A black fingerless glove lay in the trail under a large tree near the base of one of El Cap’s steeper outings, Tangerine Trip. The glove was in good shape, save a rope burn on the palm. Probably dropped and sorely missed by someone on the team that had been fixing the route, someone who was at that moment likely tapping away at the Trip’s hanging flakes and seams. I tried on the lone glove. A perfect fit. ‘Great,’ I thought as I scanned the ground. ‘Now, where in tarnation is its partner?’
I wound my way back along the base of El Cap, over to the Nose and then out to the meadows, where I’d parked my VW bug, and puttered back to an oddly vacant Camp 4. I pulled up to a table and brewed a scalding mug of joe. A few hours later, the YOSAR crew returned to camp, grim and silent.
“Did you see her?” asked my buddy Walt Shipley in a hushed voice.
“Her. She was jugging the roof pitch on the Trip, came unclipped somehow, hadn’t tied a backup and dropped 300 feet straight into a tree. You had to have walked right under her.”
Tragically, that death, in 1983, wasn’t the Trip’s first ... or its last. In the 1970s, a climber on the route died when the fixed rope he was jugging cut on a sharp flake. Just this past year, it was 1983 all over again when another climber fell to his death cleaning the left-traversing fifth pitch. Inexplicably, both of his ascenders also popped off the rope. For reasons unknown, he, too, had neglected to tie a backup knot in the rope.
Three fatalities on this one route alone underscore the seriousness of jugging fixed ropes. Though seemingly simple and safe, this task, like rappelling, is one of climbing’s most insidious killers. The good news is that, as with rappelling, a few simple precautions can minimize the risk.
BACKUP OR SCREW UP
Any ascender can accidentally pop off a rope. It can happen in any scenario, but is most likely to occur when the rope is strung horizontally, such as out a roof or across a traverse, both more technically challenging scenarios than that presented by a vertical hanging rope. The problem is threefold:
1. Sideways jugging is awkward and strenuous, making you more apt to screw up.
2. A laterally strung rope can torque your ascenders, possibly squeezing the rope through the gap between the ascender cam and frame. Make sure your ascenders and the rope you are jugging are compatible—some aren’t (follow manufacturer’s instructions).
3. Cleaning a sideways pitch, or passing a knot, involves constantly removing the top ascender and jumping it past a piece or knot. The frequency of removing and replacing ascenders increases the odds you’ll bodger it and not properly reattach an ascender. Worse still, whenever you remove one ascender, you are left hanging from just one jug. If it comes off the rope … Adios.
Always use a backup. For starters, stay tied into the end of the rope. This knot is your emergency chute—even if both ascenders come off the rope. Assuming the distance to the end of the rope is less than the distance to the ground or a ledge, you’ll probably live. If the climber on the Trip this summer had tied in, he would be alive today, with one whopper of a free fall to talk about.
In addition, always clip into a series of backup knots as you jug. Clip a locking carabiner to your belay/rappel loop, or through your leg-loop crotch strap and waist belt. Next, tie a figure-eight-on-a-bight in the rope just below your bottom ascender, and clip into this. As you jug, tie another knot every 30 or so feet, and clip it to the locker (Figure 1). Now, the maximum you can fall is 60 feet (twice the length of the 30-foot backup loop). If you are cleaning above a ledge, shorten your backup loop as necessary to avoid a literal smackdown.
Backup knots work fine as long as the rope isn’t anchored on the bottom end. When the rope is anchored, or when the weight of numerous hanging ropes makes a knot backup impractical, set a prusik on the rope just above your bottom ascender, and clip it directly to your bottom jug (Figure 2). Some ascenders, such as the Petzl Ascension, have a clip-in hole at the top of the frame expressly for this purpose. Now, even if both ascenders mysteriously hop off the rope, the prusik will engage and catch you. Ideally, your bottom ascender will automatically push the prusik up as you go, but you may have to tinker with it to find the point where the prusik is loose enough to scoot but tight enough to cinch. As a final precaution, to help prevent your ascenders from torquing off the rope, especially on a diagonaling line, clip a carabiner to each ascender’s frame, then clip the biner around the rope (Figure 3).
