Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Stuck rope in Palisades Canyon

Posted in Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on May 28, 2009
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Eric Luth narrates video

Palisades Canyon, 3BIV
13.9 miles
Coronado National Forest – Santa Catalina Mountains
05/03/09


It hadn’t happened yet. I knew eventually it would happen. It made me kind of nervous. How would I handle it? Palisades Canyon was definitely not the canyon that I wanted to deal with the stuck rope scenario, particularly for the first time. Why? 14 miles, 6 consecutive rappels all over 100 feet, flowing water, algae covered rock that is slicker than a greased pig and natural anchor challenges. This canyon is extremely strenuous and technical.  Even with an early start and everything running smoothly we would be lucky to finish before dark.

Canyoneering does not always go according to plan; the unexpected happens and part of what I really like about this sport is the problem solving in dealing with situations as they occur.

The third rappel was a 100-footer from two pitons (spike like objects jammed into cracks used as anchors) on the side of a bowl shaped pool. The edge of the bowl between the pitons and the drop-off had an odd shaped curve to it. The rappel itself was treacherous, straight down the watercourse. The flow was light but provided just enough of that extra element to make things a little more difficult. The invisible algae made the rock so slick that keeping your feet under you while on rappel was almost impossible. The proper technique seemed to be to rappel down on the side of your butt.

After Eric and I rappelled down and began pulling, the rope stopped moving after 15 feet of retrieval. We tried pulling from different directions. Still, no pull. We tried creating a 3:1 mechanical advantage system. Still nothing. A 5:1 mechanical advantage. Still nothing. Running out of options we realized that one of us would have to ascend the rope to make retrieval possible. With three rappels remaining we needed the rope to continue the canyon. There may have been an exit out of the canyon at our current location but it appeared sketchy.

Normally, ascending a stuck rope is not a safe option as the rope could become un-stuck while ascending.  This would result in falling on the attached rope. In our current case however, we were able to climb up 10 feet and retrieve the end of the rappel side of the rope and pull until we knew without a doubt that our block was placed back against the anchor. After achieving this I prepared my jumar and prusik cords and began ascending. With water spraying me in the face I grunted and groaned 100 feet back to the anchor. When I reached the top I shouted out in VICTORY.

Untwisting the rope that had bound up along the curved edge of the bowl above the rappel, we performed a test pull to confirm we would be able to achieve the pull. After success I rappelled down, pulled the rope and we continued the canyon. We lost about an hour and a half.

With only two people and no other problems we made time and reached our car only an hour after sunset.

I wouldn’t say that I was glad the rope got stuck. But dealing with this situation perhaps became the highlight of what would have otherwise been an excellent canyon. The exhilaration of ascending the rope and hence solving what could have become a dire situation was intense. It was a feeling that does not come along often.

-David

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