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Balance Climbing  

One major aspect of Search and Rescue is the ability of the rescuer to feel comfortable working around steep mountains and cliffs. This chapter deals specifically with the skills required to climb vertical walls for the purpose of rescue. In sport climbing, a route is often chosen because of its challenge rather than its practical ease. When a climber becomes injured or stranded on a climb, the rescuer should be able to utilize the easiest and quickest manner to reach the subject. This may require some technical climbing on the part of the rescuer to access the subject. Choosing the best route is at least as important as the climbing techniques employed to reach an objective.  

Route Finding: 

The Distant View offers a great deal of information which is lost once within the maze of canyons and gullies close to the objective. Note where the major gullies lead. Notice which ridges carry through to the top which may prove to be an easy access to a place above the subject. (the objective). View the situation from more than one angle. Cliffs appear vertical when seen full face, but appear manageable when viewed from the side. Only a side view shows true angle of the wall. One should use distant trees for a rough scale in estimating size of adjacent terrain features. Remember that the ridges offer the best average angle from base to top, gullies usually end in steep waterfalls.  

The Close View:

Keep the descent and evacuation route constantly in mind, looking back frequently to be familiar with the return route. Memorize prominent features and their relative locations. Mark points with chalk and indicate the same on the topographic map. Other useful information should be mentally noted, such as good belay points, anchors, etc. Rock fall is a maximum hazard in the mountains, so attempt to plan the route to preclude areas of high danger if possible. Whenever any climber dislodges a rock, he will immediately yell "rocks", thereby warning he team to take cover. When practical, on a technical ascent the team will be divided into small groups (three-man teams) each taking alternate routes to avoid climbing below one another. Climbing one at a time is safest but is time consuming. 

Gully Route VS. Ridge Route:

 Gullies act as natural channels for rock fall. Their very existence is evidence of their weak and/or fractured character. Snow remains there longest. When snow does melt, the dwindling water converts rock surfaces to slick springs, leaving moss and mud. Gullies very frequently end in steep, impassable walls and waterfalls. The only obvious advantage in a gully route is the short falling distance.  

Ridge Routes are the strongest rock in the mountains. Their existence is direct evidence of this, however, strength is relative, and in a region of totally weak rocks, the ridges will be fragile and topped with piles of delicately balanced rock. There exists little danger of falling rock, but there is considerable danger of falling with the rocks. Ridges offer the best view of incoming weather. Ridges offer the lowest average angle from base to summit.  

Technical Balance Climbing:

 This is the technique of free climbing with body weight always directly over the feet. The hands are used mainly for balance and as insurance against foothold failure. Gravity and friction attaches the climber to the mountain. With practice, high angle rock can be climbed using a minimum of effort if the simple rules are followed. Hard rock boots with hard rubber vibram soles are adaptable to most climbing required in SAR. Technical climbing shoes are recommended for extreme exposure situations on vertical walls. Balance climbing allows the most relaxed climbing. It minimizes muscle tension, allows easy breathing and increases endurance.  

Walk and climb upright, remembering to keep the weight over the feet. This maintains the body's center of gravity over the legs. Don't lean against the cliff face, as this restricts vision, hampers motion, and also breaks off weak holds due to body weight pushing the feet outward. Climbing upright compresses the loose rock and therefore minimizes the amount of rock fractures.  

Three Point Support:

 The rule is to keep at least 3 points of the 4 points available (2 hands and 2 feet) in contact with the rock at all times. On difficult climbs, using hands and feet as points of support, only one point is moved at any time as the other three should form a stable tripod. Relax, both legs and arms between and during each movement. Make the transitions smoothly, gradually transferring weight. Lunging (dynamic moves) causes large momentary stresses which place the climber off balance and may fracture the climbing hold. Climb first with the eyes, seek and plan a complete sequence of holds to an objective to include at least 3 or 4 moves.  

Foot Hold:

Footholds can be anything from a level platform to holds just large enough for the side of the boot, or a portion of the toe. The side of the foot is preferred to the toe. Test each hold prior to use, and choose holds close together to avoid a "spread eagle" position. A "three-second" foothold is one which may offer only momentary balance, but necessitates a stable platform be available for an immediate transfer. The "shuffle"  is a manner of traversing, where-by the rear foot is brought up to the front foot, then again moving the front foot forward. Do not cross feet when climbing as this moves the center of gravity away from the wall which causes balance problems. The "hop-step", is an exchange of feet, requiring a delicate balance, whereby the climber executes a light jump, simultaneously changing feet on a hold. The "smear" is the use of holds entirely dependent upon friction, such as friction of flat soles, and palms of the hands against a sloping surface. For maximum friction, weight is kept always directly over the feet, and the full flat of the sole is kept on the rock surface. Look for small niches, ridges and knobs, on which to place the sole. Make intermediate steps on smaller holds, if necessary, to keep from making long strides, which are tiring, break rhythm, and can cause loss of footing.  


