08 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Your ropes allow miracles to occur. They let you move up mind bending terrain, and descend into vast gulf of space. They are some times as fragile as silk and other times as strong as steel, and if you are to climb hard, climb well and get down safety at the end of it you must learn to understand the rope.
Fifty, fifty five, sixty or seventy metres, the length of your rope will have been decided long before you come to decent on it, yet when it comes to going down longer is better and it’s surprising how much further that extra ten metres between a fifty and a sixty metre rope will get you. On established routes you’ll probably need a sixty as most routes are now equipped for that length, and without it you’ll be placing an awful lot of anchors yourself. For multi pitch sport routes a sixty is the only option, as most anchors will be 30 metre apart, and so having a 70 metre rope is good for piece of mind. Make sure when buying or paring ropes up that they are the same length, and obvious point but something that isn’t always the case. Different manufacturers measure their ropes in different ways, with some giving you the exact amount while others give you that little bit extra. Ropes can also loose the odd metre of two through their lives, cut away because of wear and tear; the lack of distance only remembered when you find one rope doesn’t quite reach that next belay.
Having two distinct sounding colours is vital when making clear signals to each other, with pull ‘red’ being far easier to under stand then ‘pull speckled magenta and cobalt’. Some colours are also indistinguishable under the dull beam of a head torch, and it’s often nice to be able to see the difference even in the dark, achievable by having a very light (yellow or grey) and a very dark rope (dark red or green). If you’re still having trouble then don’t look at them indirectly, as the corners of your vision being more light sensitive.
The middle marks on ropes are less important when descending as both ropes will be tied together, but are still important when working out how far you have come, how much rope you have left to pull or which parts of the rope to lower when getting your ropes down the next pitch. The middle mark is most important when abseiling on a single rope. In these situations it’s vital that the middle mark is reliable, something that isn’t the case with tape markers. The only trustworthy marker is a paint marker, and this should be retouched with a rope pen regularly as the dye will fade with time. If in doubt always measure from the ends before coming to the abseil and don’t forget to tie stopper knots into the ends of the ropes.
Removing the id tag from the ends of your ropes can reduce the chance of the ends getting snagged nut like in a constriction. Once removed, melt the end so it’s pointy, not flat and the same width as the rope. .
Forget all that old twaddle about joining your ropes with reef knots and double fisherman’s, just go for the simple overhand knot. The beauty of this knot is firstly its simplicity, being easiest knot you can tie – important when you’ve forgotten your headtorch and its dark- plus it’s the least prone to getting jammed. This is due to the knot only having one ‘side’, meaning that when it runs across an edge the knot usually rotates over to the top side, leaving a smooth profile that is much less prone to snagging. Another benefit is that apart from the reef knot backed up with a double fisherman’s, this has the added advantage of being a very easy knot to untie, something that certainly can’t be said of a standard double fisherman’s! Although not looking like the most inspiring knot it’s more then strong enough for this purpose (but not for any other) with it having a knot strength of at least 2.2kn. The main point to remember is to leave long tails on the knot (the length of your forearm) as this gives you a greater safety margin once the knot begins to suck in the tail when weighted.
If you have trouble untying any knot, simply put it on the floor and stamp on it (don’t do it wearing crampons!) Or whip it hard against the rock - both of which will slacken it up nicely.
Tech note: When you start down note which rope is on the left and which rope is on the right? This way you’ll have a slightly better chance of untangling them if they get twisted.
Ninety percent of the time your abseil ropes should be finisher off with a stopper knot – designed to stop you hurtling off the ends of the rope. Some climbers believe that by using a prusik loop they no longer need bother with the stopper knot, which isn’t the case as even with a prusik it’s still possible to slip off the end of your ropes. Firstly never tie both ropes together to form the knot, as this stops any twists from working themselves out of the ropes as you descent, which can result in a total nightmare of knots waiting to great you once you touch down. The best option is to tie a figure of eight into the end of each rope, leaving a 30cm tail. This knot is bulky enough that it won’t pull through the holes in a belay device, and the long tails will prevent it being ‘rolled’ off the end of the rope if shock loaded. The figure of eight also gives you something to clip into when nearing the ends for greater security if you find yourself setting an anchor at the very end of the rope, or if you need to clip them, to you mid way down, say when trying to untangle the ropes. If you’re abseiling on with a figure of eight then be aware that a stopper knot will probably shoot through the device. The only way to remedy this is to either to tie the ropes together and clip your rap sling into the rope below the device, therefore acting as a back up to the stopper knot.
Tech note: Modern devices shouldn’t kink your rope, but older plate designs may do. The best option is to buy the current state of the art belay device on the market, as this should have all the bugs ironed out. When using any device pay attention to the orientation of the rope; particularly how you hold it and how this affects the way it feeds into the device. The rope should travel straight into the device and straight out again. If it’s twisted, or entering the side of the device awkwardly this may introduce kinks and twists.
Be aware of the dynamic properties and varying amounts of force required to pull different diameters of rope, i.e. A thick rope is far harder to pull through an anchor then a thin one, but because it’s less dynamic less pull energy is wasted when pulling. Of course the best way to get the best of both words is to use a system that uses a thick and thin rope, say an 8mm and 10 mm as this combo with give you far more flexibility when pulling, the heavier rope will also pull the thin rope down more quickly, and the reduced friction of a thin rope will make a big difference very long abseils. The one exception to this rule is in high winds it may be worth reversing the ropes as a heavy rope will fall more directly then a thin one, and has less chance of being blown way off and hung up. Also some very thin ropes can self tie knots in their ends as they flick through the anchor.
Some climbers carry a second very thin static rope for abseiling, rather then a second full weight rope, so as to reduce overall weight. This rope is matched in length but is usually either 7mm semi static perlon cord, 5.5mm dyneema or spectra or some other space again high strength cord. This cord can not be used in ascent as it’s static not dynamic, meaning that it can’t be safely used in many self rescue techniques discussed in the problem solving section, namely retrieving stuck ropes. The beauty however is that the user can climb on a single rope, often a necessity if speed climbing, without all the bulk and weight of carrying a second full strength rope just for descent. The rope is best carried coiled, either in a rucksack, or stowed on the back or around the waist.
There are many dangers associated with abseiling on a thin static and ticker dynamic rope, with the greatest being the difference in friction leading to the thinner cord being pulled through the anchor point, with dangerous consequences. The most common way to avoid this is to feed the thicker rope through the anchor and then after tying a figure of eight into the end, clip a screwgate into the loop, and then clip this back into the rope again, creating a sliding loop around the anchor. Next clip the cord into the karabiner. On the descent rap on both cords as normal, but in fact you are only really weighting the thick cord. Once down just pull the loop down with the thin cord.
Another option is to feed the rope through a maillon or very small loop of cord and tie a figure of eight in the rope and tie the cord into this with another figure of eight. The size of the knot will stop the thick rope from being pulled back through the maillon or loop and the rope can be pulled conventionally.
If you employ this kind of very thin cord then there may come a time when you will be forced to abseil on it by itself, or you may employ a very thin rope as a back up for a non roped situation, such as a scramble or on a high altitude peak where you can’t justify the burden of a full weight rope.. If this happens their will be dangerous lack of friction when passed through the descender, and so the best option is if possible to feed both ropes through the same hole on your descender and then employ all the techniques involved in increasing control.