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Finding Confidence in Short Roping

Posted by Joseph Anderson

Short Roping.  Ya, short roping.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  If you’re wondering what short roping is than you’re not alone.  It’s that bizarre and awkward technique of roped travel that you may have seen people use in the mountains.  It typically involves one confident looking individual, roped up to the gills, complete with extra rope in hand and then one, two, three and sometimes even four individuals strewn tightly together like a neatly bound package reminiscent of the slave trade. 

“What in the hell are they doing?” That’s an example of what I have heard someone say upon seeing this practice.  I’ve also heard people say, “I just don’t believe in it.” And, “It’s like being strewn around like a dog.”

So what’s the deal with short roping?  As a rule I have found the general public to be overwhelmingly skeptical towards this practice.  Additionally I have personally avoided the technique altogether.  So what is short roping?

The Technical Handbook for Professional Mountain Guides maintains an eerily vague definition by describing short roping as a technique where “the rope may be shortened for convenience alone (to move over terrain where there is little or no risk of falling associated with a slip) or it may be shortened for safety in areas where long ropes increase hazards or impede fast and efficient progress.” 

My first thought when I read “shortened for convenience” has always been a question of convenience for whom?  Have you ever been “short roped?”  There is truly nothing very convenient about being jammed together like a pack of sardines and tugged around. 

The handbook describes short roping principles stating that “the guide” must be “at all times ready to hold a slip by the client.”  It goes on to explain, “Short roping in its pure form involves the guide and client moving together constantly.”

Now I don’t know about you but I’m really struggling to find a definition of what it actually is within their description.  Furthermore there are several contradictory statements: If the rope is shortened to move over terrain where there is “little to no risk of falling associated with a slip” than why must the guide be “at all times ready to hold a slip by the client”? Another stab at it can be found in this text written by three certified mountain guides called Back country Skiing:  Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering.  The authors write:

 Short roping:  the oldest, purest, fastest, and hardest to learn form of roped mountain travel.  It can provide safe freedom of movement when done right and a drastic increase in hazard when done wrong.  Please learn this skill from someone you trust and who can teach it the right way.  All else will lead to bad habits and potentially disastrous results. 

The problem and allure with short roping, in general, is that it’s very free flowing.  There are only a few principles you need to understand.  But real-world terrain presents numerous variables to which these basic principles must be applied.  A full understanding of the short-roping technique can only be obtained by roaming around in the proper terrain, and the safest way is with an experienced person.

Hmmm, now that’s not so helpful, for me anyway.  As someone hungry for practical answers it seems that short roping is not just for the grey zone; the technique itself is a grey zone.   There really is no solid definition for short roping.  In the end it’s up to the skills and judgments of your guide. But is there any part to this practice that actually is grounded in quantifiable data? 

Well, a guide from New Zealand named Gottlieb Braun-Elwert is my kind of thinker. He had the same question and felt strongly enough about this that he took it upon himself to find out as much quantifiable information as he possibly could.  You can read his findings here.  The take home summary that I pulled from his investigations go like this:

  • If the average person free falls for 20 centimeters (8 inches) than they generate .3 times more energy than the average mountain guide can hold in an optimal stance.
  • Falling on an icy or hard snow surface of greater than 26 degrees in angle is so close to equal to a free fall that falling on this kind of surface is essentially a free fall.
  • The difference between dynamic and static rope with a shortened rope is negligible.  If the guide holds the rope up to their chest while client is falling then the guide is able to hold 1.5 times the amount of force the average person generates in 8 inches of free falling
  • Once someone is at a free fall (3.25 meters per second) they are generating 27 times the amount of force the average mountain guide can hold in their optimal stance. 
  • 75% of short roping accidents happen on the way down.

Just these few simple hard numbers are quite a bit more useful than the above description. The current verbal assessment of short roping from the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) is that short roping is to hold a slip only.  Not a fall.  This is why proper short-roping requires light tension to be held at all times on the guide’s clients.

Now there is another New Zealand guide that had conducted his own research in response to Gottlieb’s studies named Pete James who states that:  “short-roping tests within New Zealand suggest that short-roping is a thoroughly viable risk management tool when used appropriately and with a thorough understanding of it's limitations.”  Unfortunately I have been struggling to find a copy of his findings.  Regardless, Gottlieb’s data already supports my previously well-established opinion that short-roping has serious “limitation” which are that:

  • The Guide is NOT an Anchor:  If the main intention for short roping is to prevent a slip from turning into a fall than you are concluding that a fall would be detrimental.  If you are not able to “fall” without dire consequences than there is in fact NO ANCHOR in the traditional sense of the word.  If your single goal is to keep a slip from turning into a fall than you can’t really argue that person is on belay.  Furthermore it is very difficult to justify short-roping more than one person at a time if this is really your chief goal of using this technique. 
  • Balance IS the highest priority of the client:  If your main goal is to keep a slip from turning into a fall than the client’s balance is what you are essentially counting on.   The practice of keeping light tension at all times only works if it supports the client’s balance.  My opinion is that a large majority of the time it actually compromises balance leading to instability.   Furthermore, tying people too close together also leads to instability.   When comparing accidents around the world they tend to happen in large part on climbs where clients receive the least amount of training.  If you compare accidents of guided parties on Mt Blanc in France which can amount to several deaths a month as compared to the number of accidents of guided parties on Denali the numbers speak for themselves.  A thorough study would be great but the biggest difference is that there is an incredibly high number of completely new climbers being guided on Mt Blanc where as Denali, a bigger more difficult climb, has better trained clients.  They just don’t fall as much.  Another great case study for this point is the Matterhorn.  In Gottlieb’s paper he points out that once guided trips on the Matterhorn began implementing a thorough pre-training program to all of their clients the number of accidents have gone way down. 
  • Short Roping is best described as Confidence Roping:  When people have a rope on them many times this is all that is needed to be confident enough leading to less internal tension which tips the scale towards more stability making a fall much less likely.  Also on the flip side short roping can be useful in terrain that is in fact not that dangerous.  It could be that the snow is soft enough or terrain just not steep enough to sustain a fall.  It’s perceived as more dangerous than it actually is.  A rope can decrease quite a bit of stress in this case.

Here is a definition of short roping that I found which I believe is more grounded in reality:

A South African Guide, Gareth Hattingh from the climber’s handbook writes “Short-roping is when a "guide" (the more confident person) and a "client" (the less confident person - either through inexperience, injury, exhaustion, or a variety of other reasons) move together over terrain that is subjectively or objectively hazardous, joined by a rope for the protection or comfort of the client, but without recourse to placing conventional protection. It is sometimes called "confidence roping". 

So there it is again “Confidence Roping”, just the act of calling it that changes everything doesn’t it? Calling it confidence roping admits through it’s title alone that there is in fact no anchor; it forces the guide to step away from the egocentric doctrine perpetuated by the industry dogma and confront it as it should be:  We count on the skills and stability of our clients for a massive amount of terrain safety; It sends an honest message to our customers what is actually expected of them and in doing so keeps them safer. 

So how do I find confidence in short roping?  Just change the name to what it actually is:

Confidence Roping.