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Rope Rappel- Getting Stuck and Finding Solutions During Rough Conditions

Picture this! You and your group of five climbers are ascending up Table Mountain in Cape Town. Your team is about 3300 ft above sea level and you are climbing a 350 Ft wall. The clouds are getting darker over the Cape. It begins to rain and gradually becomes a downpour. Ugh soaked gear abounds! The wind is swishing every which way and the rock is now as slippery as can be. You look down and see the Mangapu river at your feet. There is no stopping now, and and keeping a close eye on your rope becomes even more critical.

Now let’s hypothetically say the lead rappeler fails to use protection anchors and continues the descent, lowering on belay as your team decides to stop climbing and decides to start rappelling down, as the weather conditions are persistently getting worse. Time to use your rope rappel skills. However, a couple of rappels down, with three left, the rope gets jammed! The lead decides to whip it loose away from the impediments in order to undo the tangle.

All for naught. It seems as though the harder your partner pulls on the rope, the more rigid the rope becomes. The wind is not helping and you have 1.5 hours left of sunlight left. Your team is starting to really feel the conditions. What is the correct plan of action at this point?

Avoid Stuck Ropes

Pictured: Jammed Rappel Rope

The easiest way to never have to deal with jammed ropes is taking the necessary steps when they immediately become jammed! You will learn to do this the more experience you gain and as you lose more and more rope in the process! However, sometimes the only way to avoid jammed rope issues is natural foresight skill and pure luck! You will make mistakes as we do and everyone else does so don’t beat yourself up about it, just make sure you have backups in place!

The lower the rappel angle is and the more features the rock wall is, the greater your chances are to get your rope stuck on an edge or crack impediment. Look for bigger angles and less features to rappel down! If you don’t ever want your ropes to get stuck then make sure to scope the terrain  and look out for large fissures/ crevices heavy vegetation, large flakes and highly rugged features to avoid these all together.

If you are the last one down, make sure the rope is 100% in the clear from this kind of terrain and that the rope is not at all tangled. If you are utilizing two or more rappel ropes, mark the rope you will be pulling down before you even begin to rappel so you don’t tug on the wrong one. What can happen here is you would mistakenly tug on the wrong line and you’ll never pull through the actual anchors and can get stuck for good.

How to Pull on the Rope

Once you get the rope moving, make sure to keep it going. As you pull, make sure the rope is tangle free on the free side. Once you get to the end of the pull-down and right as the rope begins to drop through the anchor, tug outwardly in a whipping motion in the direction away from the cliff wall to ultimately avoid any hook-on obstacles. The only exception here is if you are rappelling down trees where whipping it would only lead to a stuck rope on branches, etc.

If you must ascend back up the pitch to undo a snag then by all means go ahead and do it. You will feel a little agitated but there may not be any other recourse! Once you get a good handle of when the potential for a snag will occur, have the lead rappeler test tug a couple of feet while descending to catch it before they hit the next station in order to avoid any surprises. That way the last rappeler has much less to worry about. The rope can then be reverted back to equilibrium.

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What Happens When The Rope Just Won’t Pull Down (Last Rappeler Perspective)?

The last rappeler may want to:

  • Try passing the rope through the biners/rings instead of using the nylon slings
  • Position the knot that links rappel ropes right under the ledge
  • Utilize webbing to extend the rappel point

If the last rappeler decides to  position the knot under the ledge then they would have to downclimb down the line in order to get under the knot while beginning to rappel. This is easier said then done which is why it is imperative that the last climber should always have a backup autoblock in place.

In the event the entire group is at the next station and the rope is being a nuisance, try a flip motion to unwedge the rope out of the fissure.  Try walking from the base of the cliff wall in order to alter the tug angle. If all else fails try getting the team to tug on it as hard as possible. Just be cautious, the harder you pull on it the bigger the possibility it is jammed for good! 

We do recommend carrying a blade with you to use ONLY at stations when you need to let loose a rope that is gone for good in jam-status! We like Kilimanjaro multi-tool blades to get the job done and for other functionalities like popping open a can to stay hydrated. You would cut the rope and use the rest of the rope to get down to your final destination. If you get no pull and you need more length, then ascending back up the pitch may be your only option.

How Do I Ascend in Order to Retrieve A Stuck Rope?

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Pictured: Ascender attached with Lanyard

We would invest in mechanical ascenders/lanyard if at all possible to make ascending much easier, especially when you are ascending for a stuck rope. You will be glad you needn’t exert a lot more energy pitching the same route you just climbed down from!

We recommend the lanyard with ascender by Petzl. We’ve tried a few on the market and this ascender/lanyard seems to work best.  All you would need to do is have one of the ropes anchored, while ascending with the other rope using the ascender mechanism.

Once you reach the anchors, fix the jam. If you do not have an ascender handy, you may have to improvise to get to the problem. If you have capable muscles, then climbing the rope may also be an option, especially if you inadvertently rappelled beyond the overhang and have no other option to get to the anchors, or if you descend down and find that no anchors exist.

Another scenario would be if you accidently went passed the established anchors and have to climb to them (when you do not have an ascender in place).


How do I Climb a Rigged Rope?

The last thing you want is to be stuck in a huge storm, with no experience on rigging a rope in order to climb back up. Here are a few scenarios that will help you along

Rigging with the use of two friction knots– These knots fasten on the rope itself while weighted and slide up on the rope when the rope deleverages. That way it is pretty easy to climb the rope with just a little work on the muscles. All you would need to do is slide one of these knots up, add weight, then slide a second friction knot into place, and shift your body weight on it, followed by sliding the initial knot up once more.

