Rappelling Into Trouble
It’s common wisdom in the climbing community that the most dangerous part of climbing is rappelling. Rappelling is when you slide down the rope in a (hopefully) controlled manner to get back down the cliff you just climbed. The problem is that if any part of the system fails, you fall. Most of the time when you are climbing, the rope is only there to catch you if you fall. But when rappelling, you are already hanging on the rope. So you don’t really have a backup.
Ice climbing is widely regarded as a crazed activity or fringe sport. If I mention it, people commonly say “I would never do that.” I started ice climbing in the late ‘70s with very marginal equipment. We climbed small frozen waterfalls in southern New England, almost always on a top rope, much safer than leading. Eventually I climbed some bigger waterfalls in New Hampshire then moved out West and started ice and rock climbing in the Rockies, even doing some easier ice leads. I never got too serious about ice climbing – it is indeed a dangerous sport – and kept it to a moderate level. But overall I loved it. There is nothing like the feel of sinking an ice hammer into a curtain of ice with a solid “thunk” and knowing you can hang off it.
One of my more challenging climbs was the Green Gully in Montana’s Pine Creek, in the Absaroka Range. At the time I was climbing with my friend Ted Wood who was willing and able to lead moderately hard ice climbs like Green Gully (WI IV*). We drove up Pine Creek to the end of the road and made the trudge up the climber’s trail to the waterfalls. Green Gully is a true classic, a beautiful wide green ice flow set between two walls of volcanic rock high in the Absaroka Range. Ted charged up the 130 foot ice flow, placing and clipping ice screws as he went while I belayed. Once he reached the top and anchored himself in, I followed as he belayed me from above. I was challenged by the steepness of the ice and physically and mentally pumped by the time I topped out.
Once we celebrated our climb, it was time to head down. Most climbs are only half over when you get to the top. Some climbs you can hike off, but you have to rappel down Green Gully. Ted had set an anchor and I clipped in, then we re-rigged the ropes for rappelling down. This requires threading one rope through the anchor point, tying the two ropes together with a secure knot then throwing both ropes down. Then you can rappel down both ropes. Once everyone is at the bottom you pull one rope to retrieve them both. Only the anchor point is left behind.
One common problem with rappelling is that the ropes may get tangled when you throw them down. Or they get stuck on a ledge or a tree. You can either pull them back up and try throwing them again, or the first rappeler can untangle them on the way down. You slide down the rope on a friction device attached to your harness with the ropes threaded through it, so you can control your descent with one hand and work to untangle the ropes with the other.
I was the first to descend the ropes from the top of the Green Gully. It looked like the ropes were a little tangled but not a big deal. I backed over the edge, crampons biting the ice, ice hammers dangling from my harness, and started rappelling down the vertical ice near the top. Looking down, I saw the ropes were actually pretty badly tangled. As I descended I could see I had a problem. The ropes had formed some kind of loop or big knot, which should not have happened. However, if I kept rappelling the ropes were going to jam in my rappel device. I would be stuck, and Ted would be trapped at the top of the climb!
I was getting nervous, realizing this could be a real mess. Looking around I found a small ledge of ice I could balance on while I figured out what to do. Starting to panic, I yelled up to Ted something about rappelling down to help me. Silence. He must have been thinking, what the heck is going on?? He could not rappel down while I was on the ropes! There was nothing he could do but hope I figured it out.
After a few minutes on my ledge, getting cold, my hands cramping, I realized I had several ice screws with me that I had removed while following Ted up the pitch. These are just what they sound like – metal screws that are threaded (and hollow) that you can turn into the ice to create an anchor point. I cranked one screw into the curtain of ice, clipped a runner to it and clipped myself to it. As quick as I could I turned in another screw and clipped to that one. Phew! I was able to lean my weight on this anchor and relax a little. I was safe from falling, but I still had to get to the bottom of the climb.
Now I had to untie from my rope. I did not like this at all. If I lost ahold of the ropes I was really stuck. I also had to unthread it from my rappel device, leaving me only the ice screws for support. Then I pulled up the ropes, untangled them, re-tied the knot at the end of the ropes (tied so you can’t rappel off the end) and tossed the ropes down, finally straight and true. After re-threading the rope in my rappel device, I was able to take my weight off the ice screws and finally rappel to the bottom. Terra firma never looked so good! After a half hour of struggling on rappel I was exhausted and soaked with sweat. Ted then rappelled down and removed my ice-screw anchor on the way. He was mighty relieved that I was able to extricate myself from my predicament.
Over all this was a strange event, and very spooky. I could not figure out how the rope looped around itself like that. It brought home the dangers of rappelling, and it was over a year before I dared to rappel again.
Note: WI IV is the difficulty rating of the climb. It means “Water Ice 4.” Ice climbs can go up to WI VII – extremely difficult and precarious. A 4 is considered moderately difficult.