March 10, 2009

Technical rope work

First off you should know that my other hobby apart from desert rat mine exploring is rock climbing. I have been doing this for maybe 30 years, have a shelf full of books on climbing, have studied them hard, and really know how to use the gear and am confident of doing the right thing under pressure. For at least 2 years of my life, I was climbing all day long for two days out of the week, and practicing on the other days. I am saying this because I am pretty sure that most people who grab a rope and run off to do some mine exploring are going to get themselves into trouble not out of it. But this is a free country for the most part and you can do what you want with the following information, including get yourself killed.

[Note: as of 5-4-2020
I have added the following section on vertical rope work]

I cannot teach you technical rope work in these few screens of information. Really all I can do is pass along a few tips. You will have to go study some books on mountaineering, caving, and rock climbing; get some training, practice above ground, and then take those skills underground if you still choose to.

Most of the time, I am just too lazy to deal with all the hassle involved in using ropes to enter mines and just avoid such enterprises. Sometimes though, a bit of ropework can be the open door to something that would be too good to miss. First remember this. Rappeling in will be easy, it is the ascent (getting out) that will be 80 or 90 percent of the work. Also consider than many rock climbing fatalities are rappeling accidents (I won't go into why, except to point out that in most climbing, the rope is a backup system that never gets put to the test. In rappeling, if the system fails or you screw up, that is it, away you go.)

Rope and Gear

The rope of choice is made by a company called Bluewater, and is called static line. Climbing rope, by contrast is "dynamic", meaning it is engineered to stretch and absorb the energy of a fall. Either rope is fine for a handline or for rappelling, but the stretch can be a real nuisance when ascending. Get as many feet of 7/16 stuff as you want to haul around, but remember that a longer rope is heavier, bigger, gets in bigger tangles, and is more hassle to deal with. I have an 80 foot length of static line that is my carry along "mine rope". Along with that I have a 200 foot bright orange static line that is my rope of choice for vertical work. I also have a retired 165 foot climbing rope that I mostly just haul around just in case. I would not use a climbing rope (that I ever intended to use again for rock climbing that is) in a mine. It would get filthy, get rubbed over pipes and timbers, collect splinters and grease. Considering that the usual distance between levels is often 100 feet, a 120 foot rope would make a lot of sense. Anything longer than 200 feet is going to be a major hassle and should be avoided unless you have really thought hard about it.

I should also point out that whenever I am doing a trip that involves ropework in mines, I have a duffelbag with all my rock climbing gear and ropes in the truck. If I need to launch a rescue I have all that extra junk ready to hand. I often throw this duffel in when I am going to the mines, even if I don't plan to do any ropework, just in case. I would prefer never to drag this gear through all the dirt in a mine, but the game would change if somebody was in trouble.


A rope tossed down an incline can give a secure handline and make for an easy hand over hand passage without any technical work at all. In this, and all the more so in vertical situations, the anchor is everthing! One favorite is the stout bumper of a vehicle parked at 90-degrees to the direction of pull. (You probably want to pad any sharp metal edges). Another good option is a stout well-rooted and living tree. Old mine structures offer lots of tempting opportunities, but are often very hard to evaluate. An stout length of 2 inch pipe that dissapears into the ground might be OK. An old weathered headframe might work if you distributed the load with several slings. If it doesn't you will be dead. People who make a career out of rappelling will bring along sections of old rug (or new rug) to pad edges that a rope must pass over and might rub on. A taut nylon rope pulled across a sharp edge is a well known very bad situation that must be avoided. A sharp edge cuts a tight rope like butter.

Vertical Shafts

I have only been down a few vertical shafts with a rope and it is a big job. The first worry is how much junk the rope is going to bring down on your head once you are down below and the rope is wiggling and bouncing around. A quick look at most shaft collars tells me I don't want to play this game at all, even with a hardhat and sturdy gloves. If the opening is sound, and there is a good anchor, the next thing to think about is what happens when and if you get to the end of the rope! Any rappel where I cannot see the bottom, I tie a big knot on the end that I am sure will not pass through my rappel device. And I favor the idea of tying a knot with a big loop so I can put my foot in the loop, stand there, and sort things out if I find myself at the end of a rope hanging in space. (I have never needed this yet, but I have heard stories about people who wished they had done this).


I am not telling you how to rappel. I am also not going to tell you how to use ascenders. Go read the climbing and caving books (get one on big walls to find out about ascenders). I do want to say this - efficiently ascending a rope requires a tuned up rig with everything adjusted to the proper length. It is possible to ascend a rope with prussic knots, but trust me, you don't want to if you have a choice. (They are, however, good to know about for unexpected situations). Mechanical ascenders are "the deal" if you plan to make a career of this kind of thing. The old standbys are called Jumars. I have a pair of featherweight ascenders made by Petzl (called Tiblocs) that are small, light, cheap, and work pretty darn good for occasional use. When I am ascending a vertical rope and get up a ways, I like to tie a figure-8 in the rope just below me and clip it to my harness. This way if anything goes wrong, that will catch my fall at the point where I tied this. I will repeat this every 20 or 40 feet or so, depending on how uptight I am feeling at the time.

Cavers do make a career out of ascending ropes, and you really should take a look at the caving literature and pick up some tricks from those boys.


A final reminder. Carbide lamps and ropes absolutely do not mix. You might manage to rappel down an incline without damaging the rope, but ascending a vertical rope with a flame lamp on your head is completely out of the question.

One story

Many years ago, my friend Paul Gross and I were down south of Tucson in a mining camp called Helvetia. There were lots of open mines in those good old days, and we decided to descend into a smaller vertical shaft close to a really big vertical shaft in hopes we would find a ladder down the big shaft once we got lower. We rappeled down to what looked like the bottom only to discover that we were on a wooden platform covered with rocks and dirt. (There is a place for short prybars in the world of mine exploration.) We moved enough of the dirt and rock aside to expose some boards which we then pried up to get enough room to slip past. (This raised an incredible amount of dust, by the way). We stayed tied into the rope as a safety line during this work, just in case our activities had some unexpected and undesirable effects upon the platform we were on. Then down my buddy went to the bottom of this shaft. He went to explore the level there and found that it did connect to the big shaft, but alas no ladder and we had enough of rope work for the day and called it quits.
A lot of fuss and bother with no reward, but you have to just give it a try now and then. When things work out right, you may find yourself exploring places few others have had a chance to look at.

Now every mine in the Helvetia area is bulldozed shut and a lot of wonderful old equipment, history, and scenery has been vandalized in the name of reclamation

Feedback? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's Old Mine Info /