Rope Management for Rescue - by Robert Walters, APP Board Member

Traveling to Zion National Park, I was on my first rappel into Keyhole Canyon.  For the first time in my life I was trying to rappel off the end of my rope. Most mountaineers and climbers have been trying to avoid this for their entire lives and I was doing it on purpose. So why was I using the opposite technique of this standard rope management practice?  We were rappelling into a pothole with water over our heads.  

Rather than treading water and undoing the carabiner holding the ATC, possibly dropping it into the pothole with 3 more rappels ahead,  we suspended the rope just over the pothole water surface,  pulling  the rope quickly thorough the ATC and allowing us to swim away.  This was an important lesson in rope management. 

Managing rope on the rescue scene is the foundation of success in rope rescue.  It begins with the rope storage and inspection program.  The ASTM Standard F1740-96 says ropes and harnesses should be stored or in service for no more than ten years. 1   Ropes are usually stored in rope bags that can be deployed easily at the scene.  What size rope and type does your patrol use? Static rope of 11mm or 7/16th is the backcountry standard. Fire Departments usually use 12.5mm or 1/2 inch rope and some teams use 9.5mm or 3/8th rope for low angle, low friction rescue operations. Self evacuation rope is usually 8mm and some patrols use smaller rope. Rappel devices need to fit on your patrol rope. Most will fit on 11mm rope but, only a few rappel devices will work on 12.5mm rope. When rappelling on rope, using a stopper knot is standard practice.  Figure 8s or double overhands are good knots,  but leave enough tail so they do not work themselves out. If you rappel on a Figure 8 device occasionally hanging the rope off the ground for its full length can remove the twist in the  rope kern caused by the Figure 8 device. When your team deploys multiple ropes on a scene, such as a main and belay line, using different colors is helpful for rope management.  Stacking or flaking the rope out has become my standard practice so it can inspected it for damage before  it is used.  I personally lowered a rescuer down a steep class 5 slope and realized as it came out of the bag that it had been damaged by rodents. The mice had eaten through the mantel and into the kern with no sheath left.  We reversed the system by stopping the rope with a prussic and  building a mechanical advantage to allow us to safely  pull the rescuer up.  Another option in this situation would be to tie a butterfly knot in the damaged section and then pass it like a knot. 

To have your rope feed smoothly on scene requires proper stacking or flaking.  Always look ahead and pile the rope in the area from which you want it deployed.  If you are in the wind or on steep slippery surfaces you may have to attach the rope bag to the anchor and deploy it from there.  If you can get an assistant to help you with rope management and feed it to you, that will also help.  "Closing the loop" is a term used for tying off the standing end of rope and tying it to your anchor when you are lowering the rescuer.  This way you don't lose control of the rope end if you need to add another rope and the rope will not pass completely through your lowering device.

When rappelling to a  victim,  our team has a 10 minute standard (after on-scene arrival)  to set the anchor and be ready to be safety-checked.  Keeping the rope attached to your harness when rappelling will keep the victim from grabbing your rope and possibly stopping your rappel.  Your ski patrol rope rescue program should have the following elements in place to meet current rescue practices:

  • Rope log with date in service, rope number, length, color, manufacturer, model, rope type, inspection results and sign off after each use
  • Each rope should be marked and labeled on the end with the in-service date, number, type and the ends can be marked A/B so the rope can be reversed to wear the rope equally
  • Annual harness inspection 
  • Annual skills worksheet 

The following link provides information on rescue rope from CMC:

1 CMC Rescue  Harness Service Life March 22, 2013 -Through the ASTM consensus standards process, the rescue industry set 10 years as the maximum service life for a life safety rope (see ASTM Standard F1740-96 Guide for Inspection of Nylon, Polyester, or Nylon/Polyester Blend, or Both Kernmantle Rope ). The guide stresses that the most significant contributing factor to the service life of a rope is the history of use. A rope that is shock loaded or otherwise damaged should be retired immediately. Hard use would call for a shorter service life than would be acceptable for a rope that sees very little use. If we apply the same analysis to the rescue harness, then the actual use and the conclusions drawn from inspection would be the significant criteria for determining retirement. We do know that with any use a rope will age, and thus a harness is likely to do the same, so a 10-year maximum service life may well be appropriate for harnesses, assuming inspection has not provided any reason for earlier retirement.


Class 5 climbing --- Where rock climbing begins in earnest. Climbing involves the use of a rope, belaying, and protection (natural or artificial) to protect the climbers from a  fall

Standing end--- The part of a rope that is not active in knot tying

Training rope--- A retired rope wanting to get back into your rescue rope cache.  To prevent this mishap, cut it up into sections for knot tying practice

Static  rope--- a rope that is not designed to stretch when placed under load, in contrast to a dynamic rope

Kernmantle rope-- rope constructed with its interior core (the kern) protected by a woven exterior sheath (mantle) designed to optimize strength, durability, and flexibilit

Robert Walters is on the APP Board and holds  degrees in Education, Fire Service Administration and  Fire Science. He presently is the Team Coordinator for the Technical Rope Team and Ski Response Team at Jackson County Search and Rescue and is a Technical Rescue Instructor.  In addition, he responds with a Fire Department Technical Rescue Team and practices paramedicine with a community ambulance service.  He can be reached at

All views are the opinion of the author and do not represent the Association of Professional Patrollers or its sponsors.

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