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How to bail on a sport route

Learn how to bail safely from a sport route when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

climbing lowering off route

It’s going to happen. At some point you are going to get on a sport route that you just can’t get to the top off. If your rope gun is on hand, that’s not too much of a problem. You can just get your stronger friend to finish the route and retrieve your quickdraws. But what if your favourite crusher isn’t around. You need to get your quickdraws off somehow. Some climbers simply swap out the top quickdraw for a maillon and then lower off this single piece of hardware – removing the other quickdraws as they go. But this method gives you no redundancy. If the maillon failed and there was enough rope between it and you, you would fall to the ground. Fortunately, there are two ways you can avoid having to take such a risk. This is how you bail safely from a sport route that you can’t finish.

Technique 1 – Lower off a single point with a prusik backup

Of the two techniques described here, this is the least costly in that it involves leaving behind only one piece of lower-off hardware. Redundancy is achieved with the use of a prusik loop that connects the climber’s harness to the rope (where it runs through the quickdraws). With this system, the prusik loop would grab the rope if the single piece of hardware failed. This would essentially result in a lead fall in which the prusik, the highest quickdraw, and the belayer stop the belayer short of the ground. Just bear in mind that this technique can only prevent a ground fall if a route is properly bolted. Assess the potential falls before using this technique.

Step 1: Clip yourself to the quickdraw

The first thing you are going to do is clip your harness’ belay loop to the top quickdraw using a spare quickdraw. Then, unclip your maillon or leaver biner from your harness and attach it to the bolt – on top of the quickdraw that you are hanging on.

climbing clipping himself directly to bolt

Step 2: Reroute the rope through the maillon

You can now ask your belayer for a little slack. With your weight off the rope, it should be easy to reroute the rope though the maillon (or leaver biner). If you are using a maillon, screw it closed all the way.

rope rerouted through Mallon

Step 3: Remove the quickdraw 

Ask your belayer to take your weight and then unclip the quickdraw connecting the rope to the bolt and the quickdraw connecting you to the first quickdraw. If the route is steep, you can use the second quickdraw to keep you clipped to the rope.

climber unclipping quickdraw from bolt

Step 4: Add a prusik loop backup

Next, hitch a prusik loop to the rope and clip it to your belay loop. Secure this connection with a locking carabiner. For a prusik loop, I recommend using a meter of 6 mm cord (ends tied together using a double fisherman's knot).

Climber using a prusik as a lower-off backup

Step 5: Lower off

Finally, you can lower off. As your belayer releases rope, slide the prusik down the rope, removing quickdraws when you reach them. To make this smoother, try to avoid letting the prusik tighten up on the rope, as it can be difficult to get the coils to release once they grab.

Technique 2 – Lower off two points

If the distance between bolts on a route would make a ground fall possible in the event that a single piece of lower-off hardware failed (using a prusik as a backup), it might be safer to use this second technique. I say ‘might’ because you would have to assess the distance between the two bolts fitted with your lower-off hardware. If these were far apart – farther than the distance between the lower piece and the ground, or even a few meters short of this – a failure in the top piece could result in a ground fall. Such a situation is unlikely, but you’ll need to assess the potential for a dangerous fall before deciding whether it is safer to use this technique. Steps 1 to 3 are the same for the first technique, so I will only describe steps 4 and 5.

Step 4: Secure a second piece of lower-off hardware to the next bolt down

Instead of using a prusik as a backup, simply lower to the next bolt down and swap out the quickdraw for a second piece of lower-off hardware (maillon or leaver biner). Add the hardware before removing the quickdraw.

climber lowering off two pieces

Step 5: Lower off

You can now lower off normally, unclipping the remaining quickdraws when you reach them. Again, you might want to use a quickdraw to clip yourself (via your belay loop) to the rope so that you don’t swing too far from the rock.

climber lowering to ground

Learn more

You now know most of what there is to know about bailing on a sport route. Some steeper routes will require you to trolley back down the rope – using a quickdraw to keep you clipped to the rope – which involves techniques and safety measures not covered here. If you want to know more about these techniques (highly recommended), I suggest reading my article on how to clean the quickdraws off a steep route next.