Making Rope Management Part of the Plan

Perhaps one of the least-sexy topics in all of arboriculture is that of rope management. It doesn’t get the same attention some other topics do, but probably deserves more than it gets. This article is a brief attempt to shine a light on an underrated and underappreciated part of tree work.

Rope management is a vital task that everyone involved in arboricultural field operations should be aware of and understand, from the most advanced climber to the greenest of ground workers. And though we don’t often discuss this topic in tailgate trainings or safety meetings, it’s one of the most important aspects of a good, clean, efficient climb. The best climbers are masters of managing the ropes they have in the tree.

Good rope management is proactive, not reactive, and is the responsibility of everyone on the job site. Just as open communication is the lifeblood of the exceptional tree crew, rope management is something that should be practiced by everyone at all times. We’re talking about the physical process of moving ropes where they need to be in order for work to proceed safely and smoothly – whether that’s a climbing line, a rigging rope, a pull line, a winch line or any other line. The more ropes that are in play, the more essential it becomes for everyone working to know what’s happening with the ropes and to share responsibility for their management.

worker's hand in a tree holding a yellow rope looking down at the ground
It’s important to keep track of all ropes in play. In this picture, the orange climbing line on the right-hand side is not in a great spot. Keeping a clean work space can make things faster, safer and more manageable. Photos courtesy of the author.

A minor inconvenience can become a big problem

If you’ve never seen the video of the dummy being violently yanked into the chipper by a rope, do yourself a favor and Google it. But in addition to the obvious critical reason of climber and crew safety, managing ropes is essential for a variety of other reasons. If you are a climber and have ever pulled up a rat’s nest of your own tail, you know this. Conversely, if you’ve ever tried to pull up the tail of your rope and been unable to because that minor rat’s nest you considered dealing with earlier is now snagged on a sucker or tight crotch below, you don’t need to be reminded of the importance of good rope management.

These might be minor inconveniences – or they might be impediments to critical life-saving measures. Imagine trying to quickly descend with a broken arm or a severely cut leg. That hockled-up rope tangled among a few detached limbs suddenly makes a timely descent or rescue much more complicated. If time is of the essence in this scenario, why not take the time beforehand to ensure your lifeline is knot, kink and hockle free? It just might save your life.

Redirecting or predirecting your climbing line

Redirecting and/or predirecting your climbing line is another example where good rope management comes into play. Have you ever tried to descend through a morass of limbs before moving your rope? I know I have, and I spent half my time hauling my line and the other half cursing myself for not looking ahead to my next several in-tree moves.

A co-worker of mine is fond of gently teasing me when I find myself in this position: “You’re up there playing checkers when you need to be playing chess!” What he means, of course, is that I need to stop for a minute and look at the whole picture. I need to plan the entire climb, the whole tree, the most sensible and efficient path through the tree to the work that needs to get done.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minor skirmishes that flare up in the middle of a climb. Taking a moment to stop, breathe and assess the path forward can make a world of difference, especially when it comes to seeing a mistake you’ve made – or are about to make.

Worker in a tree wearing green shirt and red helmet sitting on a branch tossing a brown rope
Coiling up your rope and tossing it where you are going next in the tree can mean a more efficient, smoother climb.

Take time to plan your route

Take time to gather your rope, literally – physically coil up the tail of your climbing line and intentionally place, throw, lower or wind it through your chosen path through the tree. This can mitigate headaches, make ascents and descents clean and effortless and even lead to better decision-making.

It’s simple to avoid errors like rope-on-rope friction – especially in a crucial case such as rigging rope on climbing rope – when you’ve planned your route and taken the time and care to put your rope just where it needs to be. There’s almost no excuse for allowing the aforementioned rope-on-rope scenario, whether it’s above your climbing system or below.

Rigging ropes

Things get especially serious when talking about rope management in rigging operations. This is true in the simplest operations – one block, one rope – to the most complicated jobs with multiple ropes in multiple rigging points, span rigging, controlled speed lines, highlines, etc. With each successive step upward into the world of rigging complexity, our senses should be more attuned to the physical location of all those ropes.

It’s incredible how quickly a rope running across another can melt it, even sever it completely. The bigger the load, the more quickly this happens. As one gains experience working among trees, it becomes second nature to check and recheck the location of lines. For the novice arborist, it is imperative that awareness is stressed and maintained throughout the process. And for tree veterans, it’s always a good idea to double check where things are placed. Even the best can make mistakes or get distracted.

Experience helps

Chris Girard, CTSP, ISA Certified Arborist and owner of Girard Tree Service, a 15-year TCIA member company based in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, is one such veteran arborist. “Always. Mind. Your. Lines.” Girard spells out, quickly adding, “Especially same-color lines.”

