Mountain Project Logo

Rappelling with an ATC on a single rope

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526

I think Helen is right about the dilemma of getting advice from people you don't know.  But even people you do know may have a different relation to risk than you, so taking advice is always going to be a fraught activity.  Mark's basic point is really a different one, however, and that is that he encounters climbers who don't seem to learned some very basic things and so are in over their heads, typically without knowing it.  I don't think cluelessness is a modern invention, so I wonder whether clueless parties are really a modern phenomenon, or whether it was always the case, but the increase in climbing population density now provides more examples to the observer.  

One problem is, somewhat paradoxically, the explosion of information, gear, and technique, all things that are supposed to make things easier and safer.  When I started climbing, we didn't have cordelettes (I'm sparing y'all the large list of things we didn't have) and most of the time an anchor was a single good piton or maybe two if one didn't seem perfect. (I never thought about three-piece anchors until I tried big-wall climbing, where the standard was to have the second jug on one piton while the leader hauled on a second piton and was anchored to a third piton.  The three pitons were typically cloved together in series.)  We rigged with the rope,  found a braced belay position that would probably hold without the anchor, threw on a hip belay, and that was that.  

Compare this to the current state of affairs.  A three-point anchor has become the US standard for trad gear.  The leader has a host of options for how to clip in.  Use just the rope (and then how to arrange it)?  Use a tied cordelette?  Use a quad (mal)adapted to three points?  Use slings with tied or extending options?  Then how to belay: Anchored harness belay? Plaquette on the anchor?  And if the plaquette is the choice, as seems increasingly the case, then the deep well of...stuff...regarding how to lower a second.

Every little area of equipment and technique has expanded in an analogous way.  Moreover, entirely new classes of "essential" knowledge have been added, perhaps the main example being everything that falls under the heading of "self-rescue."  That's a whole book's worth of stuff now.  When I started climbing, self-rescue, if required, was improvised on the spot (for better or worse).  There really wasn't anything that people learned ahead of time.

In the face of this information explosion, climbers have allowed the idea of "best practice" to enter the conversation.  It is impossible to knock the concept of best practice, but for climbing I think it can have a pernicious effect.  One reason is that in many situations the standards for what constitutes "best" are unclear,  and then the ways in which "best" is evaluated are of questionable validity.  But a more critical fact is that "best" can be interpreted as "only."  This is an understandable reaction to the proliferation of options; with all these choices confronting me,  I'll just learn the "best"  one and use it for everything. But the result is a climber without the flexibility needed  to respond to the real-world spectrum of situations, at least some of which have the property that "best" isn't best for them.

Layered on top of this is the asymmetry of progress resulting from the availability of gym and sport climbing.  We now encounter people who can climb at very high grades who are complete beginners when it comes to gear and rigging and the mental aspects of trad climbing.  This asymmetry makes it easier and more likely for climbers to get ahead of their gear and rigging technical skills; we don't have to be on low fifth-class climbs to encounter them as used to be the case.

We old farts enjoy saying how much easier everything has gotten.  But my point here is that the apparently smoother path comes with pitfalls we didn't have to face, at least not right away, and so in some ways new climbers have a harder time than we did.

Old lady H · · Boise, ID · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 1,074

Thanks Rich.

All? Boise's Black Cliffs have just had a climbing fatality. No real information yet, but this will hit hard. We are a small community. I'm headed off line. Now simply isn't the time. It's heartbreaking no matter who or where, but especially so in your own community.

Best, Helen

Gumby King · · Los Angeles, CA · Joined Jun 2016 · Points: 25

While we're telling stories about Gumbies...  this is one of my favorites:

https://www.mountainproject.com/forum/topic/113602967/near-miss-on-cathedral-peak

Mark Hudon · · Lives on the road · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 420

I like Helen, she’s feisty! 

Old lady H · · Boise, ID · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 1,074
Mark Hudon wrote: I like Helen, she’s feisty! 

Thanks, sir, and the same back. 

Feisty matters. Yesterday afternoon, my local area had a climbing fatality. Our small, tightknit community is waiting to hear who was involved and what happened. It is almost certain to be a mistake made, as it almost always is.

Yeah, you can bet your ass, and mine too, I'm gonna stay feisty.

This is pretty much my family now, and complacency is too heartbreaking. Looking at who has replied on our local Facebook page, so you can start knowing who wasn't involved...is very grim.

