The Fixed Rope Dilemma

We need to reach some reasonable compromise on the proliferation of fixed ropes (and associated bolts) in Red Rock (NV) wilderness areas. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m concerned about the oft-used trade routes for class 3-4 scrambles.  I’m not concerned at all about those little-known uber-routes.

First: the law is pretty clear: fixed ropes are illegal in Wilderness Areas (only parts of Red Rock CNCA, and parts of the area around Calico, are “wilderness”).  The USFS/NPS/BLM regard any rope left more than a day as “abandoned,” and reserve the right to remove the rope and fine the “abandoner” (unless the rope was needed for an emergency escape or rescue).  The park services have relented on the use of “temporary” slings, which were outlawed briefly in 1998; the unsaid idea is that people will occasionally remove or upgrade slings needed for rappels. Unfortunately, it may do more harm to the trees used as anchors, if people are constantly tying new slings in inappropriate places, than using well-planned fixed ropes.  But the BLM/USFS/NPS disdain “permanent” slings (such as short cable loops, which might solve the problems), and don’t seem to want to back down on that proscription, as odd as the decision may be. In Wilderness Areas, bolts can be placed by permit only; I’m betting the majority of recently-placed bolts, on scramble routes, were not permitted.

We all know that the few rangers, who actually roam Red Rock backcountry, will probably not see and act on fixed ropes.  We also know that few will see bolts on the very obscure routes. So let’s just look at alternatives and safety for those “trade routes.”  But note there has been increased use of youtube, geocaching sites, and so forth to identify illegal activities in Red Rock, and to finger the individuals responsible. It’s just a matter of time before this all boils over.

Alternatives to fixed ropes

Consider having hikes led by folks who can climb up the iffy stretches safely, because of experience/skill. Those people will carry a rope or strap that can be used for safety of the others. That strap will be removed after use.  The owner of the strap will inspect it before it is used. The strap can be body-anchored (“meat anchor”), anchored to a rock, or to a tree if done well. Or it can be anchored to a well-set “temporary” sling. A hiking group would share information about the best natural anchors to use, and how to use them, perhaps with pictures. 

This approach would require more discipline of hike leaders and those who sign up, and more vetting. Right now there is a strong tendency for people to sign up for a trip, regardless of skill level. Even some “leaders” propose exploratory hikes beyond their skill level, if they assume fixed protection will turn a class 4 hike into a class 3 hike. In addition, people can be taught safe practices, like spotting others, giving and taking belays, and so on, before the trip.

Or, the leader will only lead less-skilled people if s/he is confident s/he can set a good temporary line or act (safely) as a meat anchor.   And, I’ve found that people tend to be more cautious when they know they are depending on a meat anchor.

People often sign up for a hard route when the hike is offered, because they want to complete some “tick list” for the peaks, not because they are really interested in that particular route. But most of the mountains can be climbed by easier routes.


What’s Wrong with Fixed Ropes?

Let’s consider some of the bad things about fixed ropes:

1) They are illegal in wilderness areas.

2) They are regarded as litter by the NPS, USFS, BLM.  Perhaps I’m just suffering from some testosterone-induced territoriality; but I find it irritating, when a route that I’ve traveled safely for 12 years unaided, suddenly sprouts a bright orange fixed rope attached to a bolt.

3) They encourage people to hang on them, and some anchors (bushes, trees, delicate rock features) just won’t stand the abuse for too long. The rope gets a lot more wear (and shock-loading) when used as a gymnastic aid, than when used as a belay. True, fewer people may be able to make the pitch if there is no fixed rope; but people will be encouraged to develop enough skill to use the line for safety only, not as a gymnastic aid, and will not attempt that route until they have developed the needed skills. In reference to point (5) below: Sometimes many people load a rope at once, or stand right below it. If the rope snaps, many folks will get hurt.

4) They can trap wildlife, especially if a stretch of the rope in on a low-angle slab.  Before you write this off as ludicrous, I encourage you to look at the pictures (on Mountain Project) of the deer that became entrapped and died in the fixed line below Rainbow Wall in 2008  (spoiler alert: not for those with weak stomachs).

5) They can be very dangerous when unseen portions are damaged. Animals occasionally chew on ropes, especially if a previous user had salty or food-scented hands. In freezing weather, ropes can collect ice; iced ropes tatter quickly if they flap in the wind and smash against rocks. I’ve seen many ropes and straps that were essentially destroyed after a single winter storm.  I’ve also seen two fixed ropes that were nearly severed by rockfall.

6) When people are expecting fixed ropes on a route, they may not bring their own, "mobile" ropes. But often conditions (snow, wet lichen) make some "normally safe" areas very dangerous. An innocuous lichen-covered slab can suddenly become the crux of the whole route.  If a rope is carried by the leader, it can be used to provide safe passage over such surprises. If your spidey sense begins to tingle, take out your "mobile" rope.


For the record: I never take down fixed ropes or slings unless they are seriously compromised (e.g. frayed 700-lb-test polypropylene), ludicrously unnecessary (as on class 2), or I happen to have a better replacement.