Hand holds are used primarily to maintain balance, but should be ready to check a slip of a foot hold. In certain cases such as overhangs the arms are required to hold the entire body weight. The best location for hand holds is between the waist and the head. Always test the hand hold, it may be loose in one direction but secure in another. The "down Pressure" hold, as is shown in figure 1 is created by pressing the heel of the hand downward against a flat or sloping surface for friction.

 The "cling" hold, that is shown in figure 2 is the result of placing the hand overhead and clinging, with fingers or edge of the palm. The "pinch" hold that is demonstrated in figure 3 is used on a rib and is the result of grasping the knob between the fingers and the thumb.



The counterforce climbing method of free climbing is used when balance climbing is no longer possible. In balance climbing gravity and friction holds the climber to the mountain. In counterforce, an interdependent tension is created in the body, along a line between two or more rock surfaces. Stresses are created with the body that can be maintained only for short periods of time. Failure of holds is usually total and simultaneous. Jam holds are formed when a portion of the body is jammed between rock surfaces as a means of holding onto the rock. In a foot jam, the boot is inserted with the sole parallel to crack walls, then rotated to right angles. In a hand jam, the hand is inserted with the palm parallel to crack walls, rotated to right angles, a fist is then formed to create friction in the crack. It is possible to pull ones weight using on the friction of the fist jammed into a crack. Any portion of the body, trunk included, may be so utilized to form a jam hold. Note that a jam hold can become permanent.


Pushes and pulls is another type of counterforce maneuver to utilize a crack as a handhold. The "finger traverse," shown in figure 4, is a modification of the "cling" hold used in balance climbing, whereby the fingers are curled around the rock, and the climber traverses, supporting himself on arms alone. In a narrow crack, fingers are curled around one side while the thumb pushes against the other side of the crack.  

Another hold that utilizes counterforce is formed by placing both hands, facing outward, into the crack, and pulling outward with the arms to support weight. On a rib, push in with both hands, or use cross pressure as is shown in figure 5. Opposing pressure, hands against the feet, is often used when a large horizontal crack is encountered as in figure 6.  

The surmount the horizontal crack, push down with feet and pull up with hands (Undercling hold.) simultaneously. The "layback", using tension of both arms pulling against one side of a crack while both feet push against the other. An important aspect of laybacks, depicted in figure 7, is to keep the arms straight allowing the arm muscles to be as relaxed as possible. Pulling in will force the bicep to tire quickly.

 On a knob, opposing pressure may be applied as is shown in figure 8.

 "Tabling" or "Mantling" is using both hands with down pressure to hoist oneself up onto a ledge as is demonstrated in figure 9.

Team Climbing Gear

The assault pack contains various items of climbing protection equipment including passive nuts and hexcentric chocks, webbing runners, dynamic camming devices, etriers, ascenders, rope protection, locking and non-locking binders, and extraction devices. Each member should have some practice with the equipment in this package. Two climbing lines are also included in the assault pack. There is sufficient equipment in the assault pack to allow a team of 3 climbers to execute a moderate difficulty multi-pitch wall climb.

Use of Ascenders:

After access has been made to a particular point, it may be more expedient to attach multiple fixed ropes to the site and allow team members to ascend (climb) the fixed ropes to the site rather than execute a follow climb to the site. Team members must also be skilled in the use of ascenders to extricate themselves from an area that was accessed by rappelling. The task of ascending a fixed line through the use of mechanical ascenders is often called "Jumaring" which is based on a specific type of ascender, the Jumar. The Jumar ascender is pictured in figure 10. The Gibbs ascender is another mechanical ascender, that is more popular in SAR work since the removal of a pin is required before the ascender can work free of the line which is not the case with other ascenders.  

All mechanical ascenders operate based on a directional cam that pinches the rope if force is applied in one direction but allows rope to feed through if force is applied in the opposite direction. The Jumar has a trigger that allows the climber to control the cam for easy on demand movement. A second trigger is provided to release the device completely from the rope which is necessary when passing obstacles. The use of etriers and webbing attached to the ascenders allows the climber to climb a rope in a fashion similar to climbing a ladder. Weight is alternately transferred from one ascender to the other as the ascenders are moved up the rope. A suggested rigging for use of the jumars is shown in figure11.  

