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Forces Involved in "Steep Angle" Rope Rescue

Stephen Allen
Seattle Mountain Rescue

stephen.alleii@stevaln. com

Slope Definition
"Steep angle" is defined as slopes of 30 to 50 degrees. This is the slope range that has the highest risk
and can put the highest stress on the rigging system. Defining "steep angle" as 30 to 50 degree is sort
of subjective. There is nothing magic that happens between 29 and 30 degrees or between 50 and 51
degrees. This is the definition, however, that you will find in Lipke's Second Edition "Technical
Riggers Guide" and the "British Columbia Provincial Emergency Program Search and Rescue Rope
Rescue Manual".

(The Revised First Edition of Lipke's book defines "steep angle" as 40 to 60 degrees.)
Risk Level

There are a couple reasons why the risk level is higher for steep angle slopes. One is that the natural
"angle of repose" is around 30 degrees. Things naturally start to fall and roll down the hiU at angles
above 30 degrees. It is quite possible that the rescue ropes attached to the litter could dislodge debris
above and mjure someone. Also, people can still easily move around on slopes at these angles.
Rescuers may be on the slope assisting with the litter or moving down toward the next station. They
could easily knock rocks, logs and other debris down on the litter if they are not careful. Special
caution should be taken to make sure that no one gets injured by objective hazards on these "steep
angle" slopes.
The other reason for the higher risk is due to the higher forces that are on the rigging system as the

slope angle increases and multiple attendants are attached to the litter. The higher forces may not be
obvious since you might be able to move easily on the slope unroped and the litter attendant's feet are
on the ground while the system is being operated. As the slope angle increases, however, more of the
load is being supported by the rope and less is being supported by the attendants. It is easy to get a
combination of slope and load that will result in the tension on the rope exceeding the safe working
limits that have been established.



Rescue Load - Weight is measured in units of force. Tension in our rope rescue system and
equipment strength ratings are also measured in units of force. Kilonewtons (kN) and pounds-force
(Ibf) are both units of force.
1 kN = 2251bf

We consider a standard two person rescue load to weigh 2 kN (450 Ibf). This includes a rescuer, a
subject, a litter and gear. Each additional person is assumed to add an additional force of 0.8 kN (180
Ibf). If we use these standard force values for our loads it will make it easier for us to build
consistent systems and calculate the forces in different parts of our system.

Rope Strength - Rope strength will depend on the specific manufacturer and construction. We use
1 Imm kemmantle construction static ropes.

Laidlaw says that all versions are usually manufactured with a breaking strength greater than
26.7 kN (6000 Ibf) and the knots will degrade the strength by 20 to 30 percent.

Lipke's book says that the unknotted strength of 11mm rope is 28 kN (6300 IbQ and the
knotted strength is approximately 20 kN (4500 Ibf).
The JIBC Rope Rescue Manual says that the unknotted breaking strength is approximately 30
kN (6750 Ibf) and the knotted strength is approximately 20 kN (4500 Ibf).
An example of a specific manufacturer's rope is the Sterling 11mm HTP Static Rope which
has an unknotted breaking strength of 34.1 kN (7667 Ibf). The Sterling Rope Guide to Rope
Engineering says that a bowline reduces the breaking strength to 70-75% of the original
strength which would be around 24 kN (5371 Ibf).
The PMl Catalog #112, Page 5 states that. .our (11.1 mm) rope breaks at just over 22.2 kN
(4995 Ibf) on a bowline knot."

