Why are climbers being lowered off the end of the rope?
It seems to me that the instances of climbers being lowered off the end of the rope while lowering are on the increase. I know of several people who have had lucky escapes surviving falls after being lowered off the end of their rope and some who haven’t been so lucky.
While it is something that I’ve always been acutely aware of and maybe have a healthy paranoia of, it is also something that I feel should just never happen.
Climbers of a certain age might remember when sport climbing ropes were generally 50m (trad ropes 45m). Then after a few climbing trips in France and Spain it didn’t seem worth travelling with anything shorter than a 60m. Then routes got even longer and you really needed a 70m. These days it’s standard to buy an 80m and even this
might occasionally not be long enough. We keep a 100m in Kalymnos for the 50m pitches.
Having often dealt with ropes being too short, expecting it and planning for dealing with it has developed a certain level of awareness that I think is useful to pass on.
Knot is not always there
A greater number of people are aware of the benefits of tying a knot in the end of the rope. However, relying on the system of tying a knot in the end of the rope is not on its own sufficient, as it has proven to not always be there:
1. Human error
People simply forget, or think that the other person has already tied it. Assuming that the bottom end is tied
into the rope bag but not checking is also a possibility.
2. Someone in your group unties the knot.
I’ve seen this happen on several occasions and each time the belayer failed to notice. An inexperienced climber taking the end to practice tying in or to practice clipping and not knowing what the knot in the end
was there for, will not necessarily tie it back in.
As the knot is not always there, people need to have other reliable
systems in place for noticing that the rope is too short.
Before the knot
There are a few things that we have failed to do when the knot jams up against the belay device, or when the rope disappears through the belay device. If safety is an awareness of danger it might be useful to look at what we as climbers/instructors do ourselves to avoid needing to use that knot in the first place and make our clients
aware of that as well.
1. Read the guide book to see what rope length is recommended and take one that is long enough for any route you might want to do (ropes are cheap but you shouldn’t be).
2. Be aware! If you arrive at a crag and it looks big maybe the routes are long.
3. As you’re climbing the route you’re thinking “Wow, nice long pitch, I love long routes. Hmm, did we pack the 70m or the 80m?” Communicate with your belayer.
4. You’re belaying and your climber seems to be going up forever. Do you think: “Awesome I love long pitches, I’m really excited about getting on it myself”? Or are you looking down at the rope next to your feet and think: “I wonder if it’s long enough for my climber to get down”? Communicating at this point can be valuable!
I’m deliberately not mentioning middle marks when teaching clients. The problem with middle marks is that they can be unreliable. One of the advantages of buying a longer rope than you generally need is that it is often the 4 or 5 meters at the ends that show wear. Cutting 4 or 5 meters off the end of an 80m rope still gives you a useful length rope, but means your mark is no longer marking the middle of it.
Watch the end of the rope!
In recent years, I have been making a point of teaching belayers to pay more attention to the rope next to them than to the person they are lowering. As a belayer it can be hard sometimes to concentrate when your climbing partner is wearing a tight pair of Lycra pants but the rope right next to your feet is what you should be paying most attention to. It’s the only place that danger is coming from during the lowering process. This should be an integral part of the lowering process and is what we should be teaching.
We should also make clients aware of the importance of developing the habit of looking down at the rope while being lowered. It is great to take time to enjoy the view but more important to look down to see the rope next to the belayer and calculate well before you are lowered off the end of it whether it is long enough. I reckon about 99% of the time I’m able to see the rope after a few metres of lowering. Keep the rope visible! not tucked away in your IKEA bag!
Having asked thousands of climbers with a variety of experience where they look when lowering, virtually no one ever answers “the rope”. Even though that is where the danger is coming from, and it is almost always there next to the belayer’s foot.
Every time I hear of or read an article about someone being lowered off the rope the cause is always said to be the lack of a knot. And of course, no one would be lowered off the end if there was a knot, but it would be helpful to acknowledge that the belayer (and climber) failed to pay attention to the rope. We should not be switching off
because (we think) we have fixed the issue by tying a knot in the end of the rope. The knot should not be seen as the first line of defence – it is the last!
Trevor Massiah (MIA) – Professional Mountaineer – Spring 2020