Rope drag is one of the critical components of safe, efficient and effective roped climbing, following close behind lead protection and belaying. In the past, runners (gear placed on lead) were kept to a minimum, with only half a dozen pieces being placed. Added to this pitches tended to be short, a forty-five-metre rope being the standard, then fifty, then sixty, and now seventy. Often the classic pitches are only thirty metres long. Add to this the use of double ropes in Europe and straight-up pitches in the US while using single ropes and drag was not a problem.
Fast forward to today. Now we have super long ropes, we string pitches together, and may place twenty runners on a single pitch. Climbs can also be very complex, traversing, going in and around features, adding to the friction on the rope. Another factor is moving together on multi-pitch/alpine climbs, where a free-running rope is vital to avoid issues, like trying to do a hard move way above gear with ten foot of slack held in your teeth!.
The dangers of drag
The primary issue with rope drag is that is stopping you from being able to freely move, resulting in very unenjoyable climbing (like dragging a sandbag), which could cause you to fall off, or just waste time, forcing you to belay mid-pitch. Trying to clip gear can also be very difficult, pulling up the rope, plus a tight rope has a higher chance of plucking out gear.
A secondary issue is that a rope that has a lot of drag is less dynamic, which can be an issue on marginal gear, fixed pegs, ice gear. Also, a point of drag tends to be a contact point with the rock, and any fall can result in rope damage, and if not that then some wear and tear. I’ve seen a rope almost destroyed by a couple of shortfalls where a twin rope was running over a sharp edge (sheath damage).
How to avoid drag
The 2D pitch
A good way to avoid rope drag is to imagine the pitch in 2D, cut the pitch into two plains. First, imagine you’re slicing the pitch in half from your belay to the next to give you one profile, then again in the opposing vertical plane (the surface plane). If you’re on an 80-degree slab with 8 bolts in a line then this X-pitch profile will be a straight line, as will the Y. Make the pitch 55 metres long, going up a chimney, across a ledge, up a corner, then over a slab, then you’ll have two much more complex lines. Now draw out these lines on a piece of paper, making them about 55cm long. Imagine your rope was forced to travel along these lines directly. It obvious it would be impossible. Now draw ten points on each line and try and draw a line linking one belay to the other. Again you can’t and you will have some sharp angles and deviations in both (on a bolted slab both lines will be straight, on a slab with natural gear one line will be flat while the other will be more complex).
One option would be to cut down the number of points (the protection obviously), but then you may fall off and die. You could just place less, what’s most usually done on easy routes, but again this is not an option on hard routes. Instead, draw a line from A belay to B belay and see if you can match up the points by extending them out from the pitch line by drawing 10mm, 20mm, 30mm, 60mm and 120mm lines. These, of course, are you krabs and slings and extenders. To keep it as a straight line you’d need to only place runners at certain points, but this may not be possible, so you’ll end up with a compromise, a wavy line.
One long pitch each runner has a friction value you could measure in grams and kilograms, and these will add up until the rope is so ‘heavy’ it won’t move. You can place every runner well then just under extend a runner under a roof (such a runner has two acute angles) and you’re dead in the water. The skill as a leader is both knowing what length sling to use (as a rule of thumb, on sports routes that 10cm draws and 60cm slings on alpine routes), and having the balls to use them, many climbers picking small draws because they fear an extra twenty centimetre of fall. Believe me that 20 extra centimetres of the sling is much better than 20 fewer centimetres you’d probably not fall anyway (this is another good reason for fall training at the wall).
Long and short draws
I’ve written about what draws to carry before (this was a guide for trad climbers and all climbers will differ on length and number), but you can never place a draw that’s two long in my book, with long slings being perfect for trad. Avoid placing bunches of draws, like two wires clipped close to each other and clipped off with two draws. Instead make ‘nests’ of gear, tying them off with a single sling.
The thinner the rope and the tighter and more slick the sheath the better it’ll run. An old thick rope will drag due to both weight and sheath friction, but on a straight climb, it’ll be fine. Starting out on a single rope tends to make climbers more aware of friction over the ropes than double rope climbers.
The diameter of your krab where it contacts the rope is also a factor, with something like a mini Edelrid 19G creating much more friction than a Petzl Spirit, with the DMM Revolver having bar far the lowest (I always carry three or four DMM Revolvers on 60 cm slings), so a mix should be used, the greater the rope angle the lower the friction you want from a karabiner.
Having a lot of slack in the rope can cause a disconnect between the belayer and the leader, so make sure you don’t compound drag with sloppy belaying (which can lead to a belief you’ve got too much friction instead of not enough belaying!)
How to deal with drag
If you begin to notice drag is increasing consider what gear you place going on more carefully. It may also be worth down climbing (once you have higher runners) and taking out problem piece. Often I’ll back clean as I go, placing gear above me, making a move, placing some more, then reaching back down to take it out (this can give you the impression you’ve soloed a route, but don’t!).
Stopping mid-pitch is probably the most usual way to deal with rope drag but sometimes this isn’t possible. If it then avoids wasting even more time and try and run the rest of the pitch into the next pitch.
If you can’t make a belay and have to go on, then you can attempt to self-belay. To do this you’ll need to pull up enough slack to move on and someone secure yourself to the rope (knots, clove hitch), paying out the rope at your end as you climb. As you can guess this is a very risky manoeuvre!
Rope drag tends to be a consequence of a lack of skill, a lack of care or a lack of foresight (or all three). A well-equipped climber, bold enough to place the right amount of gear, climbing past problem spots (like deep in a chimney) and extend everything well, should have no problems - but if you don’t worry, we all do.