Solo Self Belay Practice

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I’m on a bit of a high right now: I’m feeling fantastic!  Like, Rockstar material!  It’s been a long week, so let me explain…

This week I’m an empty nester, as my oldest is off at Drum Corps for the summer, my son is stationed in Alaska, and my youngest is at Girl Scout Camp. My goal for this week with the kids gone was to learn how to properly set up anchors around rocks, self belay, and figure out what caused me to slip last time I tried doing this on my own.  I’ve been rock climbing/rappelling dozens of times, but I’ve never been in charge of gear/setting up equipment, etc.  I’d planned to find a very small rock, maybe only 5 feet or so off the ground, where I could practice without the fear of falling and hurting myself. I needed to get good at setting up and belaying solo, and this is the only week I have to practice before ‘showtime’.

I mentioned this to a friend who climbs, and he offered to take me out, saying he knew the perfect spot. I’d intended to do this alone (well, with the help of my new favorite book, Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, but thought: Great!  I’ll have someone to ask questions while I’m there who’ll be there in case I mess up and won’t let me die.

(Please note: a lot of the following was my fault. The friend who was helping me is a great guy, and I mean no disrespect to him.  I’m also very thankful he offered to help me with this. We have different communication styles and I was frustrated.  This is the way I felt it went down…)

The whole adventure seemed doomed from the start. We arrived at his ‘perfect spot’ in North Cheyenne Canyon and I wasn’t convinced this was the place for me  ‘to learn how to properly set up anchors around rocks, self belay, and figure out what caused me to slip last time I tried doing this on my own’, mainly because there were spires here but few rocks.  I mentioned this to him and he didn’t seem fazed.   He did ask me to leave my gear in the vehicle, which didn’t make sense to me?  I mean, yes, he had better gear, but I needed to practice with the gear I was going to be using.  “Trust me, after today you’ll be throwing away your rope and getting another one”.

I took a deep breath. We argued a bit in the parking lot, where I once again said my goal for today was to ‘learn how to properly set up anchors around rocks, self belay, and figure out what caused me to slip last time I tried doing this on my own’.  I’d planned to find a very small rock, maybe only 5 feet or so off the ground, where I could practice without the fear of falling and hurting myself.

His answer was “Fine, we can do this your way or my way. Which is it going to be?”

Ha! That’s one way to quickly piss me off.  Of course I said “your way”, but only because he drove (no exit strategy) and to be fair, he was there helping me.  I mentally tossed this day out as a total failure and a loss of very precious practice time.  Ugh.  This is why I do things solo:  I should have just gone on my own with my textbook.

I tried to change my attitude and followed him up the hill to where we’d be practicing today. He asked me where I wanted to set up my anchor, and I said “around a very small rock, maybe only 5 feet or so off the ground, where I can practice without the fear of falling and hurting myself”.  But there weren’t any rocks here in which to do this.  So… we were going to set up around a tree.  This to me wasn’t very useful:  The rappelling I’m going to do is thousands of feet above treeline, so there won’t be any trees to use.  I once again stated my goal of today:  to learn how to properly set up anchors around rocks, self belay, and figure out what caused me to slip last time I tried doing this on my own.

He set up around a tree, and I took mental notes of the equipment he was using and asked some safety questions. There was a bit of squabbling here too, with tone implying I was a terrible partner/student, but at this point I probably was a poor student because I was upset and didn’t think he was listening to me.  I didn’t see the relevance of what we were doing as it applied to my final goal.  I’d have to say things two or three times and he’d still do it the way he wanted.  Another deep breath:  He was here to help, right?  Be nice to him.

OK, everything was set up. At this point it started to rain, but luckily it only lasted about 20 minutes or so.  When it stopped he asked me if I was ready to belay myself over the 25 foot spire.  Of course I told him no.  I still hadn’t figured out what had caused me to fall last time, and I did not feel comfortable rappelling on my own until I’d figured that out.

“But I thought you agreed to do this my way?”

Ugh!!! What man over 25 doesn’t know when a woman throws up her hands and says “Fine!  We’ll do it your way!”  she in no way means “Fine!  We’ll do it your way!”?  Also, I hadn’t known the extent of “his way” when we’d started.  I’d assumed he listened to my goals for today and what he had in mind paralleled those goals.  I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, but what was going on here?

I explained to him my goals again: To learn how to properly set up anchors around rocks, self belay, and figure out what caused me to slip last time I tried doing this on my own. I’d planned to practice on a very small rock, maybe only 5 feet or so off the ground, where I could practice without the fear of falling and hurting myself.  At this point I still did not feel comfortable rappelling on my own because I was afraid I was going to fall and had not learned the techniques to prevent that from happening.  Added to this, red flags were going up everywhere: I’d explained my goals several times and he just wasn’t listening.  I did not feel safe, and I wasn’t going to do this if I didn’t feel safe.  My goal isn’t to love rock climbing, it’s ‘to not die’ while completing the centennials solo.

