climbing and life in general. Don’t be an “I don’t know any knots so I just tie it lots” person. Animated is a great resource. Keep it simple too, the Clove Hitch, Alpine Butterfly, Munter Hitch (and variations), Figure of Eight (and variations) and the EDK will get you out of most situations.

Belaying and abseiling with a Munter hitch

Having confidence with this comes from using it in real life. Have a day climbing where you belay, catch a fall and abseil with the Munter hitch. Just remember to untwist your ropes at the end of the day ;)

Ascending a rope with prusiks

There is a flow to it that comes with practise. The higher you can raise the leg prusik the further you’ll go with each cycle, making it faster. Get used to loosening the prusik as you start sliding it upwards.

Hauling a second through a difficult section

On a multipitch, the leader is often the more competent climber and able to do moves the second can’t. Being able to haul the second through the difficult section is a great quick fix.

Tandem abseil

Abseiling with a person who is unable to abseil themselves. Having both people on one belay device which is controlled by the rescuer.

Finding where you are on a map

Using a map and compass, learn to triangulate your position based on what’s around you. This is a great skill to practise in terrain you’re familiar with or with a friend who knows the area. To be honest, I often don’t take a map, but that’s only to places where I have a good knowledge of the land and it’s a small area to be lost in, such as a trip to a kloof in the Magaliesberg or a day trad climbing on Table Mountain. I do always have one in the Drakensberg for example.

Managing your hydration and energy levels throughout the day.

Keeping your body fuelled and ready to perform is important for preventing accidents (which often occur when people are tired, dehydrated or both). On the other side of the coin, you might find yourself involved in rescuing someone else and it might be ages till you have a moment to drink or eat again, so if your tanks are full you can go for longer and be more useful.

A list of resources to check out.

Remember to leave a note

A note for someone with instructions to follow should you not check in as scheduled. Remember to include what time you’ll check in, what to do if you don’t check in, what gear you have, where you’ve gone, where you’ve parked and your vehicle details if applicable, your knowledge of the area or route and who you’re with and their contact details. Run through the procedure with them beforehand so they know what to do and expect. It’s traumatic for them if you don’t check in so help prepare them as much as possible and make sure they’re reliable. See example below.

“Hey Jim, I’m going on a solo overnight hike to Castle Gorge in Magaliesberg for the weekend. If I haven’t checked in by 6pm on Sunday please could you phone Mountain Search and Rescue (074 125 1385) and give them the following info. I’ve parked at the MCSA parking lot (Grey Suzuki, BB 80 CH GP). I’m taking my orange tent, blue and black Osprey pack and navy rain jacket. I have a headlamp, first aid kit, pocket knife and my stove with extra food. I will have my cell phone. I’ve been there plenty and know the area well. Thanks, Allister.”

Thanks for following along, I hope you found the videos useful, the zoom chats valuable and these blogs a good reference. Remember that at the end of the day, your safety is in your hands. You decide whether to go for it on that highball boulder, to place that extra piece of gear (or not), to go hiking even though the weather is suspect, to leave the first aid kit behind because you’re going fast and light or to practise the skills that could save your life, or someone else’s. Getting to the top is optional, getting back to your friends and family is mandatory.