Tech Tip - Alpine - The soft-knot method


Roping up the soft-knot way.

While trudging along the glacier on the approach to Mount Foraker’s Talkeetna Ridge, I had time to ponder everything from how to balance my life’s priorities to an endless loop of an old Eagles song stuck in my head. Eventually, I actually began to focus on the glacier travel and realized that there’s a more versatile and functional way to rope up, especially for climbers who travel in a party of two and want to keep their equipment to a minimum. The method is based on a core rope-rescue principle: avoid the use of “hard” knots (e.g., figure-8s, bowlines, butterflies) whenever possible. When a crevasse or cornice fall occurs while two climbers are moving together and connected with hard knots, they’are essentially stuck in place and their options are limited: The belayer must establish an anchor in the exact spot where he or she is, and the victim must ascend from the point where he or she is suspended. In the real world this scenario isn’t ideal.Mechanical soft knots. Here’s how the “soft-knot” method works for a two-person team traveling with a 60-meter rope. Be sure to pre-mark your rope in thirds with a rope-friendly pen so you can easily locate these points. To get started, both climbers should tie a figure-8-on-a-bight on their ends of the rope and clip this to their harness’ belay loop with a locker. This hard knot is important as it provides a backup but still allows you to easily escape if necessary. Shoulder-coil the 20 meters of rope between your figure-8 and your one-third marking. Next, attach yourself to the rope with a Grigri, clipping in to the device at the one-third mark. Be sure the rope is properly threaded through the Grigri, and that the rope exiting from the “climber” icon on the device is going toward your partner. Use a 9.8 mm (or thicker) rope, as skinnier cords don’t work in a Grigri. (Note: Petzl has not tested this technique for the Grigri and neither condones nor disapproves its use.) Drop the first shoulder coil (coming from your Grigri), giving yourself a two-foot loop. Use this to secure your shoulder coil by wrapping it around the coils a couple of times, tying it off with a clove hitch or half hitch, and clipping the coil tie-off loop to your harness. This keeps the hitch from loosening and provides an intermediate backup for your Grigri. Without this tie-off the rope could auto-feed through the device, causing unwanted slack. By roping up with this method, both climbers have the option to quickly swap leads and to safely change from lowering, ascending, or belaying mode. To deploy the system, simply undo the coil hitch and drop your shoulder coils off to the side, where it will be easy to manage the rope.

Practice. Your partner just disappeared into a crevasse, there isn’t a good anchor around, you can’t communicate, and things are resembling Touching the Void. Now isn’t the time to start practicing. As with any complicated technique, it’s important for both climbers to discuss a few scenarios before stepping onto a glacier so that they can anticipate what to do if a fall occurs and communication is difficult. Lowering out. For the previously described scenario, I recommend a plan in which the victim has first refusal to lower out in hopes of reaching a stance or an anchor opportunity so that he can unweight the rope. Once there’s slack in the system the belayer can reposition himself, establish a solid anchor, and reestablish communication while the victim prepares to ascend. The belayer should give the victim at least 10 minutes to execute his or her plan before making the judgment call to lower. Self-rescue. Once an anchor is established, the victim simply places an ascender rigged with a foot loop on the rope above the Grigri and he or she has an effective ascending system. Just stand up in the foot loop and simultaneously pull up the slack through the Grigri, sit back down, and repeat.Using a soft knot in your glacier travel system will expand your options if used in conjunction with standard crevasse-rescue techniques, smart route selection, good partner communication, and practice before you hit the mountain. Even in a grim scenario such as an unconscious partner, you have far more options — and less chance of getting trapped — with a soft-knot system. An effective rescue system will give you the peace of mind to enjoy that glacial slog or sketchy corniced ridge and concentrate on more important thoughts … like that endless Eagles loop, “I’ve been running down the road tryin’ to loosen my load, I got seven women on my mind …”Dave Nettle lives in Tahoe City, California, and is an internationally certified Level III Rope Access Technician with the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association. He is an instructor for Ropeworks Industrial Group, for which he teaches rope access and rescue techniques throughout North America, and has been an alpinist for 30 years.