Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Closing the System and Staying Alive

It was a short day in December of 2007 and I had to get at least one more route in. The climbers who'd come in to climb with me were supposed to do a multi-pitch the next day.  So I rushed to the top and moved the rope from one top-rope anchor to the next.

I didn't notice that the ends on the ground had become offset.

I rappelled the rope, until one end slid easily through my device and I fell.  It was a short fall, only six feet, but I still ended up in the hospital. It took three months to recover from my fractured pelvis.

When I think back on this accident, the thing that burns me the most is that it could have been easily prevented. All that I had to do was to put stopper knots in the end of the rope, then it wouldn't have mattered if the ends were offset.

Most people think of rappelling off the end of your rope as some kind of grand thing that only happens way up off the ground. The reality is that it happens all the time in much less dramatic circumstances. It happens exactly the way it happened to me, with one end that didn't quite touch the ground. Often times the injuries are minor, but sometimes they're not.

The thing is that it is very easy to protect yourself from this type of accident. The way to do it is to "close the system." In other words, make sure that what happened to me simply can't happen to you...

Single-Pitch Rappel

In a single-pitch setting it's very easy to put a stopper knot in both ends of the rope.  This works well as there are limited concerns about the rope getting stuck somehow below you. The best knot to use is the barrel knot, or stopper knot. This is essentially half of a double-fisherman's knot. Though any knot will do.

A Stopper Knot (Barrel Knot)


A second situation that is different, but related, is the possibility of dropping someone by lowering them  until the rope runs out.  In such a situation, the rope runs through an unsuspecting belayer's hands, and then it's gone...and the climber falls to the ground.

Once again, this is extremely preventable.  Every single time you climb, you should tie a stopper knot in the open end of the rope. It doesn't matter if there is a hundred feet of rope on the ground.  The idea is to make knotting the end of your rope part of your process, so that when something does happen, nothing happens...

Multi-Pitch Rappels

When I preach the gospel of tying knots in the ends of ropes, a lot of people bring up a very valid concern.  On multi-pitch rappels, it's not uncommon for the ends of the rope to fall past a rappel station. If there are knots in those ends below, they can get caught down there.

One simple way to avoid this is to tie an overhand or an eight on a bite at the ends of the ropes.  Clip these to your harness before tossing the line. Then when you are ready to pull your rope, you can untie them.  If you keep them clipped to your harness until the very last moment, there are three advantages:

  1. The first advantage was the point of all this. You won't rappel off the end of your rope.
  2. The second advantage is that the knots can't get stuck below you and you have the end of your rope.
  3. And lastly, if you keep these clipped to your harness until the very last moment, it will also help you to remember to untie the knot at the end of the rope before pulling it.
Rappelling off the end of your rope or dropping someone are both things that most of us would like to avoid.  Climbing is dangerous. Something as simple as tying a knot can make it less so...

--Jason D. Martin

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