Another day of prep for my Rock Guide Course through the American Mountain Guides Association. I’ve spent two days in Boulder Canyon practicing the “self-rescue drill,” a timed sequence that simulates assisting an incapacitated climber (client) who’s dangling below your belay. The AMGA drill incorporates a couple outdated techniques, but in doing so covers a bunch of different tools that certainly all guides should possess–and I’d argue any climber doing multipitch routes should, too.

Big thanks to my good buddy Bill “Dozer” Wilkin, a passionate climber and student of the late master, Craig Luebben. Luebben died in a fall while training in the North Cascades and was loved by students, fellow guides, and climbers around the world. He was the offwidth ninja, an inventor, an author (check out his books on gear and anchors!), and an all-around great guy. No wonder Bill Wilkin picked up so much from Craig–they were similar type characters. Good gents to hang with.

Bill has tolerated some cursing, a few fumbled transitions,  and plenty of time hanging in the harness–so thanks!. The drill starts with you belaying a client off your harness, from a ledge above. Most guides these days, at least within the rock discipline, will be using a Reverso or ATC-Guide in “autolock” mode, but belaying off the guide’s waist forces her/him to demonstrate how to tie off a belay device–a useful skill. Once the guide ties off the device, he must “escape the belay,” or get himself to a point where he’s no longer part of the system and free to rappel, haul, or sit down and cry. This requires a load transfer, then getting the load back onto the climbing rope, all the while ensuring the climber’s (and guide’s!) safety.

That’s a lotta man right there: Billdozer Wilkin.

Once the guide has escaped the belay and has the climber’s weight back on the climbing rope and tied off with a releasable knot (usually a Munter-mule-overhand), then she’s considered at “baseline.” She could now rappel to the client if need be, haul the client up towards the ledge, etc. Generally during the AMGA drill, one is expected to rappel to the client (to administer first-aid, help out, give a tender-loving hug, etc.), then ascend back to the original ledge. Once there, the guide is instructed to haul the client using either a 3:1, 5:1, or 6:1 system, for at least one meter.

All this time one must not allow three meters of slack to build up in the system, nor can the injured/incapacitated climber be held by a single friction hitch. It’s easy to rush and not have your system backed up, so it’s key to take a moment every so often, review the system, and make sure it’s safe, secure, and you’re not headed into a dead-end error.

After the hauling portion of the drill, the guide cleans up the top anchor and counterbalance-rappels to the victim. The duo then descends to another anchor and the guide transfers their weight onto it. This can be tricky, because the patient can’t assist the guide’s efforts. This fact necessitates a releasable anchoring technique for the next rappel, because imagine putting a 175-pound unconscious client’s weight onto an anchor…how are you going to get him off the anchor and onto your rappel device if he can’t help? Naturally I’m strong enough to simply lift the person, one-armed, and get them onto my rappel device…but you know, the average AMGA candidate doesn’t possess one-tenth of my physical strength.

Puked in your mouth yet? Yeah, those around me usually do–I have a big mouth and a grandiose idea of myself.

Back to the drill. The guide counterbalance rappels with the client, then transfers both herself and the client onto the anchor. From there the guide pulls the rope from above (you’re allowed to leave a single locking carabiner on the top anchor and the rope may NOT have any twists in it), rethreads it through the current anchor, then must transfer her weight and the client’s back onto the rappel setup–generally either a tandem or pre-rig.

The duo then rappels to the ground however the examiner requests and the clock stops when the rope is pulled free from the anchor and both client and guide are safely on the ground. Candidates have 45 minutes to perform the drill–woh!

This is yet another reason why hiring a guide is a great idea for even casual climbers. As soon as you’re more than a rope-length off the ground, self-rescue and dealing with problems–even routine ones–becomes a way bigger hassle. It’s not black magic and voodoo, but one does need a few tools to manage retreat, to assist an injured partner, etc. Climbing with a guide ensures your party will have those tools at its disposal, and a weekend spent in a rock-rescue clinic will give you those same skills. It’s not that hard to learn, but it takes practice to do it safely and efficiently. So far I’ve only had one disastrous run-through–hopefully my last.

Guide-candidates are also tested on the “knot-pass,” which I’ll describe in another post. For now, big thanks to Bill Wilkin and I’m stoked to get to my course in Red Rocks, Nevada, this coming October. We have a great crew of candidates (a fair number of whom are Colorado climbers), so it’ll be cool. To the rest of you–enjoy the summer, stay dry, and see you out on the rocks…