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Retrieving Stuck Ropes

Submitted by sixleggedinsect on 2006-05-07 | Last Modified on 2006-12-27

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This is Part Two of a three-part series on stuck ropes. Part One is about preventing the stuck rope from happening in the first place. Or, jump ahead to Part Three.

Un-Stucking Stuck Ropes

Even the superhumans among us can't get it down sometimes (insert your own viagra joke). The first line of attack is to try to retrieve the rope without climbing anything. A rough outline of strategies follows, although not all are necessarily used everytime, and some rely on you having both ends of the rope still with you.

0) Pulling with all your might is always the *last* thing to try. It is an act of panic or desperation. In some cases, the rope pops free and sails down real purty-like. In most cases, the rope just gets harder to un-stuck. In other cases it will irretrievably fix your rope (bring a knife if it gets cold at night). Pulling with all your might is pretty intuitive. In fact, it works a lot of times. Just make sure you try it last, or in some cases, not at all.

1) So if you should pull only as a later option, what comes first? First try to figure out what is going on. Did you do everything in the prevention list right? Try to remember if something didn't run straight or if there might be twists up there or the like. Did you watch the tails? Sure there wasn't a knot in there when it left your sight? Can you see a knot at the anchors? Knots get left in ropes. They get tied when the rope kinks and twists on the ground or in the air. They get tied when the rope whips around. They tie themselves around anchors sometimes. Is the knot around the rings, or jammed in the rings, or does the rope just seem to 'end' at the rings? Sometimes with ropes with a stiff bit of tape at the end of the rope, the last inch of rope jams seemingly irretrievably, pinned between the rock and the weighted ring. Does the rope disappear behind a flake? How far can you pull? Are you sure you're pulling the right end? Try to figure out as much as you can. And then try to fix the problem.


Flawless PWAYM technique.

2) Rope Flicking: your basic unsticking tool. It works like magic in most cases, particularly when you can see what the rope is caught on and flick in the appropriate direction, or off of or out of a feature. Sometimes rope flicking is a bit of an art, requiring deft and exacting coordination, so hand the rope to the intelligent person in the party. Seriously. Sometimes the double-flick is the way to go. Example: for long raps, or stuck ropes where the problem is over a ledge, a big whip often won't move the rope around much at the top. If you give the rope a big whip, wait for the wave to move up to near the top of the rope, and then give it another huge whip, you'll often get a super-whip at the top of the rope. Try this (or have your girlfriend do it, we're looking for finesse here) and you'll see what I mean.

Generally, unless you know exactly what is going on, a dozen hard rope whips is a good way to start the stuck rope dance, and it only makes things worse if you are on super-featured-catchy-positive-chickenhead-terrain and you're not taking your medications.

3) Try untwisting. Can you get far away from the cliff to be sure your ropes are not twisted? Are they twisted above a ledge? Do they twist one way a few times, go over a feature, then twist back a few times? If you're on the ground, you can often grab an end and walk away from the cliff to get a better angle. Try pulling from out there, maybe. Or maybe you and your partner take an end each and start doing mayday circles around each other to get the twists out. Sometimes you can't see your rope, but think it might be twisted. If you're desperate, you can put a couple twists in the ropes in one direction, flick it around a bunch of times to work the twists up the rope, and hope it made it better. If nothing improves, twist the appropriate number of turns in the appropriate direction to undo the extra twisting, shake it out, and try the other direction. This rarely does anything great, but you never know. Screw it up and you'll guarantee yourself a friction-stuck rope in slabby or featured terrain.

4) See-sawing. OK, I made that term up. But say you've pulled down a few yards of the rap and then it jams, or starts to get tough to pull. Want an 'undo' button? Your 'control-z' at the crags is to pull the rope back to where you started. Then flick it around a bit, and try again, and again. Obviously, this won't work if you no longer have both ends in your hands. Which begs the comment -- If you're having trouble pulling a rap, you better feel really good that its going to work out before you let go of the non-pull strand.

5) Are you sure you're pulling the right rope? When desperate, try the other one. You'll be pulling rope and you'll get a sudden jam feel, which is different from the gradual stretchier jamming of a rope getting embedded in a crack.

6) Pulling. Not to be confused with Pulling With All Your Might (PWAYM). We all do it. Generally, be conservative. It is a good tool to check whether the rope is going to come despite the twists, or to get it off of a chickenhead, or whatever, but remember that anytime you pull the rope without being able to see what is going on you are taking a risk. Generally, I'll use a handful of firm fishing tugs to check what's going on up there, but remember: you're just checking up on things. If the rope is getting harder and harder to pull with each tug, then stop tugging already! You are jamming the rope and are probably making things worse.

7) Ah, it's what you've been waiting for: the PWAYM. You can try it as a last ditch attempt, except in one of the following two situations: Do Not PWAYM a stuck rope that could be wrapped around a loose block above you. It may free the block, which will then fall on you, simultaneously killing your partner, chopping your rope twice, and scratching your sunglasses. Your partner may survive, but only if he escapes anything but a glancing blow by running through a field of prickly pear cactus (Jeff, I'm very happy you're still alive). Second, Do Not PWAYM a stuck rope that appears to be in a flake or crack that you can't access, or if one end of the rope is out of view/reach. Be particularly wary of features that already have pieces of tat rope sticking out of them. Of course, if you are on the ground and do not want your rope, go ahead. I guess. It's not Leave-No-Trace, but hey, think of it as a contribution to the local dirtbags.

One additional unstickage technique that was brought to my attention recently is the 'rubberband' technique. It is anecdotally useful for getting a high-friction rappel (not actually stuck, per se, but just hard to get moving) to start to pull. To rubberband, one climber PWAYMS one rope, the other climber PWAYMS the other rope, and then one lets go. I've never used it, but I've heard good things and when you're desperate, you'll try anything, right? Sounds easier when you're on the ground, though. Don't factor-2 onto your clip-in slings at a hanging belay!

Rope in crack

A rope disappearing into a crack? This is
one of the most dire situations in terms
of Losing-Your-Rope-Forever potential.
Be careful.

One note on flakes, while we're at it: when the rope is getting jammed in/behind a flake/crack, pulling down may weld it. Unless you're sure it's going to work out, consider assuming the rope is not going to pull, and figuring out some way to get up to it so you can better analyze how to extricate it. Generally sideways or upwards pulls are much less risky to the long term health of your cord.

If the rope is pulling, but there is so much friction that it takes all your remaining bicep, well, good luck. Borrow your partner's gloves, pull together, wrap it around your hands, hydrate with a scientifically-designed sports drink, and keep your fingers crossed because you are always taking a chance of welding the thing irretrievably.

This is Part Two of a three-part series on stuck ropes. Part One is about preventing the stuck rope from happening in the first place. Or, jump ahead to Part Three.


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