Henry Landon looks at the potential life-saving qualities of carrying a rope while hiking or climbing.
Getting up onto the hills in summer and winter is a fantastic way to experience the great outdoors, and to practice our wilderness skills.
In the context of bushcraft and survival, I see no difference between the mountains and the forests as areas that come within the remit of these subjects.
Now, more than ever, the popularity of hiking is growing, yet many people venture out into the mountains without the relevant skills, experience, equipment, or training.
You only need to take a walk up Snowdonia in February to see the number of people tackling the snowy paths with only trainers and tracksuits on. Foolhardy, adventurous, or just stupid? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
The evidence is sadly more than clear. People die in the mountains.
Even on our small island with its comparatively moderate seasons there are still dangers to be aware of and to be trained to avoid.
One of the tools that we should take into the mountains, that can help us get out of a tricky situation, is a rope. There are many reasons to carry a rope while hiking in the mountains. Below, I have listed a few scenarios where a rope might be needed:
- You are coming to the end of the day, and on your hike down from the mountain the weather is closing in. As your group descends, there is a tricky bit of scrambling ahead, it is normally wise to find another route around such an obstacle but time is of the essence. If you have a rope, you can safely descend by lowering off your group and possibly save yourself a long detour around the crag. This may be the correct choice if a bad weather front is closing in and extra time on the mountain will lead to greater risks being faced by your group.
- In the same scenario, you might be on your own and not with a group. You might find a section that you cannot safely climb but you can abseil off. You might use the Dülfersitz method or the South African method.
- Sometimes, one of the people in your group may start to lose their nerve on a section of steep ground. This is a good time to employ confidence roping. This technique allows you to help them get up or down the slope with the feeling that someone has hold of them.
- There may be times when a section of scrambling is short on hand-holds or is exposed. Having a rope to set up as a hand rail may safeguard the section of difficult ground for the group and speed up progress on an area that you don’t want to hang around on.
- At some point on your route, you may find a section that is possible for you to climb without much difficulty, but a bit above the level of the people you are climbing with. If this is the case then you might climb first and set up a belay for the rest of the group once you reach the top of the section. That may come in the form of either a fixed belay around an object such as a boulder or tree, or a body belay around yourself while tied into an appropriate anchor.
- Sometimes, you might come across another group who need help and the use of your rope. I have personally come across a group in Snowdonia that were ledge locked and were glad of the use of my rope to lower them off.
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Nevertheless, it is most important to stress here that the use of a rope by hillwalkers – particularly without the use of a harness and helmet – should be considered as a last resort. You should not be planning to use the rope but you have it just in case. In most cases, good route planning, proper consideration of weather conditions and assessment of group ability should mean there are very few occasions where a walking group needs to deploy a rope. Most of the time you can find another route and that is generally what you should do. Your rope should be kept at the bottom of your bag to remind you of this advice.
Even so sometimes having a rope can be a huge help to negotiation a section of difficult ground.
This article is purposely not a “How To” blog on rope work, but more a way of highlighting why, and how, to carry a rope.
The question here is what rope should you take and how should you carry it?
Due to its light weight, and the fact that hopefully you will rarely have to use it, an 8mm static half rope is the perfect choice for this piece of kit. Strong, light, and durable, the 8mm is not too thin to handle. It is recommended however, to take some tough gloves with you in case you do end up doing some belaying or abseiling. The two items should go together like a knife and a cuts kit.
About 25 metres is a good length to carry, much less and it may not be useful, much more and you might think twice about putting it in your bag due to the weight. Always be sure to seal the rope well to stop it fraying at the end, just like paracord.
It is a good idea to mark the middle of the rope with a black marker pen; this will allow you to find the middle of the rope quickly when setting up anchors and when coiling the rope back up.
A neat way to store the rope is in a 3-litre dry bag like the Exped XS; this size bag works well for the rope described. This method of storage has many advantages, such as; keeping the rope tidy in your backpack, allowing you to quickly deploy the rope when it is most needed and if the rope gets wet and dirty it won’t do the same to the other kit in your bag. I use a bright orange dry bag for safety equipment like group shelters and ropes so it should be quick to identify. ¬
If you have used a throw bag for rescues or rescue drills while kayaking or canoeing you will know that stuffing a few coils of rope into the throw bag at a time is the best way to pack the rope quickly and to avoid knots and tangles when deploying the rope.
Some climbers tie a knot in the end of the rope ready to create a waist harness; this can save a minute or so when you must tie someone into the rope but it is not essential. It might be better to be sure that the first coil of rope that you pull out of the bag is one close to a dead end.
25 metres of 8mm static half rope does not take up too much room in your backpack and weighing in at just under 900 grams, it is a powerful tool to have with you on any hike.
In the woodland, the value of taking a tarp in your day bag is clear to see. However, if you are planning to venture in to any mountainous terrain – be that a day hike in the Cairngorms in Scotland or a 3-week trek in the Karakoram, you should consider taking a rope with you.
Even if you never use your rope for a tricky descent, there are still many practical applications for a rope while hiking. As long as nothing you do with it that will degrade the integrity of the rope, you might consider using it as – a drying line for wet kit, as extra insulation under your sleeping mat, as a hand rail between tents in particularly foul weather or as extra guy lines to anchor a tent in high winds.
Most important of all is to get the right training. There are world-renowned bushcraft companies in the UK teaching outdoor skills; and similarly, there are also world-renowned mountaineering training centres based in the UK that run courses to a variety of levels and at all times of year in mountain skills and safety.
If you are thinking of heading out to a mountainous region do not rely on the expertise of your guide or your group. Get your own skills. This is not something we just advocate but also do ourselves – there are a number of members of the Frontier Bushcraft team who hold the Mountain Leader Award and/or Single Pitch Award.
Thanks for reading; I hope you found this article useful. If you have had an experience in the mountains when you wish you had a rope or have had to use a rope at a time when it wasn’t planned please share in the comments below.