Pictures and videos of climbers and canyoneers rappelling off of cliffs are very aesthetic and fun to watch, but at some point you probably ask yourself if they leave the ropes up or how they get the ropes back. Or, maybe you’re a climber wanting to foray into canyoneering, and want to know how to avoid leaving your $200 rope behind.
There are three main methods that climbers and canyoneers use to get their ropes back after rappelling:
- Hike Around to the Top
- The Toss ‘n’ Go Method
- Use a Pull Cord
Canyoneers also have a few specialty methods that they use to retrieve a rope after a rappel, including ways to retrieve the entire anchor system. I explain these three methods in detail, as well as the other methods in this article.
Retrieving a Rope After Rappelling
Climbing gear isn’t cheap, and the rope is usually the most expensive single piece of gear in someone’s climbing kit. If you end up having to leave a rope behind in an emergency situation because it gets stuck, you’re out $150-$250.
These methods work whether you’re using a dynamic (stretchy) climbing rope, or a static rappelling or canyoneering rope. They need to be done properly and carefully so that they are not only safe, but also don’t get caught or stuck when it’s time to pull the rope.
Best 3 Methods for Retrieving a Rope After Rappelling
Each of these methods has its right time and place, depending on the terrain and the type of activity you’re participating in. Hiking around obviously only works when that is an option due to the terrain, and if you aren’t continuing to descend a canyon or cliff face.
Many cliffs have a ‘climbers’ trail that goes up around one of the sides to reach the top. This makes it so climbers can rig an anchor with webbing and quick links or other hardware and then remove it when they leave.
When practicing rappelling at an area like this it’s easy to set up a fixed rope at the top, rappel down as much as you want, and then hike up around the top again and untie the knots and pull the rope. This is generally how I do it when I take youth groups and scouts out.
I usually set up the rope so that they are rappelling single-strand as well. That way if someone get’s stuck for whatever reason, I can toss the other side of the rope down and rappel down to them to help out.
If you do it this way, it’s important for the person fixing the rope to tie himself in at the top. All it takes is a slip near a cliff edge for a disaster to happen. Use a PAS or tether to tie yourself in before setting the rope.
Toss ‘n’ Go
This is the most common way to retrieve a rope after a rappel when canyoneering, and is similar to the way it’s done by rock climbers as well. With the Toss ‘n’ Go method, the person rappelling puts the midpoint of the rope through the carabiners or chains at the top, ensuring that both sides touch the ground, and then rappels down on both strands.
After everyone has descended safely, they can pull on one side of the rope and pull the whole thing back through the chains or carabiners. They can also rappel single-strand by tying some sort of rope block (8-block or carabiner block) on one side of the anchor and rapping down the other side of the rope. At the end, you then pull the blocked side of the rope down the cliff.
This is the most common method used by canyoneers when going through a canyon that has permanent or semi-permanent anchors (bolts or webbing with rapides) that remains in the canyon. If the intent is to ‘ghost’ a canyon though, canyoneers use a different method described later on.
This is also the way rock climbers generally rappel, threading the rope through the anchor and then either being lowered down to the ground by their belayer or rappelling down to the bottom on both strands. When they’re done with a route, they make sure to untie any knots in the end of the rope and then pull it through the chains. For more detail on rock climbing specifically, read my article How Do Rock Climbers Get Back Down?
What if the length of the rappel is longer than the midpoint of your rope, so you can’t just double it over? The way to descend and pull the rope in this situation is to tie two ropes together, usually with an EDK or double figure-of-8 knot.
Note that this only works when at least one of the ropes is as long as the cliff is tall, since you usually can’t pass a knot through the anchors. When using a pull cord you knot the ropes together on one side of the anchor and rappel down the other strand, then pull the knotted side down after you’ve rappelled.
Depending on the canyon or cliff face, those rappelling either bring two regular ropes and tie them together or bring one rope for rappelling and a pull cord- a rope about half as thick that is only used to pull the unweighted rope down.
The advantage to using a pull cord over another full-length rope is that it saves on weight, space, and cost; however it can be nice to have a backup rope or to have an extra rope for canyons with multiple rappels and rappels where getting a rope stuck is a possibility.
Other Methods Canyoneers Use to Retrieve a Rope After Rappelling
There are many other methods for getting a rope down after rappelling, but none are as popular or as simple as those described above. I’ve written more about these methods in detail in my article How to Rappel Without Leaving Gear, but I’ll briefly mention them here.
The most common method people use for ghosting a canyon is to set up an anchor around a rock or tree and rig the rope so it pulls the anchor down. This is done by using a webbing anchor with a quick link on each end and tying a rope block in between the quick links.
When everyone has descended (dual strand rappel), you can pull either side of the rope and the rope block will pull the anchor down with it. Be careful not to get clocked by the falling hardware!
The risk with a retrievable rappel is that with the knot and anchor materials there’s a lot more drag and a lot higher risk of getting something stuck. Additionally, it can cause a lot of additional wear on delicate trees or sandstone at the cliff’s edge.
