Short-roping is when a “guide” (the more confident person) and a “client” (the less confident person – either through inexperience, injury, exhaustion, or a variety of other reasons) move together over terrain that is subjectively or objectively hazardous, joined by a rope for the protection or comfort of the client, but without recourse to placing conventional protection. It is sometimes called “confidence roping” but should never be undertaken lightly.
It is important to note that the purpose of the rope is NOT to catch a fall (as is usually the case when ropes are used in the mountains) but to prevent a slip becoming a fall. If the client were to fall out-right, it is unlikely that the guide, with only the security of his feet on already dubious ground, will be able to stand firm. Techniques will be discussed later.
How to Attach the Rope
One end is attached to the client, either by tying-in to a harness, or by means of a bowline around their waist. The other end is, likewise, attached to the guide. Where the rope is longer than the desired distance between client and guide, the following procedure is used to store the excess:
- The guide loops the rope from his harness over one shoulder and under the other arm at approximately rib-cage height. He may start by either passing the rope up his chest and down his back, or the other way – it is down to personal preference.
- Take a bite (loop) of rope where it leaves the looping to go to the client, and pass it down on the inside of the loops, through the tie-in point (or the bowline at the waist) and back up and around the bundle.
- Tie an over-hand knot around the client-side rope and the loop going to and from the harness to prevent tension on the client rope pulling the loops tight around the guide’s neck. Experiment with this to be sure!
- Use a carabiner to attach the loop coming out of the knot back to the harness or the bowline to prevent the knot coming undone. Care must be taken that the bundle of rope is tight enough to remain neat, but not so tight as to limit the guide’s free movement.
Great. But what length should the rope be?
The answer is… “It depends on the terrain”.
The rope should always be taught between guide and client and they must be close enough to communicate easily. On the other hand, they must be able to move independently around obstacles. It takes experience to get the gap right – go play with a variety of buddies on steep, loose terrain, such as the steep parts of Northcliff Ridge and parts of the Magaliesberg. Generally 5m to 10m is the optimal length of rope on very consistent terrain. Longer lengths may be required when the terrain forces the guide, from time to time, to climb ahead to belay the client.
While short-roping, the gap between guide and client is about 3m to 7m, as is explained below.
The guide will almost always be on the uphill side of the client, or in a particularly firm position. He will lead up hills, follow down them and traverse above the client. Generally, the guide will follow a more difficult path as the client would be given preference on the easy ground.
The guide should hold a small amount (2-3m) of slack (excess rope) in the hand away from the client, while his client-side hand controls tension to the client (a thumb-up hold tends to provide greater gripping power). The slack may either be looped around the hand, or lapped back and forth across (rather than around) the hand. The “official” advantage of the former is that the rope tightens onto the hand if the client starts to pull the rope through the other hand, adding to safety. The “official” advantage of lapping is that it is easier and quicker to control the length of the rope. Practically, it comes down to personal preference.
Guide and client are now moving together with the rope reasonably taut, but not pulling the client off their feet (exact tension must be adjusted to the needs and comfort of each client, given the exact terrain.) Suddenly the client slips. The guide instantly stops, having planted his feet in the best position available in the few tenths of a second available and leans into the hill to prevent being pulled out (but not so much that his feet slip from under him) and pulls hard on the rope with his client-side hand, bringing the client’s slip to a stop.
The guide must be constantly assessing the best path for the client to follow, steering the client and adjusting the length of the rope to achieve this. If the nature of the terrain changes and the guide needs a different total length of rope, he should respond by “dropping” or “picking up” coils from or onto his shoulders. The guide must be super-aware at all times. This includes making the call when it would be too hazardous to short-rope a section thus moving over to full-blown pitched climbing and belaying.
On the rare occasions that the guide must travel at the same level as the client on a traverse (when there is only one possible path) extreme caution must be maintained. The guide and client must keep closer together and the tension must be maintained. If at all possible, the guide must follow the client, so he can better see what is happening so that there is less slack and better directions of pull. A slip must then be turned into a controlled pendulum until the client is below the guide.
I have seen many mistakes made, from trivial to mind-numbingly dangerous. Here are a few examples…
- Rope too short, and the guide does not have enough slack to adjust his distance from the client.
- Spacing too small, and guide cannot easily move around obstacles independently from the client.
- Spacing is too large, and the guide has trouble keeping optimal tension and seeing the optimal path for the client.
- Guide does not anticipate the correct path for the client, and sends them too low or too high, increasing the chances of a fall.
- Rope too tight, tending to pull the client off balance, increasing the chances of a fall and unnerving the client.
- Rope too loose, unnerving the client, leading to increased chances of a slip and allowing the slip the chance to gain momentum.
- One team I passed on the Visierskerf race provided a text book case (indeed, a caricature) of how to kill your entire party short-roping. To start with, they had tied a loose slip knot around the client’s waist. If the fall had been held, the client may have sustained serious crushing injuries, but chances were that the knot would have come undone, leaving an embarrassed guide and a screaming (soon to be dead) client. Then, the guide was on the same level as the client – a slip would definitely have become a fall on that terrain, almost certainly pulling the guide down with the client, if the knot had held. The tension on the rope was allowed to vary wildly, from too tight to so loose that the client was almost tripping on it, at which point a fall would be assured if the client slipped. To top it off, they refused any help when it was offered, on the basis that the rope “was just for confidence” – a clear indication that they were completely brain-dead idiots with no unde rstanding of their situation; I kept my team well clear until we could pass without danger and then left them to the vultures.
Tricks of the Trade
There are numerous little tricks of the trade – how to stand, how to walk, what length and tension of rope to use, and so forth. There are, however, some “intermediate” tricks that can be useful.
If the terrain is covered in large, firmly planted boulders, the guide can increase their ease of catching a fall by sitting behind a boulder, or passing the rope around a spike of rock. This usually takes time (as in over a second, including reaction time) but is sometimes useful.
As mentioned earlier, hold the rope with your thumb towards you (“up”) rather than towards the client (“down”) makes it easier to hold tightly. If two people of similar skills are traversing rapidly changing terrain, they can alternate the roles of guide and client to improve safety. Both parties would then carry coils over their shoulders.
Why can’t we use a ski rope?
Any rope you use must be load-rated, which basically means climbing-grade rope.
There are a variety of potential uses. Some typical ones include:
- Attaching things to packs, bikes, and boats (also repair work).
- Setting up towing systems (mainly bikes, but sometimes boats).
- Descending drops that the team doesn’t feel to down-climbing or jumping. Obviously, this is limited to 10m drops, assuming the last guy is happy to go big without the rope. If nothing else, you can lower the packs.
- Short-roping nervous members on hazardous ground. If you’re going to try this, PLEASE learn to do it properly.
- Potentially useful in crossing narrow, rushing streams – but be very careful!
Short-roping is a technique that will seldom be used in AR, but one that can make passage much safer and less traumatic and hence less tiring and faster, across some terrain. It would be classified as an advanced skill and requires much practice. That said, with sufficient practice and careful thought, even relative novices can turn this knowledge into a useful, usable tool in their AR toolbox.
Roping-up image taken from Gareth Hattingh’s book, “The Climber’s Handbook”. It’s an excellent book to purchase.
Author: Dylan Morgan