Using a simple rope system will keep you and your gear safe while working around riverbanks and ledges.
Text And Photography By Keith Szlater And Jon Neufeld
Landscape photographers are a different bunch. Willing to be up hours before the sun to hike in to a remote location, we often push the boundaries of safety to get the amazing shots we really want. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that they were knee-deep in running water, or standing three inches from the edge of a sheer drop to get that perfect shot. The sad fact is the number-one cause of death in Montana’s Glacier National Park is drowning, and number two is falling. According to staff at the information center, more often than not, the two are combined when people fall into icy water and can’t get back out. We owe it to ourselves and to our loved ones to be careful!
There are four components to a basic rope system: climbing rope, anchor, harness, and attaching the harness to the rope.
There are as many climbing ropes on the market and as many opinions about each one of them as there are people. The best thing you can do is some independent research about each rope and its specific capabilities. Our recommendation is a dynamic 8mm (diameter) x 30m (length) rope. It has the advantage of being lightweight, flexible and long enough that you can move along it easily.
The anchor is the starting point for everything, and our recommendation is to use a tensionless anchor. A tensionless anchor has the advantages of being easy to construct and double-check, while also taking the knot out of the system. The first item you need for your anchor is something to anchor onto. My preference is a large living tree that’s at least 12 feet in diameter. Never use a dead tree, as it won’t support your weight.
Once you’ve found your anchor you then tie a figure eight on a bight (a common knot) by crossing the end of folded rope over the front, then behind, finally in front again and dropping it down through the loop that has been created. Wrap the rope around the tree four to five times. Clip the bight (the loop part) of the figure eight on a bight onto the mainline with a locking carabineer (metal clip) and lock the gate. The knot end of the rope should hang off of the mainline with no tension in it whatsoever. If you can tug on the mainline and it slides around the tree, you’ll need to add a few more wraps around your anchor or find a larger anchor. If it doesn’t slide at all, you’re set.
This is probably the easiest of all the parts in this system: Head to your local climbing shop, and pick up a rock-climbing harness. We don’t recommend using anything else, as it just isn’t safe. Remember, we aren’t recommending this system for a free-hanging situation, and if you think that you’ll end up free-hanging, you’ll need to a lot more research!
Putting It All Together
Now that you’ve got the anchor set, the knots tied and the harness on, you need to attach yourself to the safety line. The easiest way to do this is to pay the rope out roughly to where you want to stand for your shot and then tie another figure eight on a bight in the middle of the rope. Use a locking carabineer to clip the bight to your climbing harness and lock the carabineer. A more flexible option is to tie a prussic knot onto the mainline with a piece of 6mm cord and then attach the prussic to your harness with a locking carabineer.
The prussic allows you the flexibility to move along the safety line while keeping it tensioned. Keith often uses this method to work up and down a dangerous shoreline and get many great shots. Remember: Always tie the line upstream from where you plan to be working. If you tie it downstream and you do slip, you’ll still end up going for a potentially fatal ride in the river. Furthermore by keeping the line pre-tensioned, you’re ensuring that if you do slip or fall, it will only be down to the ground, and this system should keep you from moving forward into a fast-moving river or over a large drop.
All of this sounds pretty complicated but when you break it down into the four basic components, it’s fairly simple. The best advice we can say is to practice this in your backyard a few times and become confident with the knots and how the system works before you employ it in the wilderness. It’s up to you to know and practice your knots and rope systems. The above is presented as a guideline only, and the authors bear no responsibility for the use or misuse of this system. Do your own research, practice first, and be safe!