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Stuck Ropes: When All Else Fails


Submitted by sixleggedinsect on 2006-05-09 | Last Modified on 2006-12-27

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It Didn't Work. I'm Going Up There.

Your rope is fixed, or you don't want to take the chance welding it with further pulling. That sucks. But you're still alive right now. Before you start batmanning the fixed line, have a good think about things. Weigh the risks of not having your rope vs retrieving the rope and all the myriad Bad Things that could happen. This will be your judgement call in the end. Just be aware that plenty of people get broken, or completely written off, because of rope retrieval tomfoolery. That said, I'll mention a few retrieval techniques, but there is no one answer. Like building anchors and moving fast, you have to choose your own path. A few things you might consider:

The Good:

Do you have both ends of the rope? Yes? You're golden! Rig up the prussik slings you always carry on the back of your harness around both ropes with your favorite friction knot and jug the line. There are books and books on this, and I don't want to bore you, but make sure you have at least two knots between you and the deck (two prussiks to the harness, or better yet, a prussik or two and a backup knot clipped to your harness). Get to the top, fix the problem, and rap.

Rockclimbing Article Image1_large

Good clean fun: You have both ends of
rope and prussiks. Wrap and go.

If you have practiced ascending a line before, the whole retrieval/re-rap might only take ten minutes and it's completely safe. If you (for some inexplicable reason) carry Tiblocs instead of prussiks (they're nowhere near as versatile) then you'll need to tie off one end of the rope (to your partner or an upwards anchor) and jug the other. If you don't have prussik cord, you can also rig friction knots with slings, but they are finicky and should be practiced beforehand.

The Bad:

If you no longer have both ends of the rope, you have options. But... they suck. The most straightforward option is re-leading the pitch with another rope. This assumes you have a fresh half-rope or another single or something that should hold a real fall. A doubled-over half rope or twin is completely textbook legit, but may require you climbing the one long rap as two pitches to get to the anchors. The luxury of a lead-worthy pull line is one of the distinct disadvantages of the dental-floss rap lines. Leading a pitch on 6mm static cord really doesn't do it for me.

If the climbing is friendly and the rope is mostly down, but perhaps stuck on a bush or flake near your belay, consider up and down leading to get the rope. This saves the time of going all the way to the rap anchors, and you can do it with just a little bit of rope. Basically, lead like normal, but put in extra pro. Especially at (or above, but within reach from below) cruxes. Go up, clear the problem, and then downclimb pulling your pro.

If the rappel route is climbable, but you are exhausted and cold, or perhaps it's some 5.12 testpiece, you can jug/climb the line, sliding your two prussiks up with you to provide a solo TR setup. However, without both ends of the rope, this is not safe like the original solo TR setup. You can protect yourself from dying should the unknown 'anchor' above blow out in a few ways. First, and easiest, you can start jugging the sketchy fixed line, while 'leading' the pitch with another rope, putting in pro while you climb/jug to keep yourself off the ground if the stuck rope pops free.

The Ugly:

All this is fine and dandy, but sometimes your only rope is stuck and you don't have enough down to use as a lead rope, so Non-Suck isn't happening. To get to the upper anchor, or to where-ever the rope is stuck, you will need to climb or jug back up without normal top-rope or lead protection.

Remember: Do not kill yourself attempting to retrieve the rope. It is embarassing and painful. Just because a rope feels stuck, doesn't mean it's necessarily good enough to jug. Can you see what is stuck? Is there a knot jammed? Is it a real knot, or just a few kinks? Are the rings big enough to pull the knot through? Will the knot shake loose while you are jugging the line? Will the rope pop out of the crack? Think, man, Think!!

If you have no second rope to lead with, or your pull rope is not safe for leading, then you can give yourself a little margin by essentially using the fixed line as a rope-solo line. First, attach the end of the rope to your absolutely bomber multildirectional anchor with real knots. Better yet (to put some shock absorption in the system) have your partner put you on belay, even though they will not really be feeding you rope as you go higher. Either way, don't tie the rope off tight or you won't be able to feed your tie-in knot. Then start jugging/climbing and putting in pro, then clipping the pro to the line beneath you. Finally, you need a tie-in that you can actually fall on. Prussiks will not work here. Put two lockers of the same size on your harness, and clove hitch the rope around both of them.

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Slow and steady: Fix the bottom of the
single line, clove-hitch yourself to it
and rope solo the route, placing
pro as you go and clipping in
with the rope below you.

You can use prussiks to jug the line, and keep feeding the clove hitch without having to untie yourself. If the jammed rope unjams while weighted, you will fall onto the last piece you placed and be belayed off the anchor or your partner. If you do not have two lockers of the same size, the double biner clove hitch may not work. Instead, you could clove hitch around one locker, and then add another separate clove around another locker. More work, but you'll be safer than risking your life to a single locker that could be cross-loaded and break in a hard fall. Of course a gri-gri type device would be much easier (though slightly more dangerous) than cloves, but you didn't bring one.

Again: this is replicating a free climbing rope-solo setup, an advanced skill in and of itself, and one that you should research if you're interested. It's a great self-rescue skill outside the realm of stuck rope retrieval.

Two further notes: First, don't try rope-soloing with a floss-like tag line. If you fall on it, it's anyone's guess about whether it will hold. Second, if you are climbing or jugging to get up a single line, be sure to safely retie your prussiks around both ropes when you get to the second rope. The situation is then downgraded to Non-Suck solo toprope, and you can breath easy again.

Anyways, as with everything in climbing, its all about judgement. Judgement in how to avoid getting your rope stuck. Judgement in how to retrieve it without welding it. And judgement about how to get back to the anchor without dying. A little practice and a little experience helps. A basic understanding of self rescue techniques is invaluable. Patience when retrieving a rope is absolutely key. Sometimes sh*t happens. Stack the odds in your favor. And remember: there's always bouldering.

Links: Part One on prevention and Part Two on freeing them without climbing.

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