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This is a question that has bugged me for some time. Some very hard sport routes are very, very long. Some examples:

As far as I know, commercially available climbing ropes are max. 80 m (260 ft) long; however, to descend from a 80 m long route, you would need a 160 m long rope! Maybe something less if the route is overhanging, but still much longer that what -as far as i know- is commercially available.

So what kind of ropes are used for these "super-routes"? Some kind of "custom" ropes?

Disclaimer

I know perfectly well (as I've done it myself many times, only on shorter lengths) that it is possible to climb an 80 m route with two 80m ropes (half ropes or twin ropes), then join them together and rappel down for all the 80m. But from the linked videos it is clear that a single rope is being used (see for example Ondra on Chilam Balam). This makes perfect sense, because we are talking about cutting-edge routes, at the limit of modern sport climbing, and carrying two ropes, even if thin half ropes, with all the added weight would probably decrease the performance.


Updates

  • In this article, it is specified that Chris Sharma used a 80 m, 9.2 mm Sterling Fusion Nano to send Jumbo Love. The route actually tops out on a plateau, as it is clear from Ethan Pringle's video, so you can probably walk down from it. However, what if he couldn't finish the climb and had to get down? I don't think that anyone would climb an 80 m long 9b knowing that the only way out is to finish the route...

  • Similar thread (with no definitive answer) on rockclimbing.com. They point out that Jumbo Love should have one or two intermediate anchors that would allow you to rappel down. But in Ethan Pringle's video you can clearly see that he is carrying no gear at all, so either he was sure he would have topped out (but what if he got hurt?), or the rope was long enough to allow him to descend. Also in Chris Sharma's pictures you can see that he was only carrying one quickdraw with him, not enough for a rappel.

  • How do you know they ad off? It's likely both of these routes you can top out and then just walk down the other side. – Liam Jan 15 '18 at 9:26
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    @Liam For Jumbo Love this is the case for sure, but what about when you are working the route, and you are still not able to top out? Or what about the possibility of getting hurt and have to descend? Also, for overhanging routes like Change or Chilam Balam this is not the case for sure (see the video of Ondra sending Chilam Balam: there is clearly no top out). – valerio Jan 15 '18 at 9:48
  • maybe theres a full length ab rope out of shot that can be used to descend at any time – ldgorman Jan 15 '18 at 17:17
  • @ldgorman This would also be quite reasonable. – valerio Jan 15 '18 at 18:16
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I don't know what makes you think climbing ropes are limited at 80m. They are produced in one very long strand and then cut to the sizes you find in the store. I agree 80m is the max for what is usually found in stores, but you can get 200m ropes or climbing rope by the meter. A random google hit (no affiliation): http://www.climbinganchors.com.au/climbing-gear/ropes/dynamic-ropes/dynamic-spools-or-shorter-lengths/ A friend of mine owns a 200m half-rope, so I also have first hand evidence that something like this exists ;) And even if they weren't generally available, those guys are usually sponsored by gear manufacturers, so it wouldn't be hard for them to get an extra long rope for extra marketable route send.

  • This makes sense, but what do you think about the fact that apparently Sharma used a 80m rope when he sent Jumbo Love? I think that maybe he felt confident he could top out at that point... About the weight, I just noticed that my observation doesn't make sense because you are always carrying with you 80 m of rope, whether you are using a 80m rope or a 160m one. I am going to delete that part from my question, so you can delete it from the answer if you want. – valerio Jan 14 '18 at 21:56
  • Maybe he was confident, maybe it's just marketing/oversight in the article, as they don't talk about rope length, they just name the rope used (80M Fusion Nano). So I'd guess it wasn't 80m long :P – imsodin Jan 14 '18 at 22:30
  • Doesn't "80M" stand for "80 meters"? – valerio Jan 14 '18 at 22:35
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    Ok I see, maybe they just cut-and-pasted the name and got the "80M" with it... – valerio Jan 14 '18 at 22:36
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+100

As discussed in other answers, the easiest option would be to just have a custom rope and then everything works as you would expect. In a similar pro-climber vein, don't discount using rigging from the camera crew or stashing gear / fixed ropes. Note that these options incur a penalty in terms of either cost, weight of ropes to carry to the crag, or the added weight of a tag line (which can be quite significant on hard routes).

