15

I had a "discussion" with someone on Facebook recently. It came about over a photo shared in a group I'm a member of (I can't share the photo as it's not my property).

The photo showed two people in winter conditions on Crib Goch in snowdonia. The two were attached via a rope. The rope was taut between them (about 2m long) and they were both standing on the ridge.

I made a comment along the lines of:

Ah, demonstrating the classic "Scottish death rope."

My understanding being that using a rope in this manner is dangerous. A fall by either party would result in the other party also falling (possibly with much worse consequences for the "belayer"). To "short rope" in this scenario, I would always place some kind of runner. This was what I was told, always place runners on a short rope or don't short rope (i.e. untie)

There were several people who agreed with me and several who vehemently disagreed with me. Often the line was:

I'm a Mountain Leader and this is a perfectly valid technique

So is it appropriate to "short rope" without a runner? When and why?

Ideally I'd like some kind of best practice guidance from some authoritative sources.

  • I've only seen short roping being used if there was an experienced leader with someone without a lot experience, mostly also lighter people/children, and probably most often as a psychological measure. (But I'm not an expert:) – flawr Feb 2 '18 at 17:27
  • If that was one a ridge, one technique would be for the guide to walk in the back. If the leader falls, the guide walking behind can throw himself down the other side of that ridge. Though I must say 2m seems rather short to allow for enough reaction time. – helm Feb 4 '18 at 19:30
  • I've heard of that technique and I'm very suspicious of it. It seems to me it'd require lightning fast reactions and the chance of the rope fraying on the "ridge" must be pretty high. Also, once you've thrown yourself off the ridge, then what?! – user2766 Feb 5 '18 at 9:04
  • Just to clarify some definitions: "short roping" means the two climbers are very close, and there is by definition never a runner. Having one or more runners between the two climbers is a "running belay", which is a different mode of travel and risk management. – Felix Feb 5 '18 at 9:37
13

Short roping is dangerous, but it is also a critical part of guiding. This presentation touches on a lot of the reasons for short roping and risks associated with it.

Short roping is claimed to provide three advantages. The first is that the short rope increases the confidence of the weaker climber and there by decreases the likelihood of a fall. The second is that a short roping can prevent a slip from becoming a fall. The third, and most dubious of the claims, is that once the slip becomes a fall, the short rope allows the stronger climber to stop the fall.

The disadvantage of the short rope is that if the weaker climber falls bad things are potentially going to happen to the stronger climber. In most cases, short roping is used in a client/guide relationship where the guide has already screwed up if the client falls.

  • Very interesting presentation. There is a ton of information there. – fgysin Feb 5 '18 at 7:06
  • That's a great presentation and exactly what I was after, thanks – user2766 Feb 5 '18 at 9:05
  • 2
    The presentation you linked directly refutes the third point: "Not a single case is known of a guide holding a client by self-arresting, once the client has fallen down a hard snow or ice slope, and the guide has lost control of the rope from the belay hand!" I believe you should remove that from this very good answer. – Felix Feb 5 '18 at 14:45
  • 1
    @Felix that is just one condition in which the fall has never been caught. Ridgelines are very different as are crevasses and soft snow. Also even on ice, there may be a fall, as opposed to a slip, that doesn't result in loss of control of the rope from the belay hand. – StrongBad Feb 5 '18 at 16:38
6

I am pretty certain that I have already answered why this is dangerous here.

As for when it would be a valid technique,

  • If the terrain is such that there is a slight risk of falling, but not enough to justify putting in intermediate placements.
  • When balancing the need for speed with the risk of falling such as trying to get down before a storm.

  • This is done quite frequently on snow where you are depending on the other people to stop your fall with by self-arresting.

Ultimately it all comes down to judgment and the amount of risk people are willing to take. I mean belays are the safest way to go, but people will still solo rock climb.

5

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:

  1. Coaching the climber through easy moves.
  2. Preventing a slip from turning into a fall.
  3. 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.

  • Ah man, you had me up to 110% be definition this is impossible! :) – user2766 Feb 5 '18 at 15:06
  • It is not in my answer either, and maybe your point 3 covers it, but I think one of the big reasons for short roping on "steep" ice is in case of crampon failure. If a weak climber loses a crampon it may not even result in a slip, but without help it is unlikely they will be able to secure themselves and get the crampon back on. – StrongBad Feb 5 '18 at 16:43
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    Thanks for writing this up, this is a good answer (except that I wouldn't use absolutes) - I started to write up an answer but it quickly got out of hand, as every argument I made needed another one to back it up. I think you caught essential points without going into too much detail. – imsodin Feb 5 '18 at 16:57
3

I never understood the reason for this technique, but let me guess.

When one of the people is much more experienced than the other, he can judge where there is no risk (99% of the time), and when there is slight risk (let's say 1%). In the risky situations, short rope allows for quick and efficient belay, or even physical "help".

What you usually see is the 99%-of-the-time situation, where the rope has no importance, but it's not practical to untie.

2

A logical, no emotional, (simplified) mathematical way consider it- it turns a potential fall with X percent of death or injury into a fall with X percent possibility of two deaths or injuries. It reduces the chance of a double fall to Y percentage of single fall.

So the maths is simply short rope if 2*Y < 1

You can add the 'reduce the chance of a slip turning into a fall' argument by adding a Z percent and the maths becomes

Short rope if 2*Y*Z < 1

If you are the stronger climber, you need to consider are you prepared to increase your personal risk to reduce the personal risk to your partner.

Arguments of should you or shoulnd't you come down to simply not understanding the decision making process or presuming the maths above comes out one or other side of 1.

  • 1
    If there is a 50/50 chance the weaker climber is going to fall, there is no way anyone is going to short rope them – StrongBad Feb 4 '18 at 3:14

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