Returning Back up a Jammed Rope

Article by Adrian Berry
Saturday 1st June 2002

So, your rope is completely jammed above you, the ground still a long way away. Youíve tried just about everything to get it down, pulling on it, pulling on it harder, setting up a haul system, cried, but nothingís worked. You look at your partner and both of you know that you have only three options left open to you. Firstly, you can just pretend youíre Superman and jump off, you can stand there until some other climbers come across your bleached bones or, perhaps the most scary of all, return back up the stuck rope.

Firstly, if youíve carried out all the techniques covered in the last few issues ó putting an increasing load on the rope ó you should be as confident as can be that the rope will hold your weight, as it has already held a substantial load in your attempt to free it.

Start by making sure the belay is as bombproof as possible, just in case, turning the anchor from a bare bones rappel anchor to a stronger upward and downward pulling anchor (you should already have done this while in the earlier stages).
Now we come to re-ascending back up the rope. Itís crucial that as in all climbing situations you try to maximize any protection possibilities open to you. This means placing gear whenever possible, backing yourself up if you can and thinking through every possible scenario. Possibly one of the biggest safeguards is covered below.

Emergency lead line

Due to the fact that the two ropes you have form a discontinuous loop and you started with both ends, this means one end should always be within reach of the other. By tying into the free unstuck rope end you can safeguard yourself when trying to reach the other end, being belayed by your partner and placing protection on this emergency lead line.

Below are the main scenarios

The ground above doesnít look too difficult and it appears possible to free climb. Tie into the free end of the rope you have and free climb back up, placing protection as you go. If the terrain isnít as easy as it looked then use the stuck rope as an aid by yarding up on it with your hands, using it mainly for balance and the odd hard pull. You can also use the jammed rope as protection as you ascend, sliding a prusik loop up it as you climb.

If the ground in-between you and the problem is impossible to re-climb then you must return back up the rope. Again tie into the end of the free rope and take the rack with you so you can place protection.

You must now prusik back up the rope. It is important that you donít bounce around as you re-ascend, both to limit wear on the rope if itís running over edges and to keep the load to a minimum (you donít want the rope to come unstuck just yet). Using prusik loops doesnít make this action easy, being slow, scary and generally jerky. Mini and standard mechanical ascenders make the job a great deal faster and easier, and itís highly recommended to take a set along on the bigger routes (Wild Country Ropeman or Petzl Tibloc).

If using mechanical ascenders and the rope releases while you are ascending your only chance comes from being tied into the emergency rope (even if you havenít been able to place any protection), as the ascenders will slide straight off the end of the rope as they will only lock in one direction. If youíre using prusik loops there is a slight chance that the prusik may lock when inverted, although there is a greater chance theyíll just slip and melt off the rope. So, in order to stay alive you must trust your life to more than the faith you have in the rope not coming unstuck.

The worst-case scenario is when you donít have any spare rope with which to be belayed, yet you must still return up the rope. If the rope comes unstuck youíre probably a goner.

The only way to maximize your chances is to tie into the rope as you ascend. The best way to do this is to use a running knot such as a clove hitch, loosening and retightening as you proceed (see side bar for a modified easier running version of the knot). The lead line should be tied to the belay and the belay made as strong as possible (you could be looking at a fall factor 2). As you ascend you move the knot along with you, placing gear as you go if at all possible, even if itís only one piece, in order to keep the fall factor low. Taking these precautions makes the operation slower than just blindly yarding on up the rope, but the chances it gives you are well the effort.

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