In the end we tried it where he Fireman belayed me from below. I still didn’t feel great about the whole situation, but I did feel secure enough this way to give it a go.  I belayed this way several times, with both his rope and mine, and was able to figure out differences in gear and my abilities.  The problem indeed had been my gear:   My rope was small, slippery, and dynamic, which is usually a good thing for many reasons, but not for this kind of rappelling.  I was going to need to buy new rope, but at least I’d figured out why and which was going to suit my needs best on my own.

He took some pictures of me at one point.

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So the day hadn’t been a total loss, but I did leave frustrated. The next day I went to REI and bought some new gear (Ugh! This is getting expensive!) and decided to try again.  Solo this time.

After work I could tell a storm was coming in, but I gave it two hours before it began. Today I chose to go to a ‘secret spot’ I know in Garden of the Gods I felt sure I’d find some proper rocks to practice making anchors with.  I found a parking spot (the last one in the lot: woot!), changed my clothes in the truck, gathered my gear, and started hiking.

I made it to the area I’d had in mind and was disappointed: I looked and looked and looked, but nothing here was what I was looking for.  I really wanted to find some rocks that would allow me to properly set up anchors, but everything here was one solid block.  The weather wasn’t going to hold out much longer, so I found something that wasn’t perfect but that would work for today and got going.

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The first thing I did was set up my webbing, remembering to keep it at a 90* angle or less, pointing downward.

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Next I uncoiled my rope, found the middle, and marked it with some tape (note to self: I need to replace the tape).  Also, yes, I cleaned up my mess before I left.

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I clipped my rope into the screw lock carabiner and immediately discovered I was not a fan of this type of carabiner: There was no way my fingers would be able to screw and unscrew this thing when they were cold up at 13k+.  Note to self:  get another few twist lock carabiners.

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I got out my belay device and had difficulty putting the rope through the holes. For a moment I was worried it wouldn’t fit and that I’d bought the wrong size rope, but in the end I just needed to work the rope a bit for it to fit.

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OK, now it was time to practice. I leaned back on the rope, jumped up and down, and played with the system.  Unfortunately the rope I’d anchored around the rock kept slipping.  It wasn’t as secure as I’d wanted.  Nope, this exact location wasn’t ideal, but it was all I had to work with at the moment.  So I adjusted the webbing by putting it around the rock twice and felt a little more secure (but not 100% confident, and no, I wouldn’t be using something like this for any rappelling over 5 feet).

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No matter: Today was about learning and failing (hopefully fast) so I’d have time to learn and practice correctly later.  I was able to successfully belay myself up and down this area about a dozen times and felt confident I wasn’t going to fall.  I practiced my hand placement and got the knack of stopping myself.  The weather started turning (read:  lots of lightning) and I decided to call it a day.  I did an absolutely terrible job retying my rope (I’d fix that later), cleaned up my mess (this I did well) and hiked back to my truck.  All in all, it had been a successful few hours.  I wasn’t thrilled with my anchor, but I’d learned this location wasn’t a good place to practice.  I’d figured out I liked my rope but didn’t like my carabiner, and my anchor (for what it’s worth) held.  On my way home I stopped by REI and bought another twist lock carabiner to practice with tomorrow.

Armed with my new knowledge I decided to head to Red Rock Open Space after work to practice again. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going to find a rock to set up webbing and rappel, but I know the area relatively well and had a few places in mind.  I figured I’d try to get in a little bit of a hike out of this as well, so I attached my rope to the top of my pack and headed towards the Quarry.  I came up empty here (everything was too smooth and solid) so I headed down to the cave.  Ugh!  Nothing here either?  Then I noticed a game trail and decided to follow it up and behind the cave.  Here I found an area that wasn’t perfect, but that had rocks I could work with.

I attached webbing around one rock, decided I didn’t like the stability, and looked around. That’s when I saw this lizard…

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He was sitting on a rock I deemed much more acceptable than where I’d initially set up my webbing. It was further away from where I wanted to rappel than I’d have liked, but luckily I had plenty of rope.  It was going to take more webbing that I’d planned on using, but this was good information to have as well (note to self:  buy more webbing).  I set up the webbing around the rock, adjusted it to make sure it was secure,  and was quite pleased with the result.  I attached my new carabiner and rope and stood back to admire my work

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Ok, now to test this thing. I really didn’t have too far to rappel (remember, I’d wanted to find a very small rock, maybe only 5 feet or so off the ground, where I could practice without the fear of falling and hurting myself). This area was about 7 vertical feet, but there was a wide ledge before it dropped another 100 feet or so.

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I felt safe here. I put on my harness and helmet, changed into my climbing shoes, and attached my belay device.

I jumped up and down, leaned back, pulled, etc. Everything looked good. I felt solid and ready to go.  I slowly walked backwards, practicing pulling the rope through the belay device (loosening up the stiff rope).

