Even though it isn’t a dominant feature of high-altitude hiking, nonetheless its practitioners can and often do end up in climbing areas where they will be forced to use protection. A hiker must be equipped for this activity, and above all she must know how to use her equipment appropriately. To put it simply –she must know how to handle basic mountaineering gear. This can be achieved only by practicing before the event itself. It is absolutely impossible and therefore also extremely dangerous to handle mountaineering gear for the first time in your life in actual mountain climbing terrain, experimenting with a “trial and error” approach in this environment. Understandably, a group of people is always diverse, and in any group some of the people will be more experienced or knowledgeable than others. It is critical to note, however, that less experienced does not meet inexperienced. Even the less experienced must undergo mountaineering training and must try it out on small cliffs before heading out into mountains where it is possible that they may need to cover climbing passages. Unprepared individuals do not belong for events in the mountains where they would be required to climb and belay themselves with a rope.
When high-altitude hiking you typically belay yourself either using classical mountaineering techniques or using rope secured to the terrain. This second method is simpler from the user perspective and has certain compatibilities with using and building rope routes using the single-rope technique. A rope route can sometimes be called a rope railing or fixed rope.
In simple climbing terrain it provides enough security to simply mount a rope and fix it at the upper end. The rope will then wind through the terrain and it will be possible to grab it, hold on, and pull oneself up with it. A fixed rope is therefore one that is wound through the terrain and which does not move anywhere during the hike, but is rather used by the climber to advance.
A prerequisite is that there must be one experienced member in the group who is capable of completing a climbing section as a lead climber and fixing the rope to a protection point above, whether to a bolt, piton, or a sling looped around on a rock horn or through a rock tunnel, etc. By mounting the rope in this manner the lead climber creates a fixed rope.
Other members of the team then climb along the rope, either climbing normally with hands and feet along the cliff, and thereby having the rope prepared only to be grabbed if any complications arise, or the rope is always held with one hand, which actually means that the rope serves as a good handhold for every climbing step. The last option is to go hand-over-hand along the rope. In shorter, more difficult points this can help, but it is important to note that longer continuous hand-over-hand climbing is very exhausting, and at the same time it is necessary to bear mind that modern ropes made of synthetic fibres are relatively smooth and slim, and therefore they are not easy to hold while climbing hand-over-hand, and a long segment of hand-over-hand climbing with one is not easy.
Only one person may climb on a fixed rope in a section between two fixed anchors. In the event that he grabs the rope, sometimes it can yank sharply, which can pose the risk of dragging anyone with it who has found their way into the rope’s field of movement. This rule applies without exception for all forms of fixed rope protection.
Vertical fixed rope with prusiks or ascenders
In climbing sections where climbing up the cliff or advancing hand-over-hand along the rope would be too difficult, it is appropriate to use protection with a prusik or ascender.
The hiker fastens a sufficiently strong prusiking sling to the harness, which can be attached to the rope using any of the prusik hitches (the Klemheist knot suits this purpose, as does the extended French prusik). The sling should be long enough that one can comfortably reach the prusik hitch when stretching out her hands above her head. When prusiking it is a good idea to have the rope slightly tensed, as it improves the options of shifting upward along the prusiking sling. Then you can either anchor the bottom end of the rope to the rock, or hang a small load on it (a small backpack or a coiled end of the rope itself), or a friend can hold the bottom end and keep it slightly tensed.
Once again there are numerous options for how to advance along a fixed rope. Either climbing along the cliff, where the hiker shifts the prusik up the rope every once in a while, as the prusik is merely a failsafe in case the hiker slips from the rock. At which point the hiker would sit into the prusik hitch.
Another option is to go hand-over-hand along the rope, where you regularly shift the prusik hitch up with each movement with one hand. For a moment of rest it is possible to sit into the prusiking sling. Instead of prusiks, of course, it is possible and even more comfortable to use various types of ascenders.
Thus far we’ve shown the use of a fixed rope on a simple vertical route. However, climbing terrain in the mountains is never so simple and clear. It can be expected with a high degree of probability that the advance will lead vertically upward at one moment, and to the side at another (a traverse), and then diagonally back to the original vertical line. In short, the route can zigzag, twist and turn, run diagonal or completely vertical. At the same time it cannot always be expected that the start point of your climb (the approach) will always be on a flat surface such as a grassy glade. The place where the climb is initiated can be somewhere on a rock bridge over a gorge, where there is an acute risk of falling into the abyss.
In a rugged rocky environment it might therefore be necessary to mount a fixed rope and anchor it firmly at both ends (the bottom, starting end of the rope and the upper, target end of the rope) and it may even be necessary to build intermediate anchoring in the middle of the rope. A fixed rope thus installed can also be called a “rope railing”.
Again, you can advance along a rope railing up the cliff, or hold it constantly with one hand while your other limbs climb along the cliff, or, if necessary, advance hand-over-hand along it. You can also shift a prusik sling or ascender up a rope railing. Since with a rope railing the lower end of the rope is also firmly secured, there is still one more method of protection here, which is to clip in to the rope with a carabiner fastened to the fixed rope, which is threaded loosely through the carabiner (a zipline). This carabiner should be solid, with a locking sleeve, and it is best to fasten it to the harness with a webbing runner long enough for the carabiner to be comfortably within the reach of your hand. This carabiner then serves as protection in the event of a fall.
Which method to choose depends on your how advanced you are and how much experience you have with the level of complexity you are intending to face.
If you are in any way uncertain of your advantage over the terrain when climbing, it is critical that you select a more careful method, one which will protect you adequately if you fail to hold to the cliff.
Continuous rope railing
The simplest form of a rope railing is to pull it through the terrain and anchor both ends. This way of securing it is performed more often in simpler terrain, where all members of the team have a climbing advantage over the terrain.
An extended method consisting of a continuous rope railing with intermediate protection works better in more complex terrain. It is distinguished by having protection points with carabiners placed in the route of advance (for example pitons chocks, slings), through which a fixed rope is threaded.
We would emphasise that the rope is threaded through the carabiners of the intermediate protection points loosely and continuously. These measures are taken wherever our climbing route is more broken or zigzagged. Intermediate protection is the optimal method of leading rope through terrain.
What’s more, if you fall while advancing along a rope with a threaded carabiner (zipline), your fall will stop at the next lowest intermediate protection point, as your carabiner will catch against it.
Rope railing with intermediate anchoring
A rope railing with intermediate anchoring is another, more secure form of a rope railing.
It is based on the continuous rope railing with intermediate protection points. It is essentially the same in principle, except that the rope is not loose in the carabiners of the intermediate protection points but is fixed to these carabiners with a tied sling. For this purpose a so-called butterfly sling is ideal, but you can also less effectively use an overhand knot or figure eight knot.
Protection thus executed with a fixed rope now entirely resembles the protection which appears on so-called “protected routes” (klettersteig, via ferrata), and the methods of belaying aside from those mentioned above are similar to those applied on such “protected routes” – see Protection on a Klettersteig.
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Mountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains
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Mountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains
Available for download from Google Play.