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The basics of self-rescue

The basics of self-rescue

Posted by Allister Fenton on 17th Sep 2020

Why self-rescue?

Ever heard the phrase a stitch in time saves nine? Self-rescue is like that first stitch, it can save you a lot of heartache, a lot of real ache and possibly save your life. Some basic skills, knowledge and equipment are often the difference between a bad time and a terrible time, the difference between losing a leg and losing a life. The situation you might yourself in when you need to self-rescue has so many variables that it’s impossible to write an instruction manual for scenario A, B, or C. Instead, I hope this blog and Self-rescue September with the zoom chats, videos and scenarios gets you started on your own journey to being safer when in nature and in the climbing gym. Climbing is dangerous and people, even when they do everything right, get hurt. Some of the things I’ll describe are a bit gory but I want it to hit home that, on your next climbing or hiking trip, someone could be seriously hurt. Even you…

As important as self-rescue is, knowing when you’re out of your depth and it’s time to call for help is a decision that is easier to make when you have some background on how your local search and rescue team functions. Starting the ball rolling early allows rescue teams to make a plan while there is daylight to spend. Calling in to inform them you have a situation that you’re trying to solve yourself at 11am is much better than calling when the situation has gotten out of hand at 5pm. Often rescuers or help can take hours to arrive and being able to take care of the basics yourself makes things a lot better down the line. Give yourself and the rescue team the best chances by calling early, they’d much rather stand down after you sort yourself out than have to hustle to get to you in the dark after you haven’t.

Save these contact details into your phone.

Gauteng: 074 125 1385 (MCSA MSAR Standby 1)

074 163 3952 (MCSA MSAR Standby 2)

Western Cape 021 937 0300 (WSAR)

KZN 0800 005 133 (Provincial Health Ops)

Think of all the skills you need to know to effect a self-rescue like tools in a tool box. Some things you can make a plan with, but hammering in a nail with your pliers isn’t going to be quick or easy. So we hope you will look inside your tool box, see what you have and take it out for a service, see what you’re missing so you can build your toolbox to be suitable for the tasks at hand and schedule a time to practice. A common theme from people who have been involved in accidents is that they wish they had practiced these skills more regularly. When your climbing partner is hanging from the rope that’s wrapped around their neck from a bad fall and need you to get to them quickly, there isn’t time to quickly work out how to escape the belay. You need to know how to do it correctly and quickly, using what gear you have close at hand.

The more you know, the less you need.

Having good skills and knowledge serves two purposes. You’re less likely to get into trouble in the first place because you know what to look out for and once you are in trouble, you’re able to sort yourself out with what you have, or start the ball rolling for search and rescue teams. Planning your trip is an important first step.


Knowing what you’re getting into and what is around you is important in terms of how you plan, what you bring with you and what you don’t. A weekend hike in Magaliesberg has very different requirements to a 13 day Drakensberg Grand Traverse. What food, clothing and sleeping system you’ll take might be different. Your first aid kit, navigation and planning will be hugely different. Having an emergency check in plan with someone not on your trip means that someone can start a rescue (your plan should have the relevant contact details and procedure to follow should you not check in as planned). But if you’re only meant to check in when you get back to the car, an accident on day 5 means you have 8 days to deal with until they call a rescue. The Aron Ralston 127 Hours story could have been a lot less severe had he left a plan with someone.

The essentials

Some people can walk into the wilderness with a big knife and survive for weeks or months. Most of us, need a few more things to keep us going and in good health. To make it easy to remember, Freedom of the Hills listed 10 essentials. Today they’ve been updated to the 10 essential systems, giving you freedom in how you equip yourself based on your activity, duration, intensity and remoteness. The systems are as follows:

  • Navigation: Finding a lost or missing person is one of the most common reasons search and rescue get called out. Knowing where you are and where you’re going is essential to getting out of there. Some rescue teams charge extra if the patient doesn’t have a map and compass. So a map and compass should be the base, this can be added to with a GPS watch or cell phone or an actual GPS or PLB (personal locator beacon).
  • Headlamp: Things take a long time when you’re outdoors and it’s easy to misjudge the time and get stuck out after dark. A headlamp is amazing because it frees up your hands for various tasks, such and climbing up or down a steep scramble, putting on a bandage or reading your map. Spare batteries are useful and recommended.
  • Sun protection: The sun can take lot out of you through the day. Sunblock, SPF fabrics and sunglasses are important. Hauling your partner through the crux or hiking those 8km back to car is a lot harder when you’re badly sunburnt or experiencing sun stroke or heat exhaustion.
  • First aid: From scrapes to broken bones, a first aid kit seems obvious but is often forgotten or missing essential items.
  • Knife: A knife is useful for so many tasks.
  • Fire: For heating, signaling and cooking. A Bic lighter is reliable and cheap.
  • Shelter: Protection from the elements. Can be a space blanket in your running vest a tarp in your day pack or a tent.
  • Extra food, water & clothes: A little more than you think you’ll need, might be for you or someone else in an emergency.

For climbing, there aren’t exactly 10 essentials packaged in a nice list, so here’s what I think should be on the essentials for climbing list.

  • Helmet: You only have one brain and it’s soft like mashed potatoes. From objects falling on you to falling into objects, your brain is irreplaceable. Ever seen a cell phone fall out a pocket and crash into the ground at your local sport crag? Ever seen a climber flip upside down and smash their back and the back of their head on the wall? The worst climbing helmet looks better and feels more comfortable than preventable brain trauma or copious bleeding from a head wound.
  • A knot in the end of the rope: Nothing hurts like being lowered off or abseiling off the end of the rope. Just ask Alex Honnold.
  • A set of prusiks and the knowledge to use them: going up, going down, passing knots, protecting an abseil or lower, escaping the belay… prusiks are the swiss army knives of climbing emergencies. A short (40cm) and long (80cm) on a locking biner should be the minimum.
  • A trusty and attentive belayer: Whether they’re using a grigri in the gym, an ATC for a trad route or a hip belay for a short scramble, it’s important that your belayer is using the correct technique for their chosen method or device and is paying attention. While there is an argument for assisted braking devices and they are recommended, correct technique and focus are far more important.
  • Good communication: Both the climber and the belayer should have a clear understanding of what’s happening (best done while you’re still face to face). Climbers falling to their death because the belayer thought they were abseiling after cleaning the anchor is so preventable.
  • Emergency gear on the harness: could be a spare quickdraw for single pitch sport climbing or a collection of slings, accessory cord and carabiners for big wall trad climbing. 

Like the spare wheel in the boot of your car, you might never need any of this gear (and I hope that’s the case) and it’s one of those things you just should have with you all the time. Sometimes you’ll get away with not having it but on the day you really need it, it’s better to have it. The same goes for the skills you need to get the best out of this gear. Having 5 spare wheels doesn’t help if you can’t figure out how to put your jack together on the day.

Self-rescue is a broad topic, too broad for a blog or some videos. Practice makes perfect in this case, in terms of refining what you need or can leave behind, in terms of what skills you can recall in an emergency and in terms of staying calm and adapting to the situation as it develops. Next week we’ll go into some of the technical aspects of self-rescue for climbing. Stay safe.