So. Keep sharing information. Kick butts when needed. And, to quote my friend I never met, "Be kind. Always".

Please keep Boise in your thoughts, too.

Best, Helen
rob.calm · · Loveland, CO · Joined May 2002 · Points: 630

One of the recurring themes in this thread is that rappelling on a single strand  is the same as rappelling on two strands. It is not the same although it is similar. A second theme is that everyone should have experience is rappelling on a single strand as one commonly done in the old days. Huh?

In August 1985, I led the second and final pitch of Grandmother’s Challenge in Eldorado Canyon and arrived at a shelf to belay. My partner could not follow, and it began to get misty. Some other climbers on the shelf suggested that I anchor my rope and rappel down on a single line and that my partner could then grab rope and rappel after I reached the ground.  They would then untie the rope from the anchor and toss it down to us.

I had never rappelled on a single line, but it appeared obvious what to do. The surprise for me, especially as I got further down, was difficulty in controlling the rappel because there was so much less friction in the system than when using two ropes. When I finally reached my partner on the small ledge she was anchored to, I told her of my difficulties. She said I should use two carabiners with the Sticht plate device I was using. I was dubious, but since she was a mechanical engineer, I figured she knew what she was talking about. The two carabiners made the rappel much easier to control.

I had been climbing for 13 years at that time and all of it was traditional since there was no other way of climbing and also had climbed a number of alpine routes, but I had never done a single rope rappel as several posters have suggested would have been a common occurrence in the old days.. In the alpine, we always used half-ropes, which obviated the need to rappel on a single strand.

The new climbers mentioned in the original post made a wise decision in not trying to learn a new technique under the conditions described.

Post script:

A couple of years after this experience, there was an article in a climbing magazine about single rope rappelling, which didn’t mention using two carabiners to increase friction. I wrote a letter to the magazine stating the usefulness of two carabiners. I got a polite letter back saying that two carabiners would decrease the friction. To settle this, I did the following experiment in my weight room. I ran one or two strands of rope over the top of a chin-up bar and wore my harness with the rappel device attached using either one carabiner or two carabiners. To create a measurable braking force, I tied barbell plates to the brake side of the rope to see how much force was needed to hold my weight after I stepped off a ladder.  The smallest weight I had was 1.25 lbs. I did this testing for one and two strands of rope and for 9 mm. and 11 mm. ropes. The results were always the same—with two carabiners about 40% less force was needed to hold me. I can’t find the old spreadsheet on which I had the data. I know I posted it on climbing.rec., but that’s also a lost cause.

Edited for clarification October 11. 

ABB · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2007 · Points: 0
Etha Williams wrote: Maybe these two climbers just didn't want to use an unfamiliar system for the first time...

Unfamiliar system? Rapelling a single line on an ATC? Pardon my French...poor excuse.

Josh Janes · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2001 · Points: 9,107
Mark Hudon wrote: Okay, Beginners... you need to buck up and start using your brains and common sense. I’m seeing way to many of you out there not really knowing what you are doing.

Thanks for the PSA, Mark. I pretty much haven't really known what I'm doing for the past 40 years (my entire life, that is). In fact, just the other day I tried to rap a single rope and I couldn't do it either - and I've been climbing for 18 years. Now, this fixed line was a stiff-as-a-cable 11mm static that had been baking in the desert sun for a few years. Not only could I not get the damn thing through the slot in my ATC, period, but even with my GRIGRI wide open it wouldn't budge. A muenter would allow descent, but only in terrifying jerks accompanied by the most horrible, loud creaking noises and little puffs of dust. So if you have any tips for this sort of thing, I'm all ears!

Old lady H · · Boise, ID · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 1,074
Josh Janes wrote:

Thanks for the PSA, Mark. I pretty much haven't really known what I'm doing for the past 40 years (my entire life, that is). In fact, just the other day I tried to rap a single rope and I couldn't do it either - and I've been climbing for 18 years. Now, this fixed line was a stiff-as-a-cable 11mm static that had been baking in the desert sun for a few years. Not only could I not get the damn thing through the slot in my ATC, period, but even with my GRIGRI wide open it wouldn't budge. A muenter would allow descent, but only in terrifying jerks accompanied by the most horrible, loud creaking noises and little puffs of dust. So if you have any tips for this sort of thing, I'm all ears!

