Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

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Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by T2 » 29 Aug 2018, 17:31

After heading canyoneering in Utah last year, and seeing some of the advanced techniques in use, I have been trialling those that I think are relevant to Australian conditions. One tool which I have become a massive fan of is the fiddlestick. It has come with me through dozens of canyons and abseiling trips this year. I've finally written a detailed post about what it is, how it works, the benefits, risks, and everything else. I'm going to work on a more detailed "how to" guide looking at rigging with a fiddlestick, but this is more about getting people across exactly what it is.

For those who are interesting, I'm considering running some skill days in the Blue Mountains covering the basic elements of rigging and retrieving a fiddlestick, along some of the diverse anchoring options it opens up. If you're interested, please fill out the form at the bottom of the Fat Canyoners post.

I'm also going to organise a group purchase to bring in the top-of-the-line pullcord -- which isn't sold in Australia -- as well as for fiddlesticks and rope bags. We should be able to save a substantial amount on shipping alone. If this is of interest, fill out the same form as linked to above.

WARNING: As with any ropework, incorrect rigging can result in catastrophic failure, leading to injury or death. The technique below should only be attempted by experienced people who have practiced these skills in a safe environment prior to utilising them in the field.

Background:

Most Australian canyoners still use the traditionally technique of abseiling on double ropes, which involves threading a rope around an anchor before tossing both ends down the drop and abseiling on both strands. It is simple, straightforward, and works well enough in most situations. But it does comes with a number of limitations. Not only does it require twice as much rope as the drop being descended, but the friction involved in hauling the rope back through the anchor can lead to stuck ropes, rope wear, damage to the anchor, and the formation of rock grooves. It also requires anchor materials — such as tubular tape, maillons, rap rings, nuts, or bolts — be left behind.

There are a number of retrievable anchor systems that have been developed to address these situations. The most popular, which has been used extensively among American canyoneers for more than five years, is the “fiddlestick”.

What is a fiddlestick:

Fiddlestick has become the generic term, covering a range of similar products. All involve a small piece of plastic that holds a hitch in place in the abseiling rope during descent, but is then pulled free from the bottom to allow the rope to be easily retrieved.

There are currently a number of small manufacturers in the United States producing variations of the fiddlestick. The original version is the Imlay Canyon Gear “FiddleStick”. Soon after came the BG Gear “Smooth Operator”. In more recent times they have been joined by the Atwood Gear “Toggle”, and the Rescue Craft "Ghosting Anchor Toggle". (I have been using the Smooth Operator and my own prototypes.)

All of these are made from polycarbonate, which was chosen because it is strong, flexible under load, has good resistance to impacts, is cheap, and is very easy to work with.

History of the fiddlestick:

The use of a toggle to create a releasable knot dates back centuries, with sailors once using toggles made of whale bone. (There's details of some of the knots that were combined with toggles in this discussion on the Canyon Collective forum.

A similar technique was used by old-school rock climbers who would toggle the knot with a steel piton tied to a length of accessory cord, which could then be pulled free to retrieve the abseil rope.

In more recent years, American canyoneers began experimenting with creating safe, reliable, retrievable anchors (reportedly trying everything from screwdrivers, tent poles, PVC pipes, aluminium rods, and wooden dowels to form the toggle). Through two years of effort from a group of experienced canyoneers, including Tom Jones, Jenny West, Jonathan Zambella, Luke Galyan, Steve Fisk, Steve Ramras, Mark Rosen, Brendan Busch, Kody Prisbrey and Drue Kehl, the FiddleStick was born.

During the past five years, the use of a fiddlestick toggle has become the primary technique for retrievable anchors in US canyons due to the simplicity, reliability, and effectiveness of the system. (Their use is also an integral part of the “ghosting” ethic, which aims to keep canyons as pristine as possible by reducing wear on rock or trees, as well as avoiding the need to leave fixed anchors, tape, or other signs of human visitation in these wild places.)

How does a fiddlestick work:

Using a fiddlestick is surprisingly simple (I will publish a detailed user guide in the coming weeks).

The end of your abseiling rope is passed around an anchor or through a sling, with the two strands tied using an upward Stein (Stone) Knot. The fiddlestick is then inserted through this hitch, holding it in place. Once firmly tightened, abseiling rope is lowered, and the group can begin descending.

Some variations offer additional safety for all but the last member of the group. This is done by utilising holes on each end of the fiddlestick to insert a carabiner that is then clipped into the rope above the knot, preventing the fiddlestick from being accidentally pulled free. (The last person to descend must remember to remove the carabiners!)

From the bottom, a thin, high-strength, static pullcord is used to retrieve the fiddlestick. Once the fiddlestick is pulled free, a light tug is generally enough for the short end of the abseiling rope to come around the anchor, before the weight of the rope causes it to fall to the ground.

