INTERVIEW: Pete Whittaker on Rope-Soloing in Squamish

Pete Whittaker recently returned from a three-week trip to Squamish, in British Columbia, Canada. Normally associated with hard crack climbs and Tom Randall, this time around Pete was out there on his own - practising rope solo techniques.

Pete Whittaker in Squamish: The one occasion he climbed with a human partner..., 143 kb
Pete Whittaker in Squamish: The one occasion he climbed with a human partner...
© Pete Whittaker

Having barely any experience of using the technique prior to his trip, Pete impressively came away with fast multi-route rope-solo climbs, including two separate triple-route ascents on the 2,303ft granite monolith, the  Squamish Chief, in under 24 hours.

'When I left to get on the plane I could climb a multi pitch route really my head.'

I caught up with Pete to see how he fared...

Were you out there by yourself for the whole time or with others? What was the objective of the trip?
I went by myself, purely because if I'd gone with someone else, I would have been distracted and not as focussed. I did know people out there, so away from the climbing I was able to hang out with friends, so I wasn't a complete billy no mates. The point of the trip was purely a training trip to try and do some bigger things in the near future.

You mention that you 'didn't really know what you were doing' when you first got there. How much rope soloing had you done before and how did you practise it?

Before I got to Squamish I had done maybe 10 single pitch routes in the Peak District. The first route I actually rope soloed was Happy Hart at Curbar. I'd grasped all the concepts of rope soloing just by reading up on it, but when I got above my gear and started placing the top pieces I didn't have a clue what I was doing and started to clip the wrong end of the rope through the pieces and ended up in a right tangle in quite a stressful position. I managed to calm down, figure out what the heck I was meant to be doing and topped out with some hideous rope drag from the weight of the rope directly onto the soloing device. A massive learning curve straight away!

I'm definitely one for analysing any performance I put in. I really critically analysed this performance and learnt a lot from it. After this harsh opening to rope soloing I went and climbed some easier routes at Millstone. I got the logistics of actually leading pitches dialled and I created a system that started to work really well, so it felt like I could free climb pitches as simply as if I had a belayer.

Pete Whittaker getting to grips with rope-solo techniques in Squamish
© Pete Whittaker

When I left for Squamish I was confident at leading single pitch routes, but I'd never done more than one pitch in a row.
I'm pretty good at visualising how things will work, so before going to Squamish, my rope soloing multi pitch training was all done in my head. I just basically visualised how I would do every single bit of the process, down to the point of working out which order all the screw gates would be open and closed. I tried to create the most efficient system I could think of, adapting what I had read and incorporating some of my own ideas as well. When I was happy with my system, I repeated it over and over and over again in my mind. When I left to get on the plane I could climb a multi pitch route really my head.

Which techniques were you practising on the trip?

I rope-soloed using a solo device to practise self-belaying, which involves fixing and abbing, back-cleaning, lower-outs, and jumaring, etc. I think most people associate rope soloing with aid climbing - whenever I said I was practising rope soloing techniques, people thought I was going aid climbing. However I only did free climbing as I'm not interested in pulling on gear.

You rope soloed Freeway 5.11c, Milk Road 5.11d and The Grand Wall 5.11a, in 15 hours 28 minutes. How did that go? I hear you forgot something quite important before the second route though?

I wanted to see what it was like to climb three routes on the front of The Chief, so I could gauge what it would be like to do the harder challenge later on. I'd soloed two of the routes individually beforehand (Freeway, Grand Wall), but hadn't done the other.

It started really well, but when I got to the base of the second route, I realised I hadn't filled up my water bottle, looking back I should have walked back down and filled it up...but I didn't. I climbed the 10 pitch route in the middle of the day in the full sun without any water, it was a big mistake and completely toasted me.

I also tried to practise some different techniques on the easier pitches by backlooping the rope, which is much more dangerous but supposedly quicker as you don't have to ab and strip gear. However, my ropes ended up getting stuck anyway and I had to ab to retrieve them.