Oh dear, jerks accompanied by loud creaking noises, and puffs of dust is pretty much me hauling my ass out of bed and lurching toward the coffeepot, on these cold mornings when the arthritic knees have their own agenda.

It's more fun not knowing what you're doing when not all the parts are having the same discussion.

Howzabout down prussiking? Or just bounce up and down until the old mank falls down? The rope, not you. I'd never call an admin mank. But this beginner can go both up and down a rope with friction hitches. Just sayin. 

Best, Helen
Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0
Josh Janes wrote:

Thanks for the PSA, Mark. I pretty much haven't really known what I'm doing for the past 40 years (my entire life, that is). In fact, just the other day I tried to rap a single rope and I couldn't do it either - and I've been climbing for 18 years. Now, this fixed line was a stiff-as-a-cable 11mm static that had been baking in the desert sun for a few years. Not only could I not get the damn thing through the slot in my ATC, period, but even with my GRIGRI wide open it wouldn't budge. A muenter would allow descent, but only in terrifying jerks accompanied by the most horrible, loud creaking noises and little puffs of dust. So if you have any tips for this sort of thing, I'm all ears!

The answer for that is don't.  That rope sounds so old and sun-damaged that I wouldn't be surprised if it was severely weakened.  I suppose if I had to descend it, the optimal would be to gently down-prusik, but I'd be concerned that trying to loosen the prusik would damage the rope further.


Maybe try a 'biner brake?  Essentially, you want a technique that doesn't bend the rope too much...

But essentially, this wouldn't be obvious to someone who only learned the rote system, and wasn't capable of/willing to think critically about why the system works the way it does, and how it can fail.  I have no issue with someone learning only one system, as long as they understand why that system works the way it does, and why/where it won't work, so they have an inkling of how to adapt when something weird happens.
rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526
Josh Janes wrote:

Thanks for the PSA, Mark. I pretty much haven't really known what I'm doing for the past 40 years (my entire life, that is). In fact, just the other day I tried to rap a single rope and I couldn't do it either - and I've been climbing for 18 years. Now, this fixed line was a stiff-as-a-cable 11mm static that had been baking in the desert sun for a few years. Not only could I not get the damn thing through the slot in my ATC, period, but even with my GRIGRI wide open it wouldn't budge. A muenter would allow descent, but only in terrifying jerks accompanied by the most horrible, loud creaking noises and little puffs of dust. So if you have any tips for this sort of thing, I'm all ears!

I'd go with a carabiner brake.  Worked on similar things---maybe not as stiff though---bitd.  Wouldn't avoid the puffs of dust, but should be smoother...

If that's too stiff, then the next option would be the really old-fashioned "swiss seat," updated of course to the modern climbing harness.  I'd use the Kamps variation: so you clip a locker to your belay loop, pass the rap line through the locker and around your hips.  That's it---we did it all the time!  To prevent rope burns on your back, take off your shirt and stuff it down your pants in back to pad the area that is providing all the rappel friction.  If you want to use a prusik backup (something no one did bitd),  put the prusik on the rope at the level of your non-braking hand and connect it to the harness with a sling.  The non-brake hand drags the prusik down, not the brake hand as is the case in the modern set-up.
Mark Hudon · · Lives on the road · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 420

Many very good comments, very civil too, thanks.
Pretty much I’m thinking, your life might depend on a piece of gear, don't you think you should have as many options available? How long does it take to look at an ATC, read the manual a do a bit of research? Your life? Mine is pretty important to me!

David K · · New Paltz, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 145
Nathan Hui wrote:

The answer for that is don't.  That rope sounds so old and sun-damaged that I wouldn't be surprised if it was severely weakened.  I suppose if I had to descend it, the optimal would be to gently down-prusik, but I'd be concerned that trying to loosen the prusik would damage the rope further.

The sheath absorbs the sun, protecting the core. This isn't hypothetical: Jim Titt did some tests on old cordage, and discovered that it held up well with potentially decades of exposure (I'm not giving details, because I can't seem to find the post--help, anyone?). The same is not true for webbing, which does not have a separate sheath and core.

So I personally wouldn't worry too much about sun damage with a kernmantle rope. Your risk tolerance is your responsibility, however.

This is why I usually cut webbing when I see it, and leave behind cordage as tat.
Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0
Mark Hudon wrote: Many very good comments, very civil too, thanks.
Pretty much I’m thinking, your life might depend on this, don’t you think you should have as many options available? How long does it take to look at an ATC, read the manual a do a bit of research? Your life? Mine is pretty important to me! 