We highly recommend using a bachman knot since it is the easiest to slide up and off the rope. Leverage using a sling in order to fasten the bachman securely. Avoid leveraging with a biner. That will just slip off, especially the carabiners that utilize the scalloped shaped edge. We tested these and ultimately you are losing a good amount of friction. If your bachman slips then re-try making another, or use a thin web. A Prusik knot may also work but it is not as easy to move up if you need to fasten quickly. A Klemheist knot may also do the job.

Pictured: Bachman Knot

The Bachman Knot

  • Link a biner within a loop or sling of rope
  • Wind the sling 4 to 6 times around the line and through the biner and make sure your wraps are not twisted messes
  • Leverage the loop that is exiting the biner. If it doesn’t hold and slips out while carrying weight, then add even more wraps. It’s ok to have 8 or 9 wraps in this case.




Prusik Knot

Pictured: Prusik Knot

The Prusik Knot

  • Fasten a piece of line onto a loop utilizing the 2xfisherman
  • loop around the line using a girth knot 
  • Funnel the loop back into the middle of the hitch four more times
  • Make sure the girth hitch is cleanly wound in order to optimize how quick it locks while climbing the rope. You want fast bite 
  • Test the loop and see if it locks. If the prusik slides then re-wrap a few more times

The Klemheist Knot

Klemheist Knot

Pictured: Klemheist Knot

  • Wind a loop of rope or a sling’s webbing (not too much) in about 6 coils up the line
  • Funnel the other side of the sling into the last loop and link the sling from where it exits the loop
  • If you need to, add more coils if the Klemheist is slipping.

Many rappellers keep perlon in their gear in order to quickly create knots on the fly. We prefer sling if you are looking for efficiency. We would ascend the rope with either but prefer the sling or cordellette . For grip, nylon works better, has a much higher melting temp so it tackles friction knots  a lot better and we want to keep our cords at about 7/165/8 in diameter whether you go with nylon, perlon or Spectra.

The rule is the more skinnnier and supple the cord is the better friction knot it will create. Most Spectra cord in today’s markets are sheathed with nylon so you can get away with it when creating friction rigs. If you are ascending to retrieve a jammed rappel rope, it would be baest to have two strands to get there with the line rigged onto the anchor fixture. If this is the case, wind the knot around both lines.

Ascend the Line

When you are working on your ascension skills, the simplest way to practice would be a flat unencumbered wall with no vegetation or some highly featured rock. That way you have a much larger angle to practice on in order to get comfortable. Practice with belays and top-ropes. Once you graduate at this level, you can then throw in some undulations and hazards to practice unraveling line as you descend down.

How do I Toss the Line?

All lines are clear, now it is time to toss the ropes. How is this done?

To prepare for the next rappel, take the upper portion of the rope and lower it about 20-35ft. Make sure to stack the top-half of the remainder line back and forth to gain momentum, then toss! You should be carrying the middle of the line. Next, stack the bottom free end of the rope. Scream out to your group “Rope!” and toss it as far out as you can so that if there are any impediments, you would have cleared them.

If there is a second line in play, toss it out the same exact way. More than likely, the first rappeler will have to untangle the toss and re-toss down, since more times than knot the rope would have made contact with an impediment on its descent. If there are trees in play, make sure to avoid them on your last rappels. It is also good etiquette to lower the line gradually with the bottom half coming first, especially when you have a group below you.

When you are facing narly wind gusts, you more than likely should stack your line and funnel them out slowly as you go so they aren’t whipping around twisting in a tangle and creating a headache. Once you reach your next station, fasten them up. If your ropes are swinging all over the place and you are on the ground level trying to retrieve, pull down as hard as you can and get the heck out of the way!

How do I Pull on the Ropes?

Make sure to always keep an eye out on tangles and also you will need to take out any stoppers out of the line before tugging down. Initially as you start pulling down, make sure the strands stay constantly moving so that you avoid any restrictions along the way. As one of your group members tugs down, the other climber should pass it through to the subsequent anchor, unless both rappellers are already at ground level. If both are already at ground level, take the rope and start walking in the opposite direction of the cliff wall.

The idea is to reduce the amount of bend in the line, which makes for a much easier pull. Right as the line begins to free fall, make sure to create an outwardly whipping motion. This helps to avoid jammed ropes as the rope starts to stack in the air on its descent. Make sure you keep looking out for loose objects from falling on you and make sure your helmet is still on your head. Remember to avoid putting your hands over your helmet if you do see an object falling on you.

Also you do not want to get hit with the falling stack of rope! It hurts! So if you see it coming for you then move out of the way. Make sure to always scream out “Rope!” when it starts to free fall.  If you are at the next station and you still have more stations to go, grab the free end of the line up to you and affix a stopper knot. Scream “Rope!” and throw it down to get the next rappel going. NEVER have both in your group throw the ropes down at the same time. Make sure to always have them fastened to link anchors or rings.

How to pull off a Hanging Transfer

A thrilling maneuver in rappelling is the hanging transfer. Very similar to a multi-pitch, however the scenario does not involve a ledge or lip. All your body weight is leveraged with the existing anchors. So as a reminder, we suggest using a daisy chain affixed to your harness in order to link the existing anchors. You always want to be in equilibrium as far as your anchor positioning goes. As a reminder triple check your anchors to make sure your are linked and the anchors are leveraged equally. Accidents do happen so it always better to be safe then to be sorry. On Rappel!

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