How to climb up and down them
09 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).
The words fixed rope always congers up visions of dodgy Himalayan siege tactics, kilometres of ropes strung up some poor mountain so that those who can’t bear to be separated from the horizontal have a lifeline home. In fact, fixing rope is a big part of many ethical climbing pursuits and a technique well worth learning whatever climbing you do. The most common example is for excess to hard to get to crags – usually sea cliffs – where a rope or ropes is fixed for descent and potential escape and in such situations its vital that you know a few tricks otherwise you may find you either never get to the bottom of the rope, or get to the bottom of the rope a bit too quickly! On big routes that may require a bivy you may decide to fix several pitches with your two climbing ropes (120 metres of rope can span sometimes span four or five pitches), and then blast up it in a day, sleeping at the bottom of the ropes and being at the top of them by dawn. On such routes you can also fix off a good ledge, meaning when it gets dark you can zip back down to a nice night laying looking at the stars rather than sitting in your harness looking at the grimaces of your partner. On big walls ropes are often fixed in order to stay and enjoy the horizontal before you cast off, meaning you don’t have to carry the extra water for the days saved – or allow you to go to that barbecue you don’t want to miss! And let us not forget big snowy mountains, where ropes can be fixed over hard sections – like bergshrunds - so you don’t have to re-lead them every time. Fixing ropes isn’t as ethical as just starting from the bottom and going for it, but in my experience, they are a good tool when it comes to climbing tactics for mortal climbers who just want to get the job done as well as it can be.
Static ropes, and the thicker the better, make the best ropes for fixing, reducing dangerous bounce and being firm to handle – inspiring confidence when launching into the void. Unfortunately, unless you know you are going to be fixing ropes you will probably have dynamic ropes, and thin ones at that! The most important thing to keep in your mind is the saw effect of weighting stretchy ropes, and the way ropes can shrink and stretch over time and use – crucial when fixing the rope to anchors. If you suspect some fixing may take place try and make one rope a thicker one, rated as a single (9.1mm to 10mm) and if your only option is something far slimmer make sure you follow the advice below.
Re-belaying your rope is the main tool for reducing dangerous wear, but you can also use items of clothing or your rucksack – attaching it via a prussic loop – in order to do the same thing, and this is a good tactic if you can’t find a re-belay point and the rope is unavoidably going over an edge. You can also buy rope protectors, vinyl tubes that can be Velcroed to the rope, or you can make your own using a length of wide flexible hose, by slicing it so that the rope can be inserted. Another option is to wrap duct or finger tape around the rope in high wear areas, but whatever you choose to do by far the best way to protect the rope is to climb the rope with care and patience, always keeping that image of John Harlin’s rope breaking in your mind.
The best knot for climbing fixed ropes is the Alpine Butterfly, a very easy knot to tie – an alpine butterfly once you know-how – but more importantly an even easier knot to untie when it’s been loaded heavily. It can also be tied easily in the middle of ropes for re-belaying. When you need to untie the knot simply push back the two loops of the knot with your thumbs and this will slacken off the knot. Personally, I use this knot for all connections between the rope and its anchors, finding it reliable and easy to use.
Some climbers may feel uncomfortable using an Alpine Butterfly as the main anchor knot, especially if they’re not used to using it. If that is the case then another option is a figure of nine, which acts just like a figure of eight – being a figure of eight but with an extra turn before threading the bight – but it has the advantage of being easier to untie, is 15% stronger when cross-loaded.
This is the best knot to use when joining two ropes, both because it’s easier to untie once loaded – unlike a double fisherman’s, and because it offers a good way of increasing your safety when passing the knot, either in ascent or descent. To tie a simple tie a figure-eight knot without a bight in one rope, then feed the other rope through this, having one of the tails long enough to tie a figure of eight in one end for use as a backup when passing.
When placing anchors it goes without saying that they should be as dependable as possible, but you must also take into account the length of time they will be left fixed, like wind, ice and thaw can affect an anchor if left for a long time, as slings can be blown off spikes or dislodge wires, pegs can shrink in the cold and if one end of the rope is trapped in the snow then melt or glacial shift may pull the whole lot down! Cams should never be wholly trusted unless in totally bomber placements, and always have them backed up with passive anchors. Where there is passing traffic, such as on a sea cliff, try and place your main anchor out of sight, perhaps building a secondary main anchor once over the lip, because there is always the chance that someone may mess around with your anchor points, or even steal them altogether!
One of the most important techniques is re-belaying the rope, which means attaching the rope to anchors along its length. This is done for several reasons, such as getting the rope to follow the correct line, or bypassing sharp doggy rock sections, or even allowing more than one climber to be on the rope at one time for speed. For climbers, this technique is important as they will often be using stretchy dynamic ropes that don’t like being ascended over the sharp ground, especially when you’ve joined several together. Re belaying a dynamic rope takes some of the stretches out of the system and brings great peace of mind. To do this simply make a solid anchor point, using one or several pieces, and anchor the rope via an Alpine Butterfly, adjusting its bight or extending it so that the rope above has about two metres of slack in it. If you don’t do this you may find it impossible to thread a descender onto it when coming down, and again take into account the fact that if you’ve abseiled down it the rope may have stretched, meaning once it regains that stretch it may become much tighter on the anchor – you have been warned!