Wait, I need to RTFM?

/sarcasm
Old lady H · · Boise, ID · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 1,074
Mark Hudon wrote: Many very good comments, very civil too, thanks.
Pretty much I’m thinking, your life might depend on this, don’t you think you should have as many options available? How long does it take to look at an ATC, read the manual a do a bit of research? Your life? Mine is pretty important to me! 

Sir? For my noob self? Two things. Learn at least a tiny bit past the basics, but try it out enough ways that you really understand it. For me, that's my beloved prussik hitch, literally the first thing I learned. But I know it. On fat ropes, skinny ropes, one rope, two. Both up and down a rope, with my own bodyweight. 

Now, I also do part two, or hope I will do part two.

Stop.

Think out the next thing, especially if it is different, unusual, I'm tired, it's getting dark....or, perhaps....

It's a stranger offering something new.

It may not kill us, but if you can't quickly judge that, out in the field is the wrong place to experiment with something you don't quite "get".

Your experience is absolutely wonderful.

And useless.

So is the manual, and yes, I read my manuals.

Until I am capable of using it. I'm voting with someone waaaayyyy up stream, and I think these were very sensible peeps who will now look into what you proposed, try it out, play with it close to the ground....

Keep sharing, guys! Noobs like me do suck up a lot of information from here. But, it takes lots of time to sort it out, learn what works for us and why, and what doesn't.

That's all that your decades of experience comes down to, after all. Knowledge, consolidated and honed by the passing of time.

Thanks for so generously sharing, sir! And the others also.

Best, Helen
Hammer Time · · Saturn · Joined Apr 2019 · Points: 0
Mark Hudon wrote:
Pretty much I’m thinking, your life might depend on this, don’t you think you should have as many options available? How long does it take to look at an ATC, read the manual a do a bit of research? Your life? 

I edited for clarity, this is the crux, and I also think folks should experiment. How many ways can you come up with to do something? That fancy thingamabob is only as good as its user. But also your desire to live needs to ensure you don't quit no matter the odds. True story: A friend once got caught in a dust devil one hundred feet from the ground in a tow plane. When he realized what was happening he kept flying, hands on the controls and power. The plane impacted the ground nose first. NTSB said his body absorbed 29Gs. His son, who was at the airport saw the whole thing, said he saw him pop out the side of the airplane after the crash. The docs said they don't know how he pulled that one off as many of his muscles/tendons had separated from his bones on impact. When I asked how he managed he said he just didn't want to burn up in the plane. Two years ago I was at my buddies house swimming with him and his father, same guy. His father was recovering from a heart attack, there he was swimming with his son and I. When I asked how he could be so upbeat he said, you just have to keep going, things can always be worse. An amazing person.

ABB · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2007 · Points: 0
Josh Janes wrote:

In fact, just the other day I tried to rap a single rope and I couldn't do it either - and I've been climbing for 18 years. Now, this fixed line was a stiff-as-a-cable 11mm static that had been baking in the desert sun for a few years. Not only could I not get the damn thing through the slot in my ATC, period, but even with my GRIGRI wide open it wouldn't budge. A muenter would allow descent, but only in terrifying jerks accompanied by the most horrible, loud creaking noises and little puffs of dust. So if you have any tips for this sort of thing, I'm all ears!

Best to rely on your own everything to get yourself through the day - your own skills, partner, equipment and chutzpah. When you relinquish control, results may not be to your liking.

phylp · · Upland · Joined May 2015 · Points: 612

Am I the only person who thought Josh Janes was just making an amusing post?  Apparently people think he was asking a serious question. I don’t doubt that he got down that frightening rope, but was just joking about the crazy stuff we all do sometimes. 

Josh Janes · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2001 · Points: 9,107

Bravo, phylp.

But Nathan Hui, I'm paying attention. We could all probably stand to learn a lot more from you. Keep those pearls coming!

Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0
Josh Janes wrote: Bravo, phylp.

But Nathan Hui, I'm paying attention. We could all probably stand to learn a lot more from you. Keep those pearls coming!

Oh, I don't know.  I think I have way more to learn from you all.  I'm just jaded from teaching/mentoring undergrad engineering students (aka dragging students through the muck).

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Beginning Climbers
Post a Reply to "Rappelling with an ATC on a single rope"

Log In to Reply