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As I slowly walked backwards I found a rock that would work as a nice place to guide the rope, and acted accordingly

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OK, here was where I needed to lean back and begin the short rappel. While this was still relatively short, it was a step up from yesterday, and I wanted to be sure I had this down.  I slowly leaned back, positioned my feet, and began my rappel.

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Success! That had worked really, really well!  I walked back up to the webbing, verified the anchor was doing well, and practiced again.  I know this isn’t a big rappel, but I wanted to be totally secure before attempting anything more difficult.  After about an hour or so of rappelling here over and over again I felt confident in my abilities.  Because I’d figured the rock anchor thing out I felt I could now practice with trees on steeper terrain.

I re-coiled my rope (not perfect, but a little better than last time) and noted how sore my arms were from coiling the rope: I was going to have to build up coiling muscles!  As soon as I got home I’d begin practicing, by re-coiling this, um, attempt.

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I cleaned up my area and headed back down, a skip to my step as I mulled the success of today. I was now happy with my gear, I’d successfully set up an anchor around a rock, and rappelled without hurting myself.  Tomorrow I was going to look for something with a little more elevation, and my options opened up because I wasn’t averse to using trees as anchors anymore now that I’d worked with rock.

All this was going through my head when I saw it: Exactly what I’d be looking for tomorrow!  The only problem?  This wasn’t something I could climb up first (I’m not there yet, nor did I have the proper equipment).

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I walked about 50 more feet and found a trail that went up and behind the area, which would give me access from above:  Woot!  I’d found the perfect way to rappel!  I thought I’d been done for the day but no kids waiting for me at home and no other pressing responsibilities I immediately decided the day was just getting started!  I hiked up and around with my gear and set up an anchor around a tree.

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Next I got on my gear, attached the rope to my belay device, and looked down

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Once again, nothing too drastic (I’m guessing 25 feet or so), but a step above what I’d done so far. After practicing yesterday and today I felt confident I could perform a successful self belay here as well.  I walked to the edge, leaned back, and slowly eased my way down, finding a notch in the rock that worked well  with the rope…

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I stopped several times just to get the ‘stop and go’ thing down, and when I made it to the bottom I looked up at what I’d just accomplished: My first completely solo self belay!

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I wanted to cry! I was so completely ecstatic!  I’d done it!  I’d done it!  Woot!  Up until this point I knew I’d need to be able to self belay, and I kind of knew I could do it, but it’s a totally different thing to actually, well, do it.  For the first time I felt I had the chance to finish the Centennials solo.  This was the last piece I needed to learn to make it happen, and I was doing it!

Time to do it again: I unhooked my gear, ran around to the top of the ledge, and tried it again.  This time I worked on swinging back and forth and staying stable.  The next time I tried rappelling down faster, and the next I adjusted the anchor to hold two carabiners (just for practice).  In total I rappelled successfully 5 times, and only stopped because the rope was starting to heat up.

I re-coiled my rope and was happier with this rendition (the coiling was getting easier). I’d found the rope sat on top of my pack nicely when secured over my helmet with a bandana.  I have straps to secure the rope but left them at home.  This arrangement seemed to work well as a backup.

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I headed back to my truck, thrilled with today’s success! Tomorrow I’m going back to North Cheyenne Canyon to try it again (on my own).

Oh, and on my way out I saw a dead fish on the trail… hmmm… curious? It was probably dropped there by a bird

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Author: Laura M Clark

Mom, Solo Colorado 14er Finisher, Outdoor Enthusiast, Traveler, and Girl Scout Leader with an MBA in International Business and Marketing. I work in Software. I value adventure, growth, courage, wisdom, integrity, accountability, and family. I enjoy yoga, wine, traveling, reading, and the outdoors (especially hiking, backpacking, fishing, and camping). I strive to be the person who inspires and motivates myself and others to succeed.

3 thoughts on “Solo Self Belay Practice”

  1. It’s good to know that Your adult children are doing well as they progress in life.I’m sure Your love for them is shared individually and collectively. I can feel the exuberance and the thrill of soloing by Yourself in Your writings.I love the photos of You repelling and over coming the obstacles that brought You to this time in Your life.I will never stop commenting on what and Amazing Lady You are. I’m not real happy about the individual who made and ass of himself by saying ,my way or Your way.I read this morning about and idiot who made a similar statement to a woman and her response was just fantastic to the level of making him a complete fool.I would dearly like to email it to You but You have enough on Your plate to tend to. Thank You Lady Laura and Wild Wanderer for sharing that of Yourself.

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  2. Laura, You have taught classes on (Staying Safe) and I’m sure You could also be and instructor on (Overcoming Adversities) as You do it so well.I’m fortunate enough to read an see Your mind processing each and every step to reach Your goals.Your a soloist in all that You do and yet Your anxious to share Your knowledge with so many others who are willing to listen and learn. Thank You Miss Laura for teaching me so much that I have been ignorant to for so many years.I have learned so very much from Your active life and adopted it to my own .I may not be a mountaineer as Yourself but I have not given up on staying physically fit and even that was due to Your unnoticed guidance thank You Lady Laura.

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