Solo rope climbing: understanding how it’s done

With the recent influx of climbing media such as “Free Solo”, “Dawn Wall” and “The Alpinist”, climbing lingo is spilling over into the mainstream. And the most common buzzword among climbing media is confusing: solo. We explain the string solo here.

Climbers divide soloing into two main categories: free soloing and rope soloing. As the film suggests, free soloing involves climbing alone without any ropes for protection in the event of a fall. On the other hand, rope soloing refers to climbing alone but with a self-belaying rope system to protect against a fall.

Regardless of whether the string soloist is in “free string solo”, using only the hands and feet to progress upwards, or “help string solo”, using mechanical aids for progression upwards, the basic self-belay system remains the same.

Between being a climbing ranger for Yosemite National Park and the skills learned over two seasons working with the Yosemite Search and Rescue Team, I have continually honed my rope systems and my efficiency, all of which paid off in achieving my climbing goals.

My time in Yosemite gave me experience on over 10 different great wall routes in Yosemite and nine El Cap climbs. My climbing travels have taken me from sport climbing in Mexico and China to the summit of Fitz Roy in Patagonia.

So, let me explain how the sinker climbs a pitch and belays simultaneously.

Editor’s note: Rock climbing is an inherently dangerous activity. As with any outdoor sport that involves risk, you should start slowly and at a level appropriate to your experience. Above all, you should go with someone more experienced than you for your own safety. We do not encourage rope soloing for anyone who is not an experienced, highly skilled climber with full knowledge of techniques and safety equipment. Even so, equipment manufacturers often do not recommend their equipment for string soloing.

String soloing: a basic understanding

Climbers can break down the basic process of soloing a rope on a route into three main phases: leading the terrain, rappelling down the terrain, and ascending the terrain to clear gear used for protection during the ascent. We’ll break down each step below.

lead the field

Similar to regular multi-pitch climbing, the first step is to build an anchor at the bottom of the pitch. However, because there is no one else to to assure, the anchor is made to take an upward pull. So one end of the lead rope is attached to this anchor and the climber attaches himself to the other end of the rope.

Then the climber uses a self-belay system to relax as they get away from the anchor. Unlike a standard belay scenario, the rope passes directly from the anchor to the auto-belay of their choice on the climber’s belay loop. Then the rest of the slack rope rests on the other side of the Auto Belay, with the climber.

Instead of loading the end of the rope, the Auto Belay catches the fall. The climber is attached to the front end of the rope, but it is not a load-bearing attachment point when climbing. Thus, a solo rope ascent is the opposite of a partner ascent.

The climber’s auto-belay arrests falls, not one to the ground or anchor. And the slack in the rope belongs to the climber, not the belayer.

Should you use brake assist belay devices?

The two carabiners on the left indicate the ground anchor or the multi-pitch lower anchor; (photo/Brent Barghahn)

There are specialized self-insurance devices explicitly built for this purpose. Yet many rope access workers also use assisted braking belay devices, often in a modified configuration that the manufacturer do not recommend.

When using assisted braking belay devices for rope soloing, there is always an additional risk of the device getting caught, not locking properly, or loading the carabiner, as it is not always in the correct orientation.

To mitigate the risk associated with the failure of the power brake device, most string soloists choose to use a additional system multiple rescue knots attached to a structural part of their harness. Each rescue knot contains a loop of slack that takes the weight of the rope off the assisted braking device. This slack loop also serves as a secondary attachment in the event of failure of the primary assisted braking device.

As the climber continues to release slack as they ascend, relief knots are untied from the harness to allow the next loop of slack to drain. It is important to note that even though rescue knots add to the safety, there is still a risk of a prolonged fall if the assisted braking device does not engage.

In this case, the slack would power the entire system until a backup node engages. This scenario could be very dangerous on ledges or near the ground.

Solo Rope Material List:

  • 9.0-9.2mm Thin Climbing Rope
  • Assisted braking belay device
  • Anti-cross load belay carabiner
  • 4 to 6 smooth non-locking carabiners
  • 2 larger and stronger locking carabiners
  • 1 small locking carabiner
  • 1 neck elastic, made with camping bungee cord

Reminder of the field

setting up a solo rope abseil
The arrows indicate the top of the field; (photo/Christian Black)

Once the climber reaches the top of the pitch, the next step is to secure the rope and rappel down the pitch to untie the lower anchor. While the climber will clean up gear on the way down, they will often leave some as directional to ascend the terrain.

Raise the pitch

solo rope juggling facility
The arrows indicate the top of the field; (photo/Christian Black)

Once the climber clears the lower anchor, they ascend the terrain, usually using mechanical ascenders and webbing ladders in the same way one would follow climbing terrain on a large wall.

As the climber ascends the rope, they clean up the rest of the placed gear until they are back at the top anchor with all the gear. The climber repeats the whole process for the next step.

Pitch ascending gear list:

  • 1 progress sensor, Petzl Microtraxion or Edelrid Spoc
  • 2 ascenders
  • 2 garlands
  • 1 progress capture device
  • 1 foot loop for juggling

Top String Solo

top rope solo set up
Arrows indicate anchors at the top of the field; (photo/Christian Black)

Alternatively, if the climber wants to ascend the terrain again to practice moves or work out sequences, they can use a top rope solo. Climbers can also do single pitch rope solos if the top of the route is accessible and they can build an anchor.

There are many ways to set up a top rope solo, with all audio systems having an element of redundancy built in – if one rope attachment fails, a second point secures the climber.

The most common system consists of two progression catchers that slide along the rope as the climber ascends. Again, using devices in this manner is inherently riskier than partner climbing and is not recommended by manufacturers.

Top Rope Solo Equipment List:

  • 2 progress capture devices
  • 1 neck elastic, made with camping bungee cord

Additional transportation steps for multi-day climbs

If the climber spends more than one day on the wall (which is typical for this type of climbing), he will have to reassemble his bivouac equipment.

Some additional steps are involved, such as setting up the carry system at the top of the pitch, undocking the carry bags after rappelling down the pitch, and carrying the carry bags after ascending the pitch.

The messy and complicated nature of solo rope climbing appeals to a particular type of climber, one who is there for their own experience and likes to take on the added responsibility. While certainly not for everyone, solo rope climbing can be a unique way to experience rock climbing for those up for the challenge.