Girard has an extensive background in civil engineering that he brought to his life as a tree climber. He knows the ins and outs of the geometry and physics of tree work intimately. His reminders to climbers of all skill and experience levels are timeless.

“Look around when you’re up there. Look all around. What are your surroundings? What is available to use? Where are your rigging points? Where will things go once tied and cut? And where is your line in the tree?” All are solid reminders we should keep in mind every time we ascend.

The next time you climb, ask yourself, “Where is my rope located now?” Girard mentions being particularly careful when utilizing a basal-anchor setup. “Where will the rigging line be located 10 seconds from now when I cut this limb? Will it be crossing my line and taking me for a ride, or worse?”

Ground workers are equally responsible for helping manage lines. At times, it becomes imperative that the workers on the ground take the lead in managing all ropes in play. This is especially true if the climber is in an awkward position and/or does not have direct line of sight to his or her climbing line lower in the tree. We’ve all seen the tail of the climbing line get wrapped around a rigging line; what no one should ever see next is work proceeding without first taking care of such an issue.

Choosing the correct rope length

A regularly overlooked aspect of rope management is simply choosing the correct length of rope for your climb. Climbers should own and utilize several different ropes for different applications.

You should have, at minimum, a “long” rope and a “medium” rope. My long line is 200 feet, while the medium rope is 120 feet. Your long line should be used for stationary rope system (SRS) climbs on big trees, and your medium rope can be saved for moving rope systems (MRS) used on small to medium trees. I like to have a third “baby” rope for especially small climbs – say, hopping up to thin an apple tree. The best climbers use the right-length rope for the job at hand. Just as you wouldn’t attempt to climb a 120-foot pine with a 120-foot rope, there’s no sense in utilizing 180 feet of climbing line in someone’s front-yard crepe myrtle.

Key questions

Here are some questions to ask yourself when thinking about your climbing line.

Do I have a path to ground if something goes awry?

Think about the bowl-of-spaghetti rope tangle again. Have you ever had to descend out of a tree quickly? I mean very quickly. Think yellow jackets or angry raccoons. It’s not fun fighting off a swarm of predatory wasps and trying to untangle a mess of rope in your tail so you can descend.

There are other hazards in a tree besides summertime bees. Animals defending their homes. Accidental cuts. Unintended swings that leave you dazed, or worse. A clean path to the ground can mean a smooth descent when things go wrong.

In serious situations – a chain-saw cut, an incapacitated climber – it might mean the difference between injury and death. Think about a co-worker attempting to make a rescue, bringing you down on a climbing line that is all knotted and caught up around itself and a mess of branches. What if you had simply taken the time when you noticed something amiss to deal with it right away? Practicing good rope management – rope awareness – could very well save your life one day.

How am I going to proceed through the tree?

Think about the path you will take to work the tree. This becomes easier and more intuitive with experience. However, even new climbers can take advantage of the benefits of placing their climbing lines in paths that put them on the offensive. Know you’re going to have to climb up and over to that dead limb? Take a minute and get the tail of your line heading in that direction. Know you’ll have to descend out to a tip over a roof? Take up your rope and make an intentional toss over a redirect that will place you directly above it.

Beyond merely keeping your head in the game and reminding you where you are going, properly placing your line can mean your climb flows smoothly, from ascents and descents to how your friction hitch functions. Feeding out plenty of slack in your tail means not fighting a Prusik or mechanical device. These are little things that add up over the course of a work week.

Dealing with excess tail in your climbing line

Chris Girard has a specific tactic for dealing with excess tail in his climbing line. This works best in an open area where most if not all branches can be “bombed” out, and especially if a ground worker isn’t on hand to immediately clean up fallen brush and debris. He takes up the tail of his rope and mindfully coils it as if to pack it away. Then he takes a sling or loop runner and ties the coiled rope off to his harness.

In this way, he can go “bombs away” on his work-from-height and not worry about his rope being caught up in the aftermath on the ground. We’ve all been the ground person who rounds the corner and lays eyes upon the scene: a mountain of snaggled branches facing every which way and the climber yelling about their rope snagged at the very bottom of the mess.


There are countless creative ways to deal with excess rope in a tree that will keep us safe, operating efficiently and frustration free. Use your imagination and see what you can come up with on your next climb.

With a bit of thought and some occasional extra rope wrangling, each and every climb can be a bit more intuitive, safe and even fun. Happy climbing and rigging, and “mind your lines!”

Jim Kasper is an ISA Certified Arborist and Climber Specialist. He has a master’s degree in public health (MPH) and is a climber with Gill Tree Care in Decatur, Georgia.

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