Robin, Hand me the Bat Rope!

Musings on the 11th Essential, and Choosing Your Companions Wisely
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Musings on the 11th Essential, and Choosing Your Companions Wisely

Y'all know the Ten Essentials(cue the angel chorus), don't you? That commandment-style list of mandatory hiking emergency items first tabulated by The Mountaineers in 1930? For a refresher, here's the list:

1) Map

2) Compass

3) Sunglasses & sunscreen

4) Extra food

5) Raingear/extra clothes

6) Headlamp/flashlight

7) First Aid kit

8) Fire starter

9) Matches

10) Knife

Now I freely admit that I don't carry these all the time. And I've got some quibbles with the list; For example, matches (waterproof or not) make little sense in a world where butane lighters are everywhere. But there's one basic aid not on the list that I often do carry, and in mountain or canyon terrain I consider it the 11th essential: A bat rope.

Named after the high-tech cords employed by Batman, the Caped Crusader (Batman rules; Spiderman drools), bat ropes are small, short ropes that big wall climbers carry for auxiliary duties like pendulum swings or pulling in to overhanging walls. General mountaineers and trekkers often carry such ropes for pack hauling or infrequent belay duties on long trips. And I often carry one to safeguard companions or, even more often, to get my own heinie out of stupid jams, a duty it has repeatedly performed in admirable fashion. I've even used it to lash down tents in gale winds, or tow canoes through shallow water.

The idea is to have a rope that's light enough you won't leave it behind, but strong enough to handle small climbing slips and rappeling duties, even when it's worn from hauling packs over cliff edges. In my experience, that means an 8mm rope, and over the years I've settled on a length around 80 feet. If I'm really feeling uber-light, I'll step down to a 7mm diameter, but all things being equal, such a narrow cord is more cut and tangle prone. The 8mm 80-foot cord I'm currently using weighs 2lbs.

I prefer a static rope (non-stretchy, caving style) for bat rope duties, simply because they're stronger and tougher at a given weight than the more elastic rock climbing ropes. On the downside, static ropes aren't rated for serious hi-momentum falls, where a 'rubber band' catch is mandatory to prevent injuries or ripped anchors. For that, real 10.5- to 11-mm climbing ropes are the ticket -- at three times the weight.

I've gone through a half dozen bat ropes over the years, throwing them away when they're finally too worn to trust, or they've been used for a car tow epic.I can't count how many times they've saved a friend's bacon, or my own. Try carrying one on your weekend adventures; It's cheap insurance on steep terrain.


With Friends Like This....

The old saying "there's safety in numbers" doesn't always hold true, as the tale linked above painfully demonstrates.

The setup reads like a boorish joke: Two Polish friends meet another Pole at a bar in Dublin, Ireland while pounding Saturday night brews...and make impromptu plans for a Monday climb up Ben Wiskin, a 1,300-foot Irish coastal peak that looks like a pear laying on its side with one half sliced off. The trio splits up on the hike, the two friends going ahead for the summit. Back at the base after their descent, the loner doesn't show up at a prearranged rendezvous.

The Polish duo report their new companion missing at 9pm that night, and after directing searchers to the general area, they drive back to Dublin. Next morning, police order them to return to the search. On Tuesday their partner is found. He fell off the sliced side of the pear, over a 500-foot vertical cliff and down the 800-foot apron. The victim apparently slipped while making his way along the brink, enroute to the summit, and died instantly.

This is a classic case of two common contributing factors in SAR incidents: The first is Separated Group Syndrome, which often results in lost party members, since individuals following stronger leaders may not pay attention to, or know, the route being taken. As well, this illustrates how the weakest, least experienced member of a party is usually the most vulnerable to accident.

The morals:

--Start together, stay together.

--If you're relying on companions, make sure they're reliable.

--Safety in numbers is often an illusion - unless we're talking about big IQ points.

--Steve Howe