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The following is a scene I have always been perplexed about. I’ve seen it many times. A mountain climber has no one above him as he descends and is trailing rope behind him that he is using to stabilize and protect him from an unplanned plunge and that rope is anchored to something well above.

How does he retrieve that rope when he has descended the length of it, and wants to use it again to complete the remaining stages of his overall descent?

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You would use the rope doubled, so that when you are at the length of it, you anchor off and release one end of the doubled rope so you can pull it through the anchor.

Then re-anchor at your current position in order to continue your descent.

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In addition to the info in this answer, the OP may be interested to know that this almost always going to result in leaving something behind, even if it's just some webbing and a rappel ring. An exception would be if there is a bolted anchor with a rappel ring. –  Ben Crowell Oct 27 '13 at 18:52
    
Some people use a cord as well to help retrieve the rope. I've not used it, but the petzl catalog has some good info about it, but you would need more than that to do it. I would say this is a more advanced technique and the safest thing is to do it with a single rope until you're comfortable. –  Miguel Madero Oct 27 '13 at 22:48
    
@BenCrowell That is not strictly true; there are methods for retrievable slings, though they are apparently not commonly used, and some are certainly unsafe. –  Mr.Wizard Jan 11 at 16:07
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