Short roping is an advanced technique, but it is a necessary one to progress quickly and safely in the mountains.
As with most techniques, knowing when to apply it just as important (or more) as the technique itself.
The safety in short-roping comes from three main ingredients:
- Coaching the climber through easy moves.
- Preventing a slip from turning into a fall.
- Being able to quickly switch to belayed mode.
The last point is often overlooked in discussions on roped travel safety. There are many cases where a rope is superfluous on some part of a climb, but a short difficult section is coming up. When this happens, the climbers are left to either (a) stop, pull out the rope, rope up, etc. or (b) proceed unroped. One wastes time, the other is unsafe.
Being short-roped allows the first climber to say "hey, stop and wait here", drop hand coils, climb up a moderately difficult section quickly, then use a basic belay (e.g., a rock horn, a quick cam, boot axe, etc.). When a longer difficult section is coming up, you can even start dropping kiwi coils to have a full rope length available.
To recap, the only times I will short-rope are:
- The short-roping climber ("guide") is 110% comfortable on the terrain, and the risk of a fall is zero (for them). The short-roped climber ("client") is perhaps less experienced and can use some coaching, but is not very likely to fall either. This is why guides and experienced climbers often use short-rope.
- Furthermore, the short-roping climber is always in a position to assist the short-roped climber: preventing a slip from becoming a fall, providing guidance ("left hand here"), etc... Generally, this precludes short-roping from being used safely in technical terrain where the climbers need to use their hands.
- The short-roping climber is always above the short-roped climber: going first when climbing up, going behind when climbing down.
- The two climbers should be close together: as close as possible without kicking each other. More rope in the system makes it effectively impossible to prevent a slip from turning into a fall; there's just too much slack and stretch in the system.
- The rope should be relatively tight: when going up, the short-roping climber must feel their partner through the rope. If the rope has any slack in it, it will be impossible to sense a slip.
- Both climbers should have a kiwi coil, and the short-roping climber carries 4-6 coils of rope in their hand.
- Short-roping with three (or more!) climbers is reserved for expert Swiss mountain guides named Wili.
As with all things in the mountains, prevention is better than a cure: if you're really worried about a fall and are still short-roping, you're probably doing something wrong. Done correctly, short-roping can provide extra confidence for a weaker climber, and respond quickly in the event of a slip. Most importantly, the rope is already ready to be used for a quick belay when the terrain gets harder.
Short-roping is not for everyone, but it is a valid strategy for traveling safely and quickly in the mountains. In my experience, it's the only way to cover enough ground on the relatively easy terrain to do the bigger objectives. In some cases, it's the only (reasonably) available protection strategy; e.g., on knife edge ridges such as the Aiguille de Rochefort.