TO GRIGRI OR NOT TO GRIGRI
Some climbers prefer to rig one ascender on top and use a Petzl Grigri as the bottom “ascender.” This method provides greater safety than two ascenders, since a Grigri can’t come off the rope and is recommended for cleaning traverses and diagonaling pitches. However, any system, including this one, is fallible—always tie into the end of the rope and use an additional backup knot. The disadvantage of the Grigri is that it takes longer to attach and remove from the rope than an ascender.
Another method calls for two ascenders, per normal, and a Grigri on the rope just below the bottom ascender. Here, the Grigri replaces the backup knots—because it automatically moves with you, you save time by not having to constantly stop and tie those pesky knots. But it is easy to accidentally rig the Grigri upside down, making it a backup in name only. Also, the Grigri can tangle in your rack and possibly jam open. Backup knots and prusiks are safer.
Until recently, when I finally replaced my jugging rig, it was a tattered arrangement of slings and aiders, faded relics of the neon 1980s. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The slings and daisy chains that connect you to your ascenders are as critical as the rope itself. Keep them in top shape and upgrade as necessary. Also, keep your ascenders in proper working condition. Safety springs and cams wear out. Sticky cams and safety triggers are accidents waiting to happen. Use a locking carabiner for every link in the system, and make sure the locking mechanisms really lock—i.e., double-check your “self-lockers” before you weight the line.
PROTECT THY ROPE
As you sproing up the rope, alternately weighting each ascender, the rope stretches, then rebounds. This up-and-down action very effectively saws your taut cord across the rock. Protect your rope—and yourself—by jugging as smoothly as possible. With practice, and a fine-tuned jugging rig, where all the ancillary components are adjusted precisely to your anatomy and style, you can climb a rope with minimal bouncing. Good style and a good system are critical when you jug a fixed, free-hanging line. In this situation, the rope bounces a lot, with your entire body weight potentially grating the cord across an edge.
Smooth over abrasive bulges or edges that can cut the rope. In most cases, the rope-cutting culprit is just below the anchor, where the rope makes its initial contact with the stone. Packs, gloves and shirts slid between rope and rock make for effective rope protectors—I’ve even used my foot to keep the rope off an edge while I was at a belay, waiting for my partner to jug-clean a pitch. Duct tape works well for covering edges, just be sure to remove it afterward. On numerous El Cap pitches, “fixed” duct tape blows in the breeze like used toilet paper. Some companies, such as Spiroll (spirolls.com), make specialized rope protectors, which “burrito” around the rope.
Another good technique is to use directionals to pull the fixed rope away from edges. Place pieces of protection off to the side of potential rope eaters, and clip the rope to the pro to direct it out of harm’s way (Figure 4). Strategically unclipping the rope from protection, or shortening or lengthening slings, can sometimes achieve the same effect.
Last, fix with fat, 11mm ropes, which have durable sheaths meant for abuse. Big walls are no place for wimpy sport lines. Also consider static fixing ropes. Built primarily for the rigors of caving, static ropes have tougher sheaths than dynamic climbing ropes, and, because they have virtually zero stretch, eliminate most of the sawing action inherent to jugging. The downside to using static cords is, of course, that they don’t stretch. Even a short fall onto a backup knot on a static rope can cause severe shock-loading.
KNOW THE DRILL
Most jugging accidents are caused by pilot error. Learn your system inside and out. Practice at a short, safe crag or in a tree, where, removed from the intimidating environment of a big wall, you can concentrate on dialing everything in. Train yourself to listen for the audible “click” of the ascender safety engaging, and visually confirm that each ascender is properly set and locked. On the rock, take every possible precaution: Double-check your system each time you launch out onto the jugs, and you’ll make those SAR folks, like the Maytag repair man, will happily become the loneliest people in town.