Monday, July 13, 2020

Retrieving a Stuck Rope

It happens enough that I'm always scared of it: stuck rope.

And while it happens enough that I'm scared of it, there have been a few incidences that really stick out. Like the time I was rappelling at midnight in rock shoes on an alpine peak. I rappelled over a frozen snowfield. When I tried to pull the rope, it was stuck. I had to reascend, in rock shoes, in the snow.

Bad news.

And then there was the time that was on a commonly climbed route in Las Vegas. I pulled the rope and watched it drop behind a flake. It was totally stuck. I climbed up to try to get it out, but it was knotted inside and irretrievably jammed. I had to cut the rope.

Really bad news...

And finally, there was the time I was rappelling in the rain. The rope became jammed when we tried to pull it. But we kept pulling anyway. Eventually it came down, but we'd pulled so hard that we pulled the sheath off the core of the rope. Two-hundred dollar plus rope was ruined.

The worst news...

Today we're going to first, talk about some ways to first avoid a stuck rope. And then second, to get it down if it does get stuck.

Rappelling Zig Zag (5.7) at Mt. Erie

Prevention

Placement

Occasionally there are anchors that are over and away from the lip. Ideally, these anchors can be extended so that the rope is on the cliff-side of the lip. This will decrease friction and allow for an easier pull.

Knots

If you intend to tie two ropes together, be sure to tie them with an overhand flat-bend (often also called a Euro Death Knot). The profile of this knot is that it is only on one side of the rope. This allows there to be a "smooth" side, which makes it less likely that the knot will get stuck.

Rappel Length

Long rappels provide more terrain for ropes to get caught up on. If you do shorter rappels, the falling rope simply doesn't have to travel as far, decreasing the likelihood that it will get caught.

Pretest

Before you begin your rappel, test the pull. Make sure that the rope moves and that it's not going to get caught on anything.

A climber prepping for a rappel.

Retrieval Techniques

Now your rope's stuck. What do you do...?

Reversal Technique

The very first thing to try is to reverse the pull. Sometimes, with a double-rope rappel, you've simply pulled on the wrong strand. Other times, a simple reversal will dislodge whatever problem you might have.

Flip Technique

Sometimes a jammed rope will dislodge if the climber flips and whips the rope.

Walk Back Technique

If you're on the ground, you may be able to walk back a bit from the cliff. Once you've done that, you can use a combination of flipping and whipping to dislodge the stuck spot. The change in angle from walking back will often help.

Ascend the Rope

If you still have both ends of the rope, and you know that the anchor won't fail, then you can reascend the rope using prusics or a plaquette. When you get to the top, you'll need to re-rig the rappel.

Relead

If you have one end of the rope, and you have enough rope, you may be able to lead up to the spot where the rope is stuck. This creates it's own issue, as you may have to rig a new rappel and surrender gear to get back to your belay station.

Cut the Rope

Sometimes -- even though the rope is stuck -- you have enough to work with if you cut it. You may be able to use the left-over rope to descend to the ground.

Rescue

The final and the last resort, would be to call for a rescue. If none of these other things are possible, and no one is coming down your same descent line the might be able to help you, you may have to call for help. You should only do this if your situation rises to the level of emergency and you simply cannot get down...

Getting a rope stuck while your on your way down is never fun. But if you remember these tricks and techniques, perhaps next time you'll have enough of a quiver to easily retrieve a stuck line...

--Jason D. Martin

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