Redpoint Rope Soloing
One way to go alone
In my post about rope soloing Father Time I jumped into a brief paragraph about my systems used to solo free climb at a high level. I wanted to dive deeper into these methods in a dedicated blog post. My general ethos in climbing is to use thoughtful systems to pull off audacious objectives, rather than simply taking on extra risks. The setup described below worked exceptionally well for that ascent. I think I could redpoint up within a letter grade or two below my limit with this method (as long as there is a bit of air below me for the extra slack in the system!)
Solo System Configuration
The rope is first fixed to the anchor with two alpine butterfly knots in series with minimal slack in between using large HMS biners. These biners are beefy with high strength if crossloaded. I assess the length of the pitch from the topo and fix the rope somewhere midway such that only as much rope as needed is on the "climbing" side of the system, to avoid excess rope weight on my harness.
I ensure the biners can move freely on the bolt hangers without jamming, which particularly happens if the bolt is a protruding stud. In this case I will tension the rope upward using a sling loosely prussik'ed to the rope and clipped to the first piece of pro, holding the biners in the direction of loading for a fall.
My go to device these days for rope soloing is an unmodified 3rd generation GriGri. The GriGri is loaded upside-down onto an anti-crossloading biner on my belay loop and is held upward using a neck bungee clipped to a small piece of cord through the GriGri sideplate. A plastic keychain carabiner works well as a weak link in the case of a tangle during a fall. Rope choice is crucial to pair well with the GriGri, being not too slippy and not too sticky. I had great luck with a Edelrid/Beal Unicore 9.2mm rope.
For any rope soloing system, the "cache loop" is crucial to keep the free side of the rope light and easy to self feed through the device. For the GriGri, this is the "brake" side of the rope. A Microtraxion clipped to a gear loop is often used to manage this cache loop - while climbing, one uses a free hand to feed slack through the Micro, continually keeping a ~10ft long loop of slack between that device and the GriGri. This system does not work so well for hard redpointing as the Microtraxion feeding motion is awkward, and the Micro also adds no redundancy to the system.
Instead, for redpoint rope soloing I choose to prerig multiple cache loops onto my harness which then can be easily dumped in order while climbing. I dedicate a front gear loop to a row of large, keylock biners (Petzl Ange L biners work great!) loaded with a loose clove hitch on each. These biners are clipped upside-down with gates in for easy one handed dumping of the hitch. While hanging at the belay, I setup the GriGri and begin my loops starting from the free side next to the device, working towards the tail of the rope. These cache loops are stacked from front to back on the gear loop, each hanging down about 10-12 feet, carefully stacked with marginally increasing size to reduce tangles. The tail of the rope is clipped with an overhand knot and a locking biner as the last biner on this gear loop.
This system is now prerigged with cache loops which allow the device to self-feed. The climber can bust some series moves without touching the device or rope until the current cache loop is running out, and then one hand can be used to dump the next clove hitch allowing more free rope of a correct weight to feed through the device. This method is repeated for all the cloves in series until the pitch is over (the lockered final knot stays on the gear loop as the final backup).
The method as described greatly decreases the midpitch faffing as everything is prerigged before leaving the anchor. But(!), what really makes this system shine is a sneaky modification to greatly increase redundancy - girth hitching a sling to your harness master points and then taping it flush around your cache dedicated gear loop suddenly creates massive redundancy if your GriGri or its locking biner were to fail. This gear loop is now structural, and every one of the cache loop biners is a full strength backup! Now we can really feel good about taking wingers way up on the wall.
Having all of the rope needed for a pitch stacked onto one's harness does increase climbing difficulty a bit, but it is surprisingly less awkward to climb with all these loops hanging past your feet than in looks. With a bit of practice, one gets good at pushing the rope out of the way midstep with a foot, similar to crack climbing where the rope always tries to run into the crack. Of course, rope soloing is always going to be a bit more awkward and higher effort than a live belayer.
Why not the Silent Partner?
While working as an engineer at BD, we had a Silent Partner around which had been disassembled to inspect the internal mechanism. The seat-belt style brake system relies on very small toothed steel gears which swing out with rotational inertia and jam against the inside of the main aluminum housing. These devices seem very robust out of the box as a trustworthy catch, but to me seemed as if the steel to aluminum interface would deteriorate over repeated falls, changing the locking characteristics. This is simply my interpretation of the mechanism, but I trust the GriGri much more in the redpointing scenario of many falls as there are no crucial metal-on-metal catch surfaces. I have used a Silent Partner for fast aid climbing, but was hardly ever falling on the device.
How Harsh are the falls?
I liken this setup to getting a very loose belay (extra slack in the system) but with a hard catch. The loose belay aspect doesn't affect the fall force too much, as long as factor 2 falls onto the belay are carefully avoided. Though, the extra slack makes this system slightly higher risk for climbing above a ledge or cragging with the ground nearby. The hard catch can be reduced while wall climbing by feeding the rope down from the anchor biners, through a locker on the haul bag straps (be sure the haul bag tether is secure as its own system), and then up to the first piece of pro. The haul bag is pulled up in line with the rope during a fall, absorbing some of the fall energy. On Father Time, I took many falls working out the crux pitches, all fairly long, but soft with the haul bag catching me!
What are the pitfalls of this setup?
Rope soloing is all about trade offs, and this method does have a few of its own. The main risk is the rope feeding through the device and spooling up on a ledge, adding a ton of extra slack to the system without the climber knowing it. This can be avoided by keeping pitches short or by using sacrificial rubberband prussiks a few times per pitch to hold the rope weight. The smoother the rope is self feeding while climbing, the higher the risk of back feeding, so it can be difficult to find just the right rope to use.
A similar risk is increasing the length of a fall due to the "brake" strand having minimal weight. Particularly, if a climber falls while the current cache loop is very small, the entire loop may feed through the device before it locks up. Again, the system causes longer falls in general making it less suited for cragging or stepped terrain.
The last quirk of note is the fact that so much rope is stacked onto one's harness while climbing. I've found this to be reasonable for 35m pitches and under, but it may not be the optimal setup for rope soloing El Cap in a day, or other scenarios where long pitches are needed.
Why bother soloing?
I only go lead rope soloing a few times a year, but these ascents are continually stand out experiences. To me, climbing is about improbability - from improbable positions to unlikely movements. And what is more improbable that walking up to a huge wall with a backpack of rope and climbing to the top?