During my guiding, instruction, and personal climbing, I often encounter situations where a few simple rope management techniques can drastically reduce unwanted headaches. Consequently, I have developed a few rules for rope management to help avoid the all-too-common rope spaghetti I tend to see at climbing anchors.
Rule #1: Always know where to locate both ends of the rope.
The first rule allows you to climb safer and saves time with organization and problem solving. When flaking a rope under a climb, I always first set aside a few feet of rope and then flake the rope into a stack so that it is not on the rope end. When I am done flaking, the rope end I have finished with is ready for the leader, and the belayer’s rope end is on the ground in a visible location. If the belayer will be following the pitch (on a multipitch climb or in a top belay situation), both climbers can tie in. This will prevent an over-eager leader from accidentally pulling the rope end off the ground and out of the follower’s reach.
If the belayer will not be following the pitch but simply lowering the leader (such as in a sport climbing situation), then the belayer’s end of the rope should be “closed;” that is, tied off to a rope bag or secured with some kind of stopper knot. This helps mitigate being lowered off the end of the rope, which is one of the most common causes of preventable climbing accidents.
When both climbers in a rope team are at the same anchor on a multipitch climb, things can become disorganized quickly. Having a good conceptual understanding of where each end of the rope is located can help resolve crossed ropes and tangles. Generally, to untangle the rope, the end of it usually needs to pass around or through some other portion of rope. Since the rope is tied to both climbers, the punch line is that one or both of the climbers will get to hurdle over or limbo under some strand of rope. I find that conceptually recognizing where each rope end lies can aid in the untangling process.
Finally, rope end awareness can inform rappelling practices in both efficiency and safety. When a leader is bringing up a follower on the last pitch of a multipitch climb, she can already be considering the rappel that will follow. If the leader belays with a plaquette belay device (ie. Black Diamond ATC-Guide, Petzl Reverso, or similar), she can start threading the rappel rope as the follower climbs since she’ll have to pull all the rope up to the anchor anyway. Recognizing the location of her only available rope end, the efficiency-minded leader will tether herself to the anchor on a sling when she reaches the top of the pitch so that she can untie and thread the rope as she reels in the follower’s slack, saving a step once the follower has arrived.
More importantly, rope end awareness is crucial on the rappel itself. An intuitive and explicit understanding of the location of the rope ends will help ensure that a rappelling climber does not rappel off the ends of his or her rope, another leading cause of preventable climbing accidents.