Learn This: Alpine Rope Management
Managing the rope at belays and rappels on multi-pitch routes can be a smooth operation that leads to quick transitions and more climbing. Or it can be a headache-inducing rats’ nest of chaos that means wrestling with yourself every time you try to feed out slack. Instead of spending your summer alpine season untangling a rope, learn a few simple methods that will help you spend more time sending. Try out these tricks on shorter routes so that when you’re faced with 15 pitches or 10 long rappels, you’ll have these techniques dialed in and ready to put to use.
With a ledge
Making sure the rope coils or stacks nicely as you belay the follower is the key to fast changeovers. If the stance is on a ledge, stack the rope just as you would on the ground, but be careful of loose rocks an errant coil could knock down. Keep in mind who is leading the next pitch, too. If your follower is taking the lead, his end of the rope will already be on top, so you don’t need to do anything. If you’re going on the sharp end again, you’ll need to get your end on top before you take off. The classic “pancake flip” works well: Grab the whole stack of rope, one hand on bottom and one on top. Flip it just like you would a pancake, so the correct end is on top and it won’t turn into a tangled ball.
Without a ledge
No ledge (a “hanging belay”) means you’ll have to coil the rope over whatever you’re tied into the anchor with. Lean out slightly from the wall so that your tether is taught. The key here is to make the loops gradually longer or shorter (this is contingent on who is leading the next pitch), instead of making them all the same. Loops of the same length will tangle faster than you can say “off belay.”
If your partner is leading the next pitch…
Make the first loops the longest, so the shorter coils will be on top. Make the longer coils as long as you’d like, but not so lengthy that they’re getting caught on rocks or features below. Each subsequent coil should be shorter by a few inches, so the long coils on the bottom won’t get twisted up with the shorter strands. With the short coils on top, the rope will feed smoothly when you switch from pulling in slack to paying out rope as your partner goes on lead.
If you’re leading the next pitch…
You’ll want the belayer to have the same setup listed above: long coils on bottom, short coils on top. That means you’ll coil the rope properly for your partner as you belay him, and you’ll need to do it in reverse, so start with short coils that hang at least a foot down on each side. Each coil after that should be several inches longer. Once he reaches the belay and clips into the anchor, work together to flip the coils onto his tether. Have him pick up the bundle of rope straight off your tie-in point, and, keeping them in order, he should move the bundle so it’s touching his tether. At this point, you should take the other side of the coils and flip them over onto his tether, so longer strands are on bottom.
In high winds
The “alpine torpedo” is a great trick for not getting the rope blown off course by strong winds when you toss it; it’s best when rapping from a ledge. Stack the rope from the anchor by starting in the middle and working out toward the ends of the rope, making two tight, neat stacks. Take the last three feet of rope from both ends and ball it all up together into your hands. Make sure the rope stacks have a clear path to get down, and throw this ball of rope straight down as hard as you can. This should cause the rest of the rope to pull out of the stack, hanging untangled and straight down from the anchor.
With people below you
Whether you’re rapping a popular descent line or the route you just climbed, tossing the rope becomes an issue when there are people below you. Rappelling with “saddlebags” is an excellent option to keep handy for situations when you might not want to blindly toss the rope, including broken or flaky terrain where the rope can easily get jammed on the toss (fig. 1). You’ll need to extend your rappel so the rope feeds smoothly. Make the rope coils about four feet long (two separate coils if it’s a double-rope rappel, one coil/saddlebag for each side), clip a biner to a gear loop on your harness, and then clip a sling or some cord to the biner. Wrap the sling around the middle of the rope coils and clip the other end of the sling onto the biner on your harness. As you rappel down, the rope should feed smoothly from your saddlebag. Since it might be difficult to tell how much rope you have left, you should knot each rope end, too.