Technical issues- descending

Technical issues- descending

Difficult scrambles can become very serious, or even impossible under certain weather conditions, so it is essential that you are confident to retreat in safety. This involves: Selecting an appropriate anchor Setting up an abseil Abseiling smoothly with an Italian hitch Retrieving the rope

It is not always possible to predict how prevailing conditions may affect the difficulty of a scramble. For example, certain rock types become notoriously slippery in the wet whilst others retain some friction. Therefore, it is always wise to have an escape plan. Knowing when it is time to retreat, how to descend and abseil safely leaving behind only the minimum of gear are all essential tools for safety and success. 

Reasons for retreat

An unexpected downpour or lingering dampness may leave a route too difficult to climb. In quiet areas lack of 'traffic' may result in prolific lichen or moss growth adding a slippery, insecure factor that is quite different from dry clean rock. High winds cause insecurity on exposed ridges and freezing temperatures - even without snow - can lead to a coating of thin ice or 'verglass' that can make a delicate slab virtually unclimbable, or certainly very insecure. It may be that you just don't feel up to the tricky section once you get there, in which case it is far better to retreat gracefully than to push on unhappily.

Climbing down

It is far better to retreat gracefully than to push on unhappily

On moderate ground, especially if one member of the team is very confident, it may be possible to pitch down the way you came up, by arranging anchors at the top and bottom of pitches and belaying as normal. For the first person down there is considerable security as the rope is above at all times. The last person down however, although belayed from below, has the potential of a long fall, so it is only recommended if this person feels very confident.


This is the normal means of descent or retreat, as it offers security to all members of the team. It requires confidence in selecting appropriate anchors, setting up the abseil and in abseiling itself.

1. Select an anchor as if it was for a belay (see to anchors and attaching). It must be solid but also it must be in the right line for the abseil, and ideally it requires leaving behind only the minimum of gear.
2. It may be possible to pass the rope directly around the spike and leave nothing behind, but if you are not sure whether you'll be able to retrieve the rope, leave behind an old sling (or preferably a length of abseil tat) carried just for this purpose. This could be tape or rope.
3. Feed the rope around the anchor or through the tat so the middle of the rope is at the top.
4. Tie knots in the two ends to prevent you abseiling off the end of the rope.
5. Throw or feed the ends of rope down, ensuring that there is no one below and no loose rock to be dislodged. Shout 'Rope below!' as a warning.

How to Abseil

1. If you carry an abseil device use this, otherwise tie an Italian hitch in both ropes and clip to a pear-shaped karabiner on the abseil loop of your harness.
2. Check your harness is buckled correctly and the screwgate karabiner is locked.
3. Use an autoblock backup in case of a slip. This is a French prussik tied around both ropes and clipped to the leg loop of your harness.
4. Check everything once more, including the anchor, and set off as smoothly as possible. Never abseil off if you don't know where you are going to land!
5. Aim for the ledge you just came from or a very obvious point of safety.

Retrieving the rope

1. When you arrive at the ledge make yourself safe before detaching from the rope. On a big ledge you may feel happy to stand unroped but on any small or exposed stance clip yourself onto another anchor. Whoever is pulling the rope should always be attached in this way.
2. The first person down should weight the rope to check it will pull down freely, if it won't budge the person still at the top can rearrange it until it does. Untwist the rope if necessary before pulling.
3. The rope should start moving with a firm pull. If not, stop and look to see if anything obvious is jamming it. Alter your position, give the rope a flick and retry or try pulling the other end of the rope.

Jammed rope

Be aware of how to retrieve the rope if it jams

If having tried all of the above, the rope is still well and truly stuck, you can either abandon the rope and carry on without it (assuming you are at the bottom of all the difficulties) or one person will need to climb back up to rearrange the rope and then retry. To safeguard yourself while climbing up, tie on to one of the ends of rope and get your partner to belay as normal. This only works if there is sufficient slack left in the rope. Otherwise you can attach a French prussik to the two abseil ropes and climb up using the prussik as a backup.

  • Never be afraid to retreat down off a scramble if you feel it is too difficult.
  • Make yourself familiar with setting up abseils and abseiling safely
  • Be aware of how to retrieve the rope if it jams.

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