What are the benefits of using a fiddlestick:

The fiddlestick really comes into its own on more remote, exploratory trips. However, it is also a wonderful tool that can be used in well-trafficked canyons to save time, reduce pack weight, and limit wear on both your ropes and the canyons.

Abseiling on a single rope which can then be retrieved means you only require half as much rope for each drop. For trips where there are long abseils or just lots of them, this can drastically reduce pack weight.

Because it is rigged from the end, you only need to let out the exact amount of rope you will use, avoiding tangles at the bottom of the drop and speeding up coiling. This is particularly effective when combined with a rope bag.

It saves time because you don’t need to join ropes for longer drops, feed half your rope through an anchor, or pull half the rope length down at the end of the drop. Two people share the work of coiling the rope at the bottom (one does the abseiling rope, the other the pullcord), providing a further time saving.

Pulldowns become easier, particularly when anchors are back from an edge or involve significant rope friction.

Easier pulldowns, and the ability to retreive your rope without pulling it through the anchor, mean multiple drops can often be combined. For instance the chockstone abseils in Mt Hay (Butterbox) Canyon, or the first two drops into the Black Hole of Calcutta (Claustral Canyon).

Because the pullcord doesn’t need to follow the same line as the abseil, it is also possible to descend down a hole or follow an exciting, twisting line, with the pull then done from an easy spot down canyon.

Rope wear is also reduced. Not only is less rope hauled over rough rock during retrieval, but wear that occurs during abseils is shifted to the ends of the rope. (The highest wear spot is usually the first edge an abseil goes over. With ropes that are doubled through the anchor, this occurs in the middle of the rope. With a fiddlestick, it’s at the end. So you just have to cut worn ends off an old rope, rather than having it damaged in the middle.)

In more remote canyons, the fiddlestick becomes a truly invaluable tool. The ability to set the rope well back from a drop, or even around a corner, means a huge number of additional anchor options are available. A huge number of natural anchors that would not allow a double rope pulldown can now be utilised. Likewise, objects that would not have previously been considered for anchors because they would require a large length of tape (such as a large chockstone) can suddenly be utilised.

It also allows cleaner canyoning, as tubular tape / webbing don’t need to be left behind in most cases. This not only removes junk from canyons, it saves you time tying anchors and money in materials.

The reduced friction during pulldown means less wear on the rock, so it avoids causing rope grooves and other damage to pristine environments.

In an emergency, where you need to tie a knot part way down an abseiling rope (either because a drop is longer than your longest rope, or because you needed to isolate a damaged section of rope with an alpine butterfly), a fiddlestick will allow you to retrieve your rope from the bottom, as the knot doesn’t need to go around or through the anchor.

So while a fiddlestick allows improved canyoning ethics — reducing wear and leaving nothing behind — it’s real benefits come from the ability to move faster, with less rope, using a broader range of anchors.

What are the risks of using a fiddlestick:

As with any anchoring system, incorrectly rigging a fiddlestick has the potential for catastrophic failure of the system, resulting in serious injury or death. That is why it is recommended this technique only be used by suitably experienced people who have undertaken appropriate instruction and have practiced the required skills in a safe environment.

While there are specific risks to consider when using a fiddlestick, they are generally not the initial concerns most people have. People are understandably uncomfortable with trusting their life to a system held together by a small piece of plastic, but once they examine the equipment and watch it in use, most quickly have those concerns allayed. In fact, used correctly there is nothing inherently dangerous about this system.

This technique has also been used extensively in real world settings with exceptional results. Thousands of American canyoneers have utilised the technique, using it to descend tens of thousands of rappels, without a single catastrophic failure.

The fiddlesticks themselves are more than strong enough to withhold the forces imparted on the Stein Knot during abseiling. In fact, destructive load tests have found the rope will break before the fiddlestick. (The engineering plastics used to produce fiddlesticks far exceed the strength, impact resistance, and flexibility needed for the system to work.)

You should always check the fiddlestick before each use to ensure there are no cracks, signs of damage or defects. Also check for wear on the pullcord, as if this breaks during retrieval you will be unable to remove the fiddlestick.

It is advised that you carry two fiddlesticks in your group — along with twice as much rope as is needed for your longest abseil — which ensures a stuck rope or damaged fiddlestick will not result in you becoming trapped in the canyon.

Another concern people have is that the fiddlestick may prematurely releasing while an abseiler is on rope. In fact, the loading of the rope tightens the knot. It is extremely difficult to pull a fiddlestick free — even if you were trying to do so deliberately — when the rope is weighted.