A fiddlestick is a popular method used by advanced canyoneers that incorporates a pull cord and stick, piece of PVC pipe, or more secure device like Bluu Gnome’s Smooth Operator. The rappel is rigged so that the fiddlestick holds the rope in place.
After the last person descends, they pull the cord attached to the fiddlestick, which functions like a lynch pin and the whole thing comes falling down. There’s obviously a lot more risk in this method if it is rigged incorrectly, but it is used safely in the canyoneering community.
Water or Sand Anchor
Canyoneers use some specialized equipment to build a retrievable anchor at the top of a cliff. The water anchor (w’anchor) and sand anchor (sand trap) use the same functionality and rely on similar physics to work.
With either of these methods, the device is basically a big bag that is filled with sand/water and can have a rope attached to the side. When it has enough filling in it, it will hold someone rappelling. A separate pull cord attaches to the other side of it.
After everyone’s descended, they pull the pull cord, releasing the water or sand. Then they pull the empty bag down using the cord. As with the fiddlestick, these are methods used by advanced canyoneers and do present a significant higher risk than semi-permanent webbing anchors.
If the drop is minimal, around 5 meters or less, then a meat anchor may be appropriate if no natural or bolted anchor is available. The heaviest person, or the best climber in the group ties into a rope or handline and then wedges himself into a secure place at the top of the drop.
The other group members then rappel or use the handline to descend to the bottom. The ‘meat anchor’ person then downclimbs the drop and the other group members assist him using partner capture methods to make sure he doesn’t get hurt.
This method is especially useful when there’s snow or ice that render the canyon more difficult than expected. Sections that could easily be climbed down when it’s dry can be impassable with a dusting of snow.
Log or Tree
You can also just sling a rock or tree or log (natural anchor) and rappel both strands to the ground. This is usually a last-resort type thing though because of the wear that it inflicts on the natural anchor as the rope is pulled.
Watch out as well to make sure the rope doesn’t get caught along the sides of a chockstone. It can easily get wedged in as it’s being pulled, leaving you stuck.
A few canyons, all caves that require rappelling, and even a select few climbing areas, require you to climb out on the rope you came in on. If this is the case then you need specialized ascension gear (which you should always have with you when canyoneering anyway in case you need it).
There are tons of different methods for ascending a rope including Prusik cords, hand ascenders, and chest ascenders. The best method to use depends on how frequently you plan to use them. The most important thing is to know how to use the method you carry with you.
What to Do if a Rappelling Rope Gets Stuck
With how often rappelling ropes get stuck, it’s pretty amazing that they don’t cause more tragedies. It is pretty easy for a rope to get snagged in a crack up near an anchor or for a knot to make its way up to the top and get caught.
If your rope gets stuck in some sort of crack or groove and won’t come out after a good tug, the first thing to do is to walk back as far as you can and pull from a different angle. That way you’re pulling the rope out of the crack instead of further into it.
The next best thing to do is to look for a way to hike around or climb up the sides. If you know you’re at the last rappel you can finish the canyon and find a drop in point above the last rappel.
If that doesn’t work, have a few people pull on the rope at the same time. Ropes do stretch a little bit, so it may stretch and pull through. You’re unlikely to damage the rope, even with a few people pulling on it.
If you know there’s a big knot on the end that will absolutely catch on the anchor carabiners, you can ascend the rope. This should only be done if you know that the rope is secure, because jugging up the line can easily free a stuck rope, sending you hurtling to the ground.
If you have to leave your rope it’s not the end of the world. In many popular areas, someone will follow through in a day or two, so you can post on the local facebook page to see if someone will return it to you. I see posts about stuck ropes left behind about once a week during peak canyoneering season in Southern Utah.
Tips for Making Sure a Rappelling Rope doesn’t Get Stuck
The best way to get a rope unstuck is to avoid getting it stuck in the first place. Make it a habit to always check the end of the rope for knots before you pull it. I made that mistake one time doing S’mores Canyon in Arizona, but fortunately it was in a section that could be climbed out of using Class 5 climbing skills.
Whenever possible, make sure the anchor extends over the cliff’s edge to reduce rope drag. That drag creates grooves that can easily catch ropes. The last person to rappel has the responsibility of guiding the rope so that it avoids the grooves and making sure to pull at the best angle to reduce the risk.
The risk of getting a rope stuck is inherent in rappelling, but those are some great ways to mitigate it.
How Do You Get Back Up After Rappelling? In most situations the best way to get back to the top of a cliff after rappelling is to hike around the side using a trail. This may require descending the rest of a slot canyon or taking a long detour. If that isn’t an option, such as with caving, then you can use ascenders to ascend the rope you rappelled down on.
How do Climbers Get Their Rope Down? Climbers do not tie a knot or ‘fix’ the rope to the top of the cliff; they thread it through two anchor points. When the climbers get down they untie any knots in the end fo the rope and then pull one side so the other side of the rope goes up to the top, through the anchor, and falls down to the ground.
What do You do if You Rappel Past the Anchor? In multi-pitch climbing, climbers often have to rappel down to very specific belay stations so they can stop, pull the rope, and go again. If you miss the anchor you need to have the capability to switch from rappelling to climbing or ascending and go back up.