Short roping is an often misunderstood technique by many who are new to climbing. In recent times, it is primarily recognized as a rope system employed by guides for managing the safety of guests during mountain travel. Short Roping and its various techniques and sub-applications likely developed organically as climbers progressed through terrain and more recently as materials and gear evolved. In this article, I will attempt to demystify and clarify this difficult to master application as well as underline some of its value for recreational climbers.
First, some history…Humans have been climbing for thousands of years, the first development of specialized tools came about during the 15th century. Major advancements sat idle until the mid-19th century when materials and technology became useful in the manufacturing of climbing gear. This of course was especially true of ropes and the transition from natural to synthetic fibers. The other major factor in the evolution of climbing gear was climbing ability itself, both in terms of movement and the objectives we climbed.
Initially, much of the terrain traveled then could be defined in today’s standards as transitional terrain. Short roping was one of the early rope systems used to manage fall potential by reducing the consequences of a slip and or the potential of a fall in this type of terrain. Today, short roping is still primarily applied in the same terrain. In relation to the YDS (Yosemite decimal system), transitional terrain is graded as 3rd, 4th with short steps of 5th class climbing. Because ropes weren’t very long the distance between climbers was inherently short, this both limited the climbers’ perception of terrain and influenced the evolution of techniques and equipment. It is unclear what came first, the gear or our abilities. However based on the philosophy that necessity is the mother of invention, it is far more likely that our desire and ability to tackle more technical terrain motivated the evolution of both equipment and the applications we still benefit from today. With the increased focus for longer, more sustained, and difficult terrain climbing abilities and capacity essentially demanded an increase in our ability to manage longer falls. For skilled climbers, un-roped travel in transitional terrain is common. Examples of this abound and new sub sports have resulted, scrambling being the most well-known and common one practiced by even the most novice of climbers. While recreational climbers are free to assume 100% of their risk and vulnerability, guided parties are not. Guides typically take on a larger portion of the risk and liability, therefore, should, and de facto will, manage guests more directly and more frequently with a rope.
On many of our mountaineering-based programs and courses, Yamnuska Mountain Adventure guides will utilise the short roping application to manage slip and fall hazards. On several courses, students are instructed how to travel while being roped up. Both glacier travel and short roping are inherent techniques experienced in basic and advanced programs. The Intro to Mountaineering, Snow and Ice Long Weekend, and most if not all alpine climbing programs. The key lessons that help students and guests better travel on a rope together typically focus on terrain assessment, pace, and communication. Next time you’re on a program, seek to understand why the rope is in use, ask the guide to clarify. Greater understanding will help you improve the efficacy of the system.
By Patrick Delaney
ACMG Alpine Guide, Apprentice Ski Guide