Amy and my trip to Tuolumne this past June got me thinking about ways to improve my abilities on alpine rock. This led to the following bit of writing, which I'm finally getting around to posting here: Questions for an alpine rock climb Competency in the fundamental skills of technical climbing and mountain travel are pre-requisites for success on alpine rock, and books like "Freedom of the Hills" do an excellent job of illustrating them. But these skills are only the basic ingredients; it is the art of selecting and combining them that often separates success and failure in the mountains. While much of the art of alpine decision making can only be learned through experience, maintaining a full awareness of the situation is a necessary first step. Often, the key to awareness is asking oneself the right questions. With this in mind, I have tried to compile a "cheat sheet" of important questions. Masters of the craft probably never ask such questions of themselves consciously, as habit blurs the questions and their answers into a continuous flow of thought guiding movement. But as an intermediate climber striving to improve, I found it useful to write down an explicit list. Many of these questions are here because experience has taught me some consequences of not asking them; others, because experience has shown me some of the benefits. This is far from a complete list, and I welcome suggestions and discussion.
When Preparing for a Climb
- Do I have the appropriate gear (including maps and topos), and do I know how to use it?
- What are the expected conditions? What is the weather forecast?
- Have I talked with my partner extensively about the climb? Do we agree about our goals? about gear choices? about scenarios that would warrant retreat?
- Do we have a system in place in the event we can't communicate after someone leads a pitch? What if the rope gets stuck in the middle and we can't communicate? If someone gets injured?
During the Whole Climb
- Am I staying hydrated? Am I eating enough? Am I managing my temperature so I'm not too hot, not too cold, and not sweating too much?
- How is the altitude affecting my partner and I? (Thanks to Dan).
- How are my mental and physical strength holding up? Have I asked the same questions about my partner? And asked explicitly if I have any concerns?
- Are we moving faster or slower than expected? How is the weather developing? How much daylight is left? Do we need to consider retreat, a bivy, or a change of route?
- What are the biggest risks we are currently facing: rockfall or icefall? weather? slipping while unroped? leader fall on runnout terrain? making a rappel mistake? hypothermia?
- Am I asking these questions out-loud? Does that mean my partner now thinks I'm crazy? And if so, does that help or hurt our chances?
When Approaching a Climb
- Can I see the route? Can I see the descent? Have I compared these to the maps/topos I have? Am I scoping out bail routes and possible bivy sites as well as the main route?
- If the descent is the same as the approach, am I turning around frequently to see what it looks like going the other way? Am I making mental notes of critical junctures? Will I be able to retrace this route in the dark? Am I on the lookout for water sources we can use during the climb?
At the Base of the Climb
- Have we double-checked our gear, water, and food?
- Do I have my helmet on? How do the route conditions look up close? Is there snow or ice that presents a hazard? (also from Dan).
- Is my harness on correctly, and am I tied securely into the rope? What about my partner?
- Have we decided who is going to lead what? Do we need to finalize a turn-around time?
When Building a Belay
- What protection is available here? Is it adequate? Should I downclimb to a better belay (a comfortable belay ledge can lead to a much faster transition than an awkward hanging belay)? Should I climb on (possibly simul-climbing?) to a better belay?
- How should I rig the belay? What is the most comfortable stance that will allow me to belay efficiently and contribute to the strength of the anchor (especially if gear isn't totally bomber)?
- Where will the second clip in and belay from? (esp. if leading in blocks, how will the second efficiently transition to a good, anchored belay?)
Before Leading a Pitch
- Have I surveyed the pitch? Have I visualized and mentally prepared?
- Leading a trad pitch (esp. alpine) can present at least three types of challenges: the actual climbing, protecting the climbing, and route-finding. Have I gathered information about all three of these from the belay?
- Have I looked at the topo and thought about where the next belay will be?
- Is the climbing immediately above the belay easy? Is it possible I will want my belayer to simul-climb if I run out of rope on this pitch? Have we communicated about this?
- Generally, have I answered as many of the "when on lead" questions (see below) from the belay as possible?
- Where is my next protection opportunity?
- How run out am I? Is there ground/ledge fall potential?
- Am I placing protection to protect myself and my follower on traverses (a 20' fall on a traverse away from a corner can be worse than a 20' lead fall to a ledge, because the impact with the corner will be a blow to the side of the body, instead of to the feet and legs).
- Am I planning ahead for protection, route-finding, and the climbing?
- Am I staying calm, breathing smoothly, and making precise movements? Am I over-gripping?
- Is the rope running smoothly and straight? Are there sharp edges, constrictions, horns, or other features that could snag or cut the rope (be particularly wary of sharp inverted-V slots behind flakes that can snag a rope). Are there loose rocks that the rope could dislodge if not routed carefully?
- Should the ropes be thrown, or flaked on a sling and carried by the first person?
- Do I know what my next rappel looks like? Do my ropes reach that point? What are my options if they don't? (also from Dan).
- Even if two ropes are available, should a double or single rope rappel be performed? What is the best knot to join the ropes? Which end of the rope are we pulling? Are there obstacles that could snag the rope when it is pulled? Are there loose rocks that could be dislodged?
- Is the anchor solid? Have fixed gear or slings been carefully inspected? Have they been backed up for the first person? Is the rock or tree the anchor is based on solid? Is the rope threaded correctly, with the middle of the rope at the anchor? Is my belay device correctly attached to the rope and my harness with a locking biner? Is my harness still properly secured (doubled-back, etc)?
- Are there knots in the end of the rope? Is a rappel backup needed? (An auto-block for the first person can save significant time if it lets them more efficiently untangle a snagged rope.) Should the belay device be extended? Is a chest harness needed?
- When on the ground: What is the best direction to pull the rope?