Essential Rock Climbing Rescue: Mastering the Top Belay Escape

Climbing offers us a lot of opportunities for fun and challenge, but it’s hard to escape the fact that once you leave the ground, you’re no longer completely safe. Things can and (if you do it long enough) will go wrong. Most often, our safety precautions can prevent major mishaps, but as we all know, they don’t always. While climbing ability is the best first line of defense, having some knowledge of and ability to perform a companion rescue goes a long way towards furthering your self-sufficiency on the rock. I’ve had the opportunity to learn and teach a lot about rock rescue over the years and wanted to share a few basics in the interest of raising some awareness of the importance of this vastly undervalued skill.

This is by no means a thorough or in-depth review of rock climbing rescue, but just an introduction into one component (it would take an entire book to cover them all in depth): escaping a top belay. You can imagine belaying directly off the anchor from the top of a pitch and having your partner in some sort of distress. If they are unable to unweight the rope, then it can be very difficult to attend to them. Here is a brief description and a short video of how to “escape the belay.”

Assuming you’re using some sort of “guide mode” belay device, it will be locked up. The key here is to transfer the weighted rope into a different system so you can free them from the weighted belay device. We do this with a “bridge”, which is a made by attaching a friction hitch to the weighted rope and attaching it to the anchor with a releasable system. It’s called a bridge because it helps transfer the weight from one rope system (the locked-up belay device) to another system (a releasable). So, the bridge is temporary.

The releasable system you want to transfer this to is typically a munter hitch belay, tied off with a mule hitch and backed up with an overhand (aka the MMO). The MMO is a baseline form from which you can easily go into any number of other rope configurations once you’ve determined if you must raise them up, lower them down, or perhaps counterbalance rappel with them.

You build the MMO on the brake strand of the belay device with just a little slack between it and the device. You then build the bridge and push it down to engage the loaded strand: in my example an auto-block hitch on a 17’ cord from the loaded strand of the rope up to the main anchor with its own MMO. Once you’ve built the main MMO and the bridge, it’s time to release the loaded belay device. This is done by “ratcheting” the blocking carabiner on the belay device: moving it up and down. This creates micro slack and eventually the bridge will be holding the load, and the belay device will be slack enough to take it apart. The MMO is backing all this up so don’t worry about that.

After the belay device has been removed, you can release the bridge’s MMO and allow the rope to creep down so that the main MMO is now loaded. Once this happens, you are essentially done and can remove the bridge entirely. You’ve now arrived at a “baseline” configuration with the loaded rope now in a fully releasable system. As mentioned, from here, any number of things can happen depending on the specifics of the situation. Due to the releasability of the baseline configuration it is easy to transition to another system. In fact, you are fully set up to lower off the munter as is, which would often be the best thing, going with gravity rather than against it.

This is overly simplifying the recue to a large extent but does cover the basics. Check out the accompanying video and for more detailed rock climbing rescue information, feel free to contact us for an in depth training. Have fun and be careful out there

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