In this rigging one attempts to stay balanced with all weight being supported by the legs. Extreme fatigue will occur if upper body strength is used to keep ones balance. When ascending a rock face it may be required to keep the toes of the boots against the rock surface to provide the required center of gravity balance. Each ascender is secured to an entrier and directly to the climbers sit harness. When rest is needed, the climber lowers his weight onto the sit harness. Progress is made in "small" advances transferring the weight between legs. Weight is placed on the sit harness only for rest. A chest harness may be utilized in conjunction with the rigging to assist the climber to maintain a vertical position. All moves must be executed statically by transferring weight and then standing. Any dynamic moves will result in a movement of the fixed line. Most problems occur when too large of a step is attempted or the center of gravity is not maintained by the legs.  The technique of "tying in short" is recommended to prevent an extended fall, in the event of equipment failure.  

Often in a rescue operation, jumars are not available. Figure 12 contains an ascending rigging that works well for climbing free hanging vertical lines. Prussiks can be used in lieu of mechanical ascenders, but are slightly more difficult to operate as they tend to lock up when full body weight is placed on them. In this type of rigging, weight is alternately transferred from the one climbing leg to the sit harness. The webbing or entrier attached to the lead ascender is run through a chest harness to help maintain a vertical position. The lead ascender is run up the rope above the climber's head. By standing on the "step" the climber maintains his balance over his extended leg while the sit harness extender is brought up the rope. Weight is then transferred back to the sit harness ascender and the lead ascender is forwarded up the rope again.  

In all cases of ascending it will become necessary to over come obstacles where the angle of the rock changes drastically.

The climber should first attempt to push away from the wall while moving the lead ascender past the obstacle. If the obstacle cannot be circumvented by body maneuvers, one must disengage the lead ascender and replace it on the rope past the obstacle. Once weight is placed on the rope above the obstacle the secondary ascender should follow easily. (Ascending sounds much simpler than it is in operation. Much practice and experimentation to find "what works" is needed to ascend comfortably and with confidence.)  When it is necessary to remove an ascender, one should first attach an extra ascender above the obstacle and then proceed with the disconnect. 

There are a variety of methods used to attach oneself to the jumars and ascend. Much of this is based on personal preferences and the type of rock being ascended (i.e. overhanging vs. low angle). Regardless of the particular method used, several components should always remain constant.  

  1. Both ascenders should be tied into a sit harness  


  3. Foot slings are attached to one or both ascenders.  

  4. All carabiners used in the system should be locking.

  5. Be sure the rope does not run over sharp edges. Pad all edges!  

 The following is a brief description of a common method of ascending utilized by climbers (figure 11). First, tie into the rope. The top jumar is placed on the rope and slid up almost to arms length. A daisy chain (multi-loop) is attached from the jumar to a sit harness. The daisy chain should be very tight so that it will hold you in an upright position. Next attach an etrier or foot sling to the jumar. The bottom jumar is then attached to the rope and a daisy chain is attached from it to the sit harness. A foot sling is attached to the bottom ascender. The system is adjusted correctly when you can stand on the etrier attached to the bottom jumar and extend the top jumar 1-2 feet. The bottom jumar is then slid up close to the top jumar and the process is repeated.  

After every 15-20 feet or when taking off one jumar or making a traverse, tie into the rope. Only after the new knot is secured should you untie the old knot. This is termed tying in short and will limit your fall/save your life if both jumars should fail. As impossible as it sounds climbers have been killed or seriously injured when both jumars have released from the rope.

 Ascending requires patience and practice. If you system is not adjusted properly, jumaring can be extremely strenuous and slow. Use the rock for balance and to gain forward progress if possible. On low angled rock it is easier to keep your feet out of the etriers and "walk" up using the jumars like stair rails for assistance. On steep or overhanging walls, a chest harness can be used to help with balance. Figure 12 depicts a different type of ascending rigging that works well for climbing free hanging vertical ropes.

 All mechanical ascenders have safety triggers which are designed to keep the cam from inadvertently detaching from the rope. At times it is necessary to remove an ascender from the rope to negotiate and obstacle or remove of piece of climbing gear. The safety trigger must be depressed in order to remove the jumar. Before removing the jumar, TIE IN SHORT TO THE ROPE or use a prusik knot or Gibbs as a backup. Be sure the jumar is properly reattached to the rope and that the safety trigger is closed before resuming your ascent. Jumaring a traverse is difficult and dangerous as the jumar may torque off the rope. To avoid this complication, clip a carabiner from the webbing at the bottom of the jumar (figure 10) directly onto the rope.

 If the proper safety precautions are followed, Jumaring is an extremely efficient and safe method of rapidly ascending fixed ropes. Practice and experimentation is needed to find what system works best for you.

 An additional safety measure is to place a prussik ascender above each jumar with the loop of the ascender connected to the attachment point of the jumar.   In this manner if the jumar were to be twisted off the rope or were to fail, the prussik would take effect.  One must be certain to keep the prussik relatively snug.


Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue  |  Fillmore Mountain Rescue  |  Team 1
Mailing Address:  P.O. Box 296 |  Fillmore, CA  93016
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2005 Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue, Fillmore Mountain Rescue, Team 1

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