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Out on a Ledge: Tangled

Confronting the knotty issue of fixed ropes

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Mikey Schaefer managing a pile of lines used to fix a route on Middle Cathedral, Yosemite.Jeff Johnson

The white cord dangled in the wind, draped across the top of the Gecko Wall—covering a half dozen routes—in Pine Creek Canyon, California. There, a prime toprope-solo line, Tommy Herbert’s 1990s arête Ecstasy (5.13a), would sometimes sprout fixed lines left by locals, myself included, working out its intricate beta. But now, months later, a rope left on Ecstasy had whipped around the wall, creating this eyesore—and its owner had left town. The convenience of the fixed line had now become the inconvenience of a stuck, abandoned rope.

My husband, Ben Ditto, and the longtime local developer Patrick O’Donnell ventured out to the crag to clean up the mess. This involved topping out a multi-pitch route and navigating choss to reach the stuck rope. However, in the process, they discovered the potential for a new route and so placed an anchor nearby, dropping a new fixed line to clean, bolt, and piece together the puzzle. Conscious of the double standard, Ben and Patrick tied their rope out of the way of the other climbs. Using this fixed line, Patrick worked for two months to create what would become one of his best contributions to the Gecko Wall, Capernicus (5.13c). So, one misfortune led to something better, though this isn’t always the case.

In autumn 2011, I hiked up to Yosemite’s Cascade Falls and dropped a rope down Beth Rodden’s route Meltdown (5.14c). It felt in my wheelhouse—I just needed time and good conditions. The difficult climbing and tricky gear meant that toproping would be more efficient. I had a good session on Meltdown that day and decided to leave my toprope in situ through several pieces of gear, as well as tied off to the side. I planned on returning in two days, the park was empty, and no one else was trying the route. It seemed OK to leave the rope.

Then, a four-day storm rolled in. The waterfall turned from a trickle to a cascade, making access impossible. When the weather cleared, I returned to find that the raging waters had ripped my rope and gear from the wall, creating a tangled mess amongst the talus and lower cascades. What had seemed like a well-laid plan had turned into a junkshow—my junkshow—and now the rope was submerged, wrapped around a granite block in the stream. I removed what I could, cutting the rope and feeling foolish. I had sacrificed my rope to the Merced and inadvertently polluted a Wild and Scenic River. In the process, I learned that the cons of leaving a fixed line often outweigh the pros.

* * *

In the 2000s, the Yosemite Climbing Ranger Jesse McGahey noticed that fixed lines were proliferating on Valley big walls, placed by climbers to rehearse crux pitches for free attempts. Two high-profile pros had left fixed lines in situ directly over routes on El Capitan and Mount Watkins, creating obstacles for other parties. “The backlash from the climbing community was intense,” says McGahey. The anger was justified. In June 2003, the Bay Area local and Yosemite hardman Jim Herson geared up to free the Salathé Wall (VI 5.13) in a day. After numerous ground-up efforts without fixed lines, Herson was ready. He climbed to the base of the headwall—only to find fixed ropes in his way. “Clearing the lip of the roof, I got tangled in the ropes and fell,” Herson said. “It was my best day of climbing until it wasn’t.”

Fifteen years later, Herson faced more fixed-line drama, this time in a support role as his son, Connor, then 15, attempted to free the Nose of El Capitan. That autumn, Connor climbed from the ground to the crux Changing Corners without falling. But there, the Hersons found that pro climbers had fixed 500 feet of rope from the top. “Connor had to wait for me to move the fixed lines,” Herson said. “By the time I was done, he only had time for one burn, and he slipped off the crux exit move.” Fortunately, Connor sent the next morning.

Beyond the eyesore and inconvenience factors, fixed lines can also be dangerous: Not only can rockfall, abrasion, or rodents damage them, but, as described above, climbers have to navigate through them, creating a potentially hazardous situation. In order to mitigate the risks, Yosemite’s land managers—in particular the climbing rangers—have taken it upon themselves to clean up the mess. In 2018, Bud Miller and Eric Bissell, two Valley climbing rangers at the time, cleaned 800 feet of abandoned, core-shot lines off the Central Pillar Direct on Middle Cathedral, ropes left for a free-climbing/filming project that had fizzled. It was a committing, involved task: As the rangers jugged the lines, they were also mock-leading in case the weathered ropes broke. After passing over several core shots that had been tied off by overhand knots, Miller and Bissell reached a core shot so deep that it had actually severed the lines. The mock leading turned into real leading, and now the remainder of the fixed lines above weren’t necessarily on route or in a position to facilitate retrieval.

Yosemite Climbing Ranger Ben Doyle writing a ticket for illegal fixed lines on top of El Capitan.Ben Ditto

On the Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson employed 3,000 feet of fixed lines while working on their free ascent, notes James Lucas, who helped with the rigging. One evening as the photographer Brett Lowell was jumaring out, he reached a point where there should have been another line. However, another climber above had cut the lines. Lowell had to have a rope thrown down. During Mikey Schaefer’s first free ascent of Father Time (VI 5.13b), the photographer John Dickey hopped on a fixed line to shoot the last pitch. Dickey suddenly fell three feet—part of the anchor had abraded on an edge and broken. Luckily, Schaefer had backed it up, saving Dickey from certain death.

* * *

Despite the inherent risks, there are also advantages to fixed lines. About 420 feet of line run up the East Ledges of El Capitan, allowing parties to easily ascend or descend the monolith. And 500 feet of fixed rope run up to Heart Ledges, allowing climbers to pre-haul their loads while climbing on that section of the wall. These lines have proved useful for parties retreating due to weather, and have facilitated YOSAR rescues. To a certain degree, the park service tolerates fixed lines—official Yosemite National Park policy allows a rope to stay fixed for up to 14 days as long as it doesn’t create a hazard, isn’t on a high-traffic route, doesn’t damage any trees, is tagged with the owner’s name and the date, and is being actively used. With approval from the climbing rangers, some ropes can stay longer.

The problem isn’t the use of fixed lines, per se. Really, the problem is the misuse of fixed lines, particularly in high-traffic areas. When ropes dangle directly in the way, it suggests that the rope’s owner has priority and that all others coming from below must deal with the risk and hassle. It alters the climbing experience in a very impactful and negative way—and reeks of entitlement.

As a community, we have a responsibility to address these issues—and professional climbers and the brands who support them have an even greater obligation to lead by example. Fixed lines can be beneficial if situated correctly and managed well, but most of us can’t handle the work involved. So, if you want to fix a line, first ask yourself if it’s worth it: Can you do it without negatively impacting the environment? Will you affect others’ experiences? Is the fixed line truly necessary? If you really want to send, you don’t need convenience—you can fix your rope just for the day, then pull it up when you’re done. Or you can put in the work, learn how to wall climb, and go through the process of not only becoming a stronger, more well-rounded climber, but a more thoughtful, more responsible one, too.

Katie Lambert is a professional climber based out of a van in California’s Sierra Nevada with her husband, the photographer Ben Ditto. Lambert has climbed for more than 20 years on everything from boulders to big walls.

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