Rope Wrangler image

Rope Wrangler

Ropes are both a blessing and a curse - they keep your ass safe, keep you connected and allow you to get down in one piece (if you get to the top, or only halfway).  They can also be a pain in the ass, getting tangled, caught, hung up, snagged and always in the worst moments possible.

Good rope management is therefore important - no - not good rope management - excellent rope management.  Learning good rope wrangling early on, on small routes, will pay dividends once the climbs get longer and more committing.

If you can develop the skills, mindset and focus to keep your ropes in check and deal with them when they get lose and cause trouble, then you’ll save a great deal of time and stress, and also be safer.

Rope Management notes

Here are a few things to keep in mind while developing your rope wrangling skills.

  • A rope has two ends.  If it has more than two then you’re in trouble (I once went to climb the Harlin on the Eiger with Paul Ramsden, only to find at the first belay a mouse had eaten halfway through our 100-metre rope!)
  • A rope has one middle, which should be marked clearly (if this wears off remark with Beal marker ink.
  • A rope is not a sentient being - it’s a rope.
  • A rope does not wish you well or wish you hard, wish to mess your shit up, or cause you stress.  It’s a tool for fun or disaster.
  • A rope is a rope.

So now we’ve got that sorted, let’s set about learning how to handle a rope, and of course, like learning to tame a lion, it’s best to start with just one!

Starting out climbing with a single rope is the best way to learn how to manage a rope, as well as how the rope must be used to avoid drag, edges, as well as husbanding it in tricky situations.  The skills you learn with one rope, say the proper extension of pieces in order to allow it to move smoothly as you climb, will pay massive dividends once you switch up to double ropes (half ropes).

Here are some further notes to help you in taming your single rope.

  • Although only nylon, you should treat your rope as if it’s a living thing, one of the team, part of the family.
  • Take care of your rope, look after it, remembering that although most climbing gear can take abuse, a rope is sensitive, that although it can hold a car, it is spun from strands of nylon as thin as hair.
  • Standing on a rope is really no big deal, but it’s disrespectful - so don’t do it.
  • A rope likes a firm hand, and should always know its place when it’s not moving, either coiled well (tight and neat) or stacked at the belay (neatly) ready for action
  • Try never to let your rope get away from you, always keeping the ends close (when you abseil clip the ends to your harness), and all parts in site if at all possible (such as letting loops disappear out of site).
  • Deal with a rope problem before it comes to one, and learn to spot potential problems early.
  • Ropes punish the lazy, getting stuck, tangling up, knocking off rocks from ledges.
  • Like a dog and sheep, ropes and wind are trouble.  The windier it gets, the firmer a hand you need on your ropes.

You should already know how to coil a rope (a rope bag/tarp is a great investment for single pitch/sport/indoor), and for single pitch climbs you should always start by uncoiling the rope, then feeding it into a pile (the belayer should sort the rope while the leader racks up).  It’s kind of obvious but the belayer should begin their rope pile at their end of the rope, so the leader’s end is coming off first.  If you have a tarp then this will keep your rope out of the dirt (even climbing walls can be pretty crummy).  An alternative method is to stow the rope in a lightweight large flexi plastic bucket or Ikea carrier bag, simply feeding it in and carrying it around the crag.

At the top of a single pitch climb, the rope can be fed behind the belayer into a pile, then coiled for the descent.  If the way down is easy just lap it around your neck, making the loops long, without tying, so you can just drop it when you reach the ground. 

Be careful on some routes that your rope down;t dislodge any loose stones onto climbers below.

If you’re using double ropes, at the end of the pitch or route you’ll have a big pile of ropes all mingled together.  To avoid a big tangle, both climbers should begin splitting the two ropes by pulling the ropes into two piles beginning at the second’s end (as his ropes will be feeding onto the top of the pile).  Once you both hit the middle marks (you should be pulling at the same speed ), begin coiling up the ropes

Multi Pitch

The most critical and difficult area of rope wrangling is on multi-pitch routes, where multiple belays, swap overs, wind, rain and a hundred other factors all conspire to the cluster fuck.  If you can get this right then all will run smoothly, but get it wrong and you’ll both waste a great deal of time, energy and potentially make things more dangerous than need be (such as getting in a tangle mid crux).

Strategies and tactics

If you trawl the net and climbing mags you will find many strategies for dealing with ropes on multi-pitch routes, from clever ways to stack and flip ropes, rope bags, knots and racking on slings - but ideally, you need a system that does one thing:

Allows the rope to be stowed in a manner that eliminates tangles with the rock and the rope itself, while not distracting from belaying while taking in or paying out.

To those ends I would give the following advice:

  • Although you can stack your ropes straight onto your tie in point (simplest method) often it’s worth the hassle of stacking it away from you, usually by threading it through a ‘window’ in the belay slings or cord (if you’re using a rope to create the belay you can tie a bite in the rope through which to stack the rope.  This makes it easier to see and sort out the stack, keeps your belay loops/feet free, and makes it easier to swap ends
  • The more loops you have the greater the chance of one loop grabbing another, but the longer the loops the greater the risk of it snagging below you or being blown around.  In a perfect world, you’d have one huge loop below you as you belay the leader, but this would prone to blowing around, plus too much weight in the dead rope will make it harder to belay smoothly.
  • If the weather is calm always go for a decreasing loop stack.  To do this start your first loop as long as you can, meaning long enough that the loop will not get snagged below you.  Make each loop slightly shorter than the last.  If you run out of space make the last loops the same length (about a metre on each side).  When you begin paying out the rope the loops will feed out without feeding into one another.
  • rope stacking
  • If the belay is cramped, or it’s windy or dark (don’t lose sight of rope loops in the dark), then make your loops parallel, but as long as you think safe (maybe two metres, or if windy one metre).  The Loops will feed into one another, but don’t panic, just lift the stack an inch and give it a shake and pull (generally the loops will separate).
  • Both methods are designing for switching leads, so if you’re climbing in blocks you need to think about how this affects your stack.  People often talk about flipping the stack, where you take the rope stack and flip it over onto the belayers, but invariably this ends in disaster.  The two best options are to switch ends (remember to be attached to the belay), or simply have the belayer re-stack the rope from the leaders.
  • Using a direct auto-belay such as a Petzl Reverso makes rope wrangling way easier, as you can make your rope stack perfect.
  • If you’re hopeless at rope wrangling then consider using a rope bucket (you’d have to carry it in a pack), or the smaller Ikea carrier bag (50 litre one, not 200 litre one).  Just clip this to the anchor (below the Reverso) and feed in the rope.
  • If you’re climbing with someone who’s not that experienced at rope management then try and climb nice and slowly, and get them to tell you to stop before they get in a tangle.
  • If you’re climbing as a three then get the third person to look after the ropes, while the belayer focuses on belaying.
  • If climbing as a three, try and have both seconds climb within a few metres of each other so that the ropes stack correctly (not too offset).  If this is not possible, say you need to bring them up one at a time, stack the ropes separately.

All a tangle

If your ropes get in a tangle, and they will, just take your time and don’t stress.  Pulling apart knots in the tangle tends to help loosen things up, as well as just pulling the tangle apart.  There is an argument that the worse you are at rope work the better you become at sorting out tangles, but there’s sorting out tangles at a climbing wall, and sorting out tangles at midnight at the top of a big climb!
So there you go - some thoughts on rope wrangling, but never forget - a rope only has two ends and middle, how hard can it be!