Some designs also incorporate holes at both ends of the fiddlestick which allow carabiners to be inserted. These are then clipped into the two strands of the rope above the knot. With these safety ‘biners in place it becomes impossible for the fiddlestick to be removed from the knot. The advantage of this is that the knot can be observed in use, with any potential problems fixed before the last person descends. In this situation, where the last person is at the greatest risk, you should ensure they are experienced with the system and understand how the rope, fiddlestick, and environment will interact on their descent. In particular, they should be conscious of points where they are likely to unweight the rope or potentially shock load the system.

By deploying the pullcord before the last person goes down, and holding it clear of their abseiling line, the risk of them inadvertently pulling on the fiddlestick during their descent is also removed.

When rigging the fiddlestick, placed the knot at a point that either allows the fiddlestick to hang freely in the air, or lay flat against the rock. This ensures there is no possibility of a dynamic impact that could theoretically push it loose.

Fiddlesticks are not recommended for use in flowing water canyons. This is due to the risk of the pullcord becoming caught in the water flow, which could potentially impart enough force to pull the anchor free (particularly if it became tangled with a piece of debris).

Errors with rigging the fiddlestick can result in being “fiddlestuck”. Generally, this results from a failure to identify potential snags where the fiddlestick or abseiling rope may get caught during retrieval. If either do become caught, fight your first urge to pull down hard and instead try to shake the rope loose.

If you do get fiddlestuck, you should not attempt to ascend (prusik) the rope. This is not because the fiddlestick can’t handle the forces involved. It is simply a concern that in the situations where this may be considered, it will generally be unclear what is holding the knot together. The bouncing of the rope from someone prusiking could result in something working loose, causing a catastrophic failure of the system.

For many people, the technical or ethical benefits of a releasable anchor system will never be adequate to overcome their unease at using such a technique. But for experienced canyoners, the benefits of this amazing bit of kit are substantial.

What is the best pullcord to use with a fiddlestick:

While a standard static rope could be used to release your fiddlestick, it would reduce the weight benefits of the system. It also increases the risk because of the additional rope weight on the fiddlestick and the fact that any rope stretch makes it harder to release.

Specialist dyneema ropes are a much better option. These have the same strength as steel cable while being lightweight and compact. They are also completely static and float in water.

Be aware that not all dyneema ropes are the same. Differences in manufacturing not only mean some have a breaking strength that is up to a third lower, but they also have much lower abrasion resistance and will not last as long.

Among American canyoneers, the consensus is that the best pullcord option is the 3mm Samson AmSteel-Blue 12-strand single braid rope. It is incredibly strong and hard-wearing. This is the pullcord I have been using in Australian canyons and have been extremely impressed with it. It definitely exceeds the cheap options that can be found online or in sailing stores.

Note that dyneema does come with some drawbacks. It is extremely slick and some knots can slip when tied. It also has a low melting point so should never be used to abseil directly on, even in an emergency.



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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by T2 » 29 Aug 2018, 17:33

Here are a few photos of my fiddlestick setup, along with the fiddlestick in use in canyons. The first photo shows my custom made dyneema fiddlestick, with AmSteel Blue pullcord, and a custom made ropebag. The remaining three show the BG Gear Smooth Operator in action.

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by geoffmallo » 29 Aug 2018, 20:46

We starting using the fiddlestick towards the end of the last season and found it great. I was amazed at just how fast it was to go through Kalang. I'm keen to look more at some alternate anchors with it now. You can literally shave hours off a day by using this and rope bags.

I was using the Imlay one which doesn't have the holes at both ends. We were following their instructions which have a carabiner through the stone knot as normal for all but the last. This is then removed for the last person, so you need to slightly loosen the stone knot and dress it again on just the fiddlestick. The downside of this is that you don't load up the stone knot on just the fiddlestick as you do with the smooth operator option.

I think I'd like to try the smooth operator or one like it where I can lock it in place (I filled in the form T2 if you are going to get some in, or make some).
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IMG_20180505_103906.jpg (6.26 MiB) Viewed 461 times

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by T2 » 29 Aug 2018, 21:54

Geoff, great to hear feedback from other people who have been using these in our conditions.
I totally agree about the time benefits. I haven't used mine at Kanangra yet, but in Bungonia it allowed us to easily combine Bungonia and Jerrara Creeks in a day. It also meant we could leapfrog other people who were clogging up the main anchor, so we just fiddlesticked a tree and went around them. I also couldn't agree more with your comment on rope bags. Such a great tool that definitely makes things faster and cleaner. I'm intending to write up a post on the use and benefits of rope bags in the coming months. Definitely something else we should see more in Aussie canyons.
Re the Imlay system, I have used it and I think it's fine. With the Smooth Operator, I've never seen it move and therefor have the safety 'biners do much. Mostly I like that it provides psychological security for the group. I then happily go down last. I do think there's benefit to not having to play with the knot before the last person goes down, but as long you pull down firmly on the fiddlestick and confirm the knot it tight, it should be fine.
And thanks for filling out the form. I've already had about a dozen people express interest, so I think we'll definitely have enough to justify a group order. I'll send an email with more info.