I then proceeded to go the wrong way on the next pitch and ended up shuffling about in some crap loose chimney. It pays off to climb the routes beforehand before doing these link up days...

I was so hideously thirsty and dehydrated when I finished that route, the last route I just grinded out. I was ill for the next 4 days...

Your main objective was to rope-solo a harder trio of climbs on The Squamish Chief in under 24 hours. Tell us a bit about the challenge - why did it appeal to you, and how did you find it? Any epics?

The challenge climbs (possibly) the three most popular multi pitch routes of their grade in Squamish. University Wall 5.12b, Freeway 5.11c and Grand Wall 5.11a. They are 3-star classics and all go up the steep front wall of The Chief. They are mega classic and I thought it would be great to link them together in a day.

I also wanted a challenge that was worth rope soloing, i.e. it couldn't all be free soloed by anyone. To make sure of this I decided to climb The Shadow (5.12d), which takes a direct line on University and is possibly even more classic than the original. (Along with The Quarryman, the best quality bridging corner I've climbed).

Even though this challenge was much harder than the first triple, I climbed way better and had learnt from my mistakes first time round. I planned it out so I would climb the routes in the best conditions I could give myself (this did mean finishing at 3am, but an Alpine finish is always good).

There were limited epics as I'd encountered and eliminated those, when I climbed the routes individually.
I managed this challenge all free (apart from the A0 bolt ladder on Grand Wall), in 18hrs 21mins.

Were you intimidated by going out there alone and climbing by yourself? Or was it refreshing in some way to be totally self-reliant?

I wasn't intimidated by climbing by myself, I enjoyed it. everything relies on you. If you want to go quicker you can, if you want to go slower you can. You're always busy and thinking, it's a good challenge.

Andy Kirkpatrick wrote: 'Having rope soloed a few things, I think that maybe it’s the highest test of a climber, requiring everything you have (physical, emotional, mental as well as skill wise), and also the most rewarding.' Would you agree?

I definitely think it is a very high test of a climber's physical ability, mental ability and skill, as you have all the rope work to handle, you have to lead every pitch, clean every pitch, follow every pitch, and you only have one brain and mind to figure everything out.

Whether it is more rewarding than with a partner I don't know as I haven't pushed myself as hard doing things solo as I have with a partner. I believe they would be as equally rewarding, just different.

How did these multi-pitch rope solos compare mentally and physically to your big wall ascents on El Cap with Tom Randall and Dan McManus? You were not far off climbing the height of El Cap with your triple climbs.

Very different. Those routes on El Cap were multi day ascents, whereas in Squamish they were single day ascents. There are so many different factors which makes one harder than the other and vice versa.

What did you learn from your trip that you'll take on to the next rope solo adventure? Any top tips?

Mental preparation about the logistics of soloing walls is amazing training. After preparing everything in my mind before leaving, when I got on my first wall, it seriously felt as if I'd done it all before.

With rope soloing you're never tied into the rope, only ever attaching and un-attaching yourself via devices. I always double checked before weighting the rope or setting off on a lead (where you could potentially weight the rope).

Going slower actually makes you go faster. When I just thought about each process in turn and then executed it, I found I went surprisingly quick while expending minimum energy. When I tried to go quick, I was thinking too hard and wasting energy. You do go quicker initially, but then get tired of going quick and end up going slower or making mistakes.

I also had some autolock karabiners for part of my system, which are useful for when you're tired as its one less thing to think about. They lock themselves!

How did your navigation to the crags go without Tom Randall to mess it up? Was it easier?!

Much better. I just always asked myself 'would Tom go this way?' then did the opposite of that answer. It was a great system. The one time I didn't follow my rule I ended up in a chossy chimney off-pitch.

What are your plans for the coming months?

Some work. Then I'm heading back to the desert in the USA for The Crucifix project and other First Ascent projects. I'll be heading to Yosemite after that.

Visit Pete's Facebook Page.

Pete is sponsored by: Climb On, Five Ten, Patagonia, Sterling Rope and Wild Country

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