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
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.
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.
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
Drop me a line!
Tom's Old Mine Info / email@example.com