Thursday, April 15, 2010

Testing the TR-solo rig

Things have been quiet around here, since I re-injured my shoulder just over three weeks ago and haven't been climbing at all. I'm silently screaming in frustration.

On Saturday I ventured out, with a new climbing partner about whom I'm really excited, and checked out the Gibraltar area. We wanted to play on Lower Gibraltar, but there were people already climbing there. We checked out Gibraltar Rock, but the South face TR's were already occupied. We went up to Toxic Waste Wall, but the rock quality sketched us out -- it got badly fried in last year's fire. So we ended up at Crag Full o' BoomBoom, where Michelle led everything in style. It was chill. I TRed Tuco, and it didn't feel that great, which made me a little sad.

Yesterday I was going stir crazy dealing with work, so I decided to pop up to Lower Gibraltar and test my TR-solo system.

Before I get into my current system, here's a little about my first attempt about a month ago. I originally thought that I could TR-solo with my guide in autoblock mode + a prussik backup. I've used this setup before in low 5th class terrain (gullies) when a rope was stuck or there was some other reason why I needed to go back up to my anchor. But when I tried to use it at Lower Gibraltar, which is a reasonably steep dihedral and a steep face left of it, I realized a couple things. First of all, I shouldn't have used both strands of the rope. In fact I didn't need to, because the rope was fixed at the anchor, so I could've used just one. That was just operator error on my part. Second, since the rope obviously does not feed freely through the guide, the loop of rope that accumulates above the guide is a real problem. I kept stepping on the rope and getting tangled up. This is a problem with both a single and a double strand setup. I hadn't noticed it before on the low angle terrain, but in the steep terrain it was a definite issue. Third, the weight of the rope loop makes feeding it through the guide really hard, sometimes requiring both hands. The prussik was actually the most pleasant part of this system...

So my original plan wasn't going to work. I studied ascender devices and TR-solo resources, and decided the device I wanted to use was Petzl's microcender. I wanted a device that didn't have sharp teeth in the camming section, and that could, ideally, be used for other tasks as well, but would be primarily for TR-solo and should be bombproof for that. The microcender fit the bill, can also be used for hauling, and it weighs about half as much as the alternatives. That probably means it'll wear out twice as fast, but that remains to be seen. Note that it's not indicated for lead-solo or even TR falls with slack in the rope. I think it's meant to work best on fixed, static lines, but it seems like a lot of people use it on their regular dynamic ropes. It's a gorgeous little device, that's very simple to set up and break down.

At first my plan was to have the microcender set up on my belay loop, on one strand, and a prussik backup going to my belay loop, at eye level, either on the same strand or the other strand. When I set that up I realized that the prussik was now the annoyance in the system, because it was impacting how the rope was feeding into the microcender, and also the loop it made was flopping around, threatening to get tangled up with the microcender. I'm especially aware of the possibility of something snagging the microcender's handle and keeping it from doing its job, so having a sling flopping around in the vicinity was a definite no no.

After tying in short, setting up the system and taking a bunch of test falls on the microcender I was ready to trust it alone. I knew that the rope has to be weighted a little in order to feed through the microcender by itself, but I didn't know how much. The pitch I was climbing is only about 1/4 length of rope up, so I piled the loose rope at the bottom of the climb onto the end, hoping that the weight of half the 10mm rope would be sufficient. For the first half of the climb, it wasn't, so I had to occasionally help the rope through the device. I could do that single-handed so it wasn't a big hindrance on 5.8 terrain. For the second half of the climb the weight was enough and the rope fed through just fine. People have suggested using a quart sized water bottle as a weight, or fixing the line on the ground, both of which are great ideas if you're planning to return to the ground. I was climbing at a place where you rap down from your anchor to climb, so I wanted to be able to pull up the rope behind me with no snags.

I have come up with only one way to switch from microcender-belay to rappelling with my guide at the top of the climb (I wanted to do one more lap, so I was headed back down). That is to tie directly into the anchor, unweight and remove the microcender, then set up the guide for rap. It seems like there should be some way to go directly from the microcender to the guide, but I don't see what that is. If I set up the guide below the microcender, there is no way to remove the microcender because it's loaded (it's not like a grigri, where the lever unloads the cam). So I need a point of leverage above the microcender to load my weight onto. Setting up the guide above the microcender is obviously not an option, since my weight is on the rope. Thus it seems that the only way to switch to rapelling is to offload to a point (anchor or prussik) above the microcender, remove the microcender, then set up the rappel. Interesting...

In summary the system seems to work. I'm not entirely happy about using a single device. A possibly better setup would be to have one microcender at chest level and one at the belay loop, similar to Steph Davis' setup (except she uses mini-traxions, which have sharp teeth). On this test day I didn't really enjoy myself climbing, both because I was stressed out by all this rigging, but also because my shoulder is completely messed up. Time will tell if knowing how to set this up will enable some fun for me in the future, or whether it will prove too stressful to use regularly. They say that roped soloing is another level again in the mind game that is climbing, and I agree. My stomach was in knots both times I worked on this stuff. I don't even try something unless I've spent hours researching it and mentally working it out, and, despite that confidence that I have the principles fully in command, it's stressful to tie in for a TR-solo. We'll see how it feels next time...

Update: My friend Rick has written a blogpost, adding his observations to my thoughts on roped-soloing.