More common (sometimes even required at sport crags for mere mortals) is to lower off using intermediate anchors. In the video of Ethan Pringle on Jumbo Love, you can clearly pick out intermediate anchors (e.g. at the 15:27 mark next to his right foot), so option 1 or 2 below would likely be the method of choice. Note that we're fully into the land of non-beginner rope work and shenanigans.

Engage brain and receive training before doing anything that follows

With all of the options to be discussed, the climber should take steps to make sure that they do not drop the rope! Just as with cleaning a sport anchor, there are many ways to achieve this.

A workflow would be something like....

Option 1

  1. Belayer lowers climber to next highest anchor. This may require the climber to "tram" along the rope on steeply overhanging routes.

  2. Climber securely connects to anchor. On a project route, you would likely have a couple carabiners left at the intermediate anchor for just this purpose.

  3. Belayer disconnects from the rope. !Make sure the climber is safe first!

  4. Climber pulls the rope, either by:

    1) Pulling from the climber end, taking the belayer end all the way through the top anchor, which then hopefully falls to the ground for the belayer.

    2) The climber unties, pulls the the belayer side of the rope such that the climber end goes up to the top anchor and back down to the climber at the intermediate anchor. This method is generally easier.

  5. Regardless of how the rope was pulled, the climber threads the intermediate anchor, the belayer puts them back on, and the belayer lowers the climber.

  6. Repeat if necessary.

Option 2

  1. Belayer lowers climber to intermediate anchor.

  2. Climber secures to intermediate anchor.

  3. Belayer takes the climber off; climber pulls the rope through and threads the intermediate anchor.

  4. Belayer takes the free end of the rope, which has come down to the ground, and ties it to a second rope.

  5. Belayer lowers the climber from the intermediate anchor, perhaps with shenanigans to pass the knot; or the belayer clips a belay device to the rope and the climber tags up the second rope & belay device and rappels from the intermediate anchor with two ropes.

Option Danger

For a rather more daring/dangerous/please-don't-do-this approach...DANGER:

  1. Lower the climber to a quickdraw + bolt.

  2. Use the quickdraw to connect the climber directly to the bolt (having one extra quickdraw makes this much easier).

  3. Belayer gives a touch of slack, climber connects to the strand going directly to the belayer with a locking carabiner, e.g., by clipping to a figure-eight-on-a-bight.

  4. Climber unties the rope from their harness, pulls this newly freed end through the quickdraws above and back down to them. If the bolt that the climber is hanging on were to fail, they would take a leader fall onto the locking biner. Not the safest thing, but at least there's some level of backup...

  5. Climber ties back in, belayer takes up the slack, climber unclips from the quickdraw, belayer resumes lowering from the quickdraw that the climber was previously connected to.

Some people have even been known to just clip into the quickdraw and not bother with the extra hijinx of connecting the the belayer side with a locker. Regardless of whether this step is done or not, there will be a least a couple moments where the climber is hanging off a single bolt and a single carabiner. This breaks one of the cardinal rules (never trust your life to a single piece of gear), but new bolts in sound rock and quickdraws are usually pretty strong and...

If you can't see why this is extremely dangerous for yourself, don't ever try it.

Option Free Solo Belayer

While not directly applicable to the routes mentioned, the following can often be quite useful. This would generally apply to a route where just an extra 5-10m of rope are necessary to get the climber down from hanging in free space and the route starts with easy terrain (say 10m of 4th/easy 5th before the route steepens).

  1. Belayer lowers climber as far as possible, to the point of having a stopper knot on the brake side of the belay device taking up the load (or even better, having the belayer tie into their end of the rope before the climber ever leaves the ground).

  2. Belayer climbs upwards on easy terrain, acting as a counter-weight to the climber. Once the climber reaches the ground, they untie.

  3. The belayer downclimbs back to the ground, being cognizant of the fact that they are effectively free-soloing. Herein lies the importance of the route starting with easy terrain.

Occasionally, on overhanging routes where the ground slopes away from the base of the route, the climber doesn't need to untie, but rather just walk uphill back to the base of the route as the belayer downclimbs / gets lowered as a counter-weight.

Research & Development Option

One product scheduled to hit the market in 2018 is the Beal Escaper, additional video and commentary. The device connects to the anchor and then one end of your rope is tied to it. After doing a full length, single strand rappel, simply do ten hard tugs and everything comes falling down to you. Shades of Samwise Gamgee and his elven rope.

