How to Descend a Sheer Cliff Without a Rope

Whether it’s a steep descent or dead faint, Den Mother knows vertical drops.
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Whether it’s a steep descent or dead faint, Den Mother knows vertical drops.
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Photo by Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

What’s the best way to descend a sheer cliff?–Alex Dominic, via email

I’m going to assume a few things here: that no one knows where you are, that your situation is dire, and that you don’t have a rope. (Otherwise, wait for rescue or use the rope.)

Improvising a rope is always sketchy and should never be your first choice, but this is a survival column, so here’s how you do it: Use the longest items you have handy. The longer the pieces, the fewer knots you’ll need to hold them together, and knots equate to weakness. Ditto stitched seams. Cut your clothing or sleeping bag into strips and braid them. Join segments with a flat overhand knot.

You need enough length to wrap your rope around a tree or rock and have both ends touch the ground below—or else you won’t be able to retrieve it. Not long enough? Tie to an anchor using a bowline knot. Now, turn so your shoulders are perpendicular to the ledge and pass both strands (ideally) between your legs, around the downhill hip, over the opposite shoulder, and around the back of your neck. Grip the end with your downhill arm. The friction from all that surface area is going to leave you hollering for some Body Glide, but rope burn beats a dented head.

I’m hiking and my friend just passed out. What do I do? Should I carry him out?–Will Mitchell, via email

Unless you’re on a Hollywood set, your chances of carrying a limp adult human more than a quarter mile are extremely low, so don’t be a hero.

If you need to move an unconscious person a short distance to a safe location, loop your forearms under his armpits and walk backwards, keeping his torso as level as possible. If it’s hot, move your buddy into the shade, loosen any tight clothing, and keep him cool until the stretcher you summoned (right?) rolls up. Got a cool weather keel-over? Wrap your new responsibility in a sleeping bag or puffy and call for help.

If you can’t summon rescue, you’re faced with a difficult choice: whether to stay or go for help. Only leave an unconscious hiker behind if you’re sure both of you would otherwise perish. If you go, roll your friend on his side with food and water within reach, and, if you can, leave a note. He’ll want to know what happened.

Got a question for Den Mother? Email it to denmother@backpacker.com.