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Ask the Master: What’s the Best Way to Lower an Unconscious Lead Climber?

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Let’s say the leader is climbing on 70m half ropes. He is about 50m up when a chunk of ice breaks off and knocks him silly. He is now hanging from a screw and there is not enough rope to lower him. What is the BEST way to get him down?

—anonymous

Jeff Ward.
Jeff Ward.

Great question. There are a lot of additional factors to consider here. How injured is the person, and how good is the screw they are hanging off of are probably the most critical factors. This may be difficult to assess if they are 50 meters above you, knocked unconscious while climbing and dangling from a WI 6+ pitch. That is a very different scenario than someone who is a solid ice climber that places reliable protection on a thick WI 3 pitch that just happens to be a little dazed and confused from getting bonked on the head.

If it is the later case the solution is relatively simple. First, have them place another screw (or two) to backup the upper piece. That way if the piece fails, you have something reliable in the system. Next, lower the climber as far as you can, with just a few meters of rope to spare. Now, you can ascend the rope via a counterbalance system until you reach the climber.

Switching from a lead belay to counterbalance rope ascension is pretty straight forward if you are using a device like an ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso. It’s not something I want to describe here without accompanying photos or illustrations, but I’m sure you can find a few good examples of this technique on the internet.

[Check out Black Diamond’s ATC Guide Here]

This system could also be used with an unconscious climber, but assessing the quality of the top piece would be a critical decision since both climbers
would be hanging off this one piece while you ascended the rope. You could also consider escaping the belay and TR rope soloing the pitch with a micro traction to limit the force on that top piece, but if it does blow you are looking at catching a significant fall on a toothed device. Definitely not something the manufacturers, or I recommend.

[Check Out Petzl’s Reverso Here]

If you really want to understand these systems I’d recommend taking an improvised rescue course from a qualified instructor. I know I’m a little biased here but you can definitely speed up your learning process by taking one of these courses. In a real emergency you don’t want to have to be using these systems for the first time.

—Jeff Ward


Got a question about climbing? Submit your question to Gear Guy at rockandicegearguy@gmail.com


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