Seems simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. The main utility would seem to be multipitch routes, where an entire second rope (an extra 5-10lbs) has to be carried up the route just to use as a tag line for rappelling off. In the context of the original question, this would still require the climber to a) get lowered and secure into an intermediate anchor; b) pull the rope through after being taken off bely; c) either tag up or carry along a belay device and the Beal Escaper.

As this isn't scheduled to hit the market until the end of 2018, it hasn't undergone "real world" testing. On a first pass, it seems absolutely terrifying and prone to many "what if?" scenarios. On the other hand, Beal is a well respected brand and they would have to have tested it extensively before even thinking of selling such a product commercially...

Canyoneering-World Options

Moving well outside the realm of the question, you can look to the canyoneering world for inspiration on how to do long rappels with a minimal amount of gear. For that community, they aspire to "ghosting": traveling down a canyon leaving absolutely no gear behind (not even a sling around a tree or, heaven forbid, a bolted anchor). They make the sketchy anchors used while alpine climbing seem OSHA approved in comparison.

For examples, there are things like the Imlay Canyon Gear Fiddlestick (video) for retrieving a rope with only a tiny pull cord after a full length rappel, or the SandTrap which is effectively a tarp that you fill with sand, rappel off of, and then use a pull cord on one corner to dump all the sand out of and send everything down to you.

Again, great ways to make rappelling even more dangerous and not applicable to the tame world of sport climbing.

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    Nice explanations. Do you know for a fact that climber commonly do this as opposed to using ropes long enough? It just seems pretty pointless to me. Also given how detailed you describe the procedure, I would also explicitly state in the point where the climber unties and threads the rope, that the rope is somehow attached to the harness at all times, such that it doesn't fall to the ground if it slips out of the hands while manipulating. And also more of a personal preference: In scenario 1.4.2 the belayer can keep the climber on belay at all times. – imsodin Jan 23 '18 at 14:09
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    Well, I can't speak for every climber, but I probably end up doing some variant of these a couple times per month. While having a longer rope or a tag line is easier in principle, those add a lot of extra cost and/or weight (both to carry to the crag and the weight of the tag line behind you) – erfink Jan 23 '18 at 18:42
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    Also, in regards to 1.4.2, technically yes, the belayer can keep their device on the rope at all times. In practice, though, they will need to take up 50-100ft of slack before they can provide a meaningful belay. As such, it's usually easier to just take in the slack hand-over-hand and then reattach their belay device. – erfink Jan 23 '18 at 19:08
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    Thanks for the additional infos and you just earned 100 reputation with your Samwise Gamgee R&D reference :D Remind me if I forget after the mandatory 24h delay xD – imsodin Jan 23 '18 at 19:46
  • Nice answer, but I have to say that many of these options don't sound very "UIAA-approved"! :) – valerio Jan 23 '18 at 23:19
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You don’t need a 160 meter rope just two 80 meter ropes joined with a knot.

Or you could do it with one 80 meter climbing rope and another lighter retrieval line.

If this is a situation where there is not going to be a second climber then at the anchor the first climber can pull the end of the rope all the way up through the quickdraws and toss it down. Then the belayer can tie a second 80 meter rope on for the climber to pull up and rappel on.

  • But isn't it unsafe to climb with two joined ropes? And what if the knot gets stuck in a quickdraw? – valerio Jan 14 '18 at 20:30
  • @valerio92 It’s not unsafe and getting the rope stuck would be a different question – Charlie Brumbaugh Jan 14 '18 at 20:32
  • I think a knot would definitely get stuck in one of the quickdraws, making this choice impracticable. Also, by looking at the videos found online it doesn't appear that anyone is using joined ropes or carrying a retrieval line. – valerio Jan 14 '18 at 20:34
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    @Liam I know perfectly well how a rappel with double ropes work, but look at the linked videos: no one is using double ropes. We are talking about routes which are at the limit of the difficulty in sport climbing, and taking two ropes with you, with all the extra weight, would severely decrease your performances. – valerio Jan 15 '18 at 9:50
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    Anyway my frist comments originated from a misunderstanding: I know how climbing with twin/half ropes and then rappel down works, but from the videos you can see that a single strand of rope is being used. Therefore I thought Charlie was suggesting that they were climbing with two 80m ropes joined together to form a 160m one, which is of course impracticable. – valerio Jan 15 '18 at 10:05

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