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by marilyn_scott1950 » 30 Aug 2018, 08:24

Hi Tim, any idea when you are going to hold the "try before you buy" (for want of a better word) skills day - or are you planning a couple?

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by johnmurray49 » 30 Aug 2018, 09:13

Have you encountered any problems with pulldowns of the fiddlestick in regard to trees, branches, rocks etc. With a rope pulldown it tends to flow around most obstacles.

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by Kosta » 30 Aug 2018, 11:09

T2 wrote:
29 Aug 2018, 21:54
Re the Imlay system, I have used it and I think it's fine. With the Smooth Operator, I've never seen it move and therefore have the safety 'biners do much. Mostly I like that it provides psychological security for the group. I then happily go down last. I do think there's benefit to not having to play with the knot before the last person goes down, but as long you pull down firmly on the fiddlestick and confirm the knot it tight, it should be fine.
Under normal circumstances, it is highly unlikely to pull out the stick while someone is on rope. The reason is, that the stick must move out of the knot sideways while the pull cord is usually following the rope. During the release pull, the stone knot actually turns to allow the stick to be pulled out. This turning of the knot is pretty much impossible while the rope is loaded.

The thing I tend to be more worried about is, that the stick gets pushed out of the knot of the knot if it gets pushed against a wall or the ground. That's why you should watch the knot and stick as you go over the edge to ensure it doesn't end up in a bad position. Having the safety carabiners on, allows you to observe what the stick does while the previous abseilers go down. It also means, the previous abseilers don't need to worry about the stick and its placement at all.

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by T2 » 30 Aug 2018, 11:27

Marilyn, I've already had quite a few people express interest. I think I may hold a couple. Given there are people who would like to see it in action before deciding whether it's a tool they want to buy, I will try and do something in the next month. I'll email all those who have filled out the form on the Fat Canyoners site and also publicise dates in the Meet Up section of the forum.

John, the pulldown of your abseiling rope become so much easier with this system. It basically pulls itself down. The fiddlestick and pullcord do have more of a snag potential. When the fiddlestick pulls, it tends to shoot out of the knot. This takes it clear of points where it may catch in the slot below the abseil, but can lead it to land on obstacles elsewhere. I've used it for some pretty scrubby abseils though, like the Kilimanjaro abseil at Katoomba, where it has to land in trees and branches. I've always found it possible to pull free because the fiddlestick is quite small and narrow, so doesn't become stuck in the branches. The very strong static pullcord also means you can impart a huge amount of force if needed to pull it out of a tree.

Kosta is spot on with his feedback. I'll try and make a short video showing the knot under load and when pulling so people can see exactly what it looks like and why there really is no risk of it pulling free while someone is abseiling.

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by Kosta » 30 Aug 2018, 12:02

johnmurray49 wrote:
30 Aug 2018, 09:13
Have you encountered any problems with pulldowns of the fiddlestick in regard to trees, branches, rocks etc. With a rope pulldown it tends to flow around most obstacles.
As T2 said, the stick comes out of the knot with a bit of speed. I once had it happen on Kalang Falls, that the stick shot out of the knot and into a scrub which was at the edge next to the abseil. But with some force, I was able to pull it free.

The only occasion where I couldn't pull down, it was actually the rope that got stuck and not the stick itself. So it wasn't really a fiddlestick related issue, but a poorly planned pulldown that could have gone wrong with classic double rope technique just as well.

In my experience, pulldowns tend to be less of an issue with the stick. I deliberately use it in places where the pulldown for a double rope is tricky such as when the abseil goes around several corners.

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by LachlanB » 30 Aug 2018, 17:07

Definitely very interesting. Any idea how much either of the fiddlesticks options would be?

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Re: Advanced ropework: Fiddlestick retrievable abseiling anchor

Post by T2 » 31 Aug 2018, 13:44

Lachlan, I'm making a list of people who are interested based on people who have filled out the form on the Fat Canyoners site. The final number of items, where we get them from, and shipping costs will all influence what price we can get things for, but a rough idea of what should be achievable for a bulk order is below (things may end up cheaper, but I don't want to promise more than I can deliver):
- Amsteel-Blue pullcord -- $2 per metre
- BG Gear Smooth Operator -- $35-$40
- Custom made dyneema fiddlestick -- $25-$30
- BG Gear "Smooth Sac" rope bags -- $50
- Imlay Super-Pull-Cord Bag -- $50
- One of my custom made pullcord bag -- $35-$40
We may also order some other gear at the same time if there's interest, such as the BG Gear SQWUREL descender.

I'll be sending an email to everyone who filled out the form on the Fat Canyoners post over the weekend to firm up details.

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