For purposes of this discussion, we will assume the knotted breaking strength of 11mm static rope to
be 20 kN (4500 Ibf).
Prusiks - Laidlaw says that a prusik "will possibly slip when a force between 7.0 kN (1575 Ibf) and
9.5 kN (2125 Ibf) is experienced".
Safety Factor - We operate our rescue systems with a 10 to 1 static safety factor. This means that the
weakest link in our system must have a breaking strength that is at least 10 times stronger than the
force that will be applied to it. This safety margin will accommodate some miscalculations we may
make and also accommodate the more complex dynamic forces that occur when the system is in

Force Calculations

A two person load (one subject and one attendant) hanging in a high angle (90 degree) configuration,
puts a force of 2 kN (450 Ibf) on the mainline rope. Since we use interlocking long tail bowlines to
connect the ropes to the litter, we need to consider that the knotted strength of the rope is around 20
kN (4500 Ibf). This results in a 10 to 1 safety factor and is why we only put one attendant and one
subject on a litter in a high angle configuration.
If we put those same two persons on a 30 degree slope (the minimum slope considered "steep
angle"), then a portion of their weight will be supported by the attendant's legs on the ground and a
portion will be supported by the rope. Static analysis tells us that the portion that is supported by the

rope would be 1 kN (sin 30 x 2 kN = 1 kN). This will give us a 20 to 1 safety factor (much better).
The problem with steep angle rescue is that we usually need to put more than one attendant on the
litter in order to support it at the lower slope angles. We typically attach three attendants to the litter
to hold it up off the ground and maneuver it when the slope is between 30 and 50 degrees. A four
person load (three attendants and one subject) would give a vertical force of 3.6 kN (810 Ibf). This
will put a force of 1.8 kN (405 Ibf) on the rope (sin 30 x 3.6 kN = 1.8 kN) resulting in a safety factor
of 11 to 1.

If we have slope angles less than 30 degrees with a four person load, more of the load is supported by
the ground and less is supported by the rope. This increases our safety factor. At the extreme (0

degree flat ground) all of the weight is supported by the ground and no load is on the rope.
As we increase the slope to greater than 30 degrees, however, more of the load is supported by the

rope. At the other extreme (90 degree vertical) all of the load would be supported by the rope and
none would be supported by the ground. We would be hanging 3.6 kN (810 Ibf) of load on a knotted
rope that has a breaking strength of 20 kN (4500 Ibf). This only gives us a safety factor of 5.6 to I
(not acceptable).

Slope angles between 30 and 60 degrees result in loads on the rope that are somewhere between 1.80
kN (405 Ibf) and 3.12 kN (702 Ibf) for a four person load.

Load on the Rope Breaking Strength Safety Factor


(knotted rope)


i w i i a j r e g t a i i w


35 de
40 de
45 de
50 de
60 de

Another way to look at this is to calculate the acceptable litter load for each slope angle. If you are
sure, for example, that your load is only 3.11 kN (700 Ibf) instead of 4 kN (900 ibf) then you will still
get your 10 to 1 safety factor on a 40 degree slope.

Litter Load

Load on the Rope

Breaking Strength
(knotted rope)

Safety Factor

30 deg

4.00 kN (900 Ibf)

2.00 kN (450 Ibf)

20 kN (4500 Ibf)


1 3 1 3 9 1 2.83 kN (637 Ibf)

2.00 kN (450 Ibf)

20 kN (4500 Ibf)


20 kN (4500 Ibf)
20 kN (4500 Ibf)
20 kN (4500 Ibf)


Fortunately, all rescuers do not weigh 0.8 kN (180 Ibf). Even if many do, it is likely that not all four
persons will weigh that much. Therefore, a real four person load is likely to be less than 3.6 kN (810

Ibf). We don't know how much less, though, without weighing each person. One reason that we have
a standard rescue load is so we can work with simple calculations and don't have to estimate
individual weights.

All of this discussion is assuming that the attendants are standing with their feet perpendicular to the
ground. If they are pulling back on the rope for some reason, the force on the rope will be larger. One
reason why we maintam a 10 to 1 safety factor is to account for these variations.

Another thing that needs to be considered is that we need to build the system to accommodate the
portion of the slope that will produce the largest forces. We may have a slope with an average angle
of 35 degrees that includes a short section with a slope of 50 degrees. We need to build our system to
safely handle the steeper 50 degree section.

Prusik Bypass
Our problem is that we cannot have a 3.6 kN (810 Ibf) four person load on a slope much greater than
30 degrees and still maintain our 10 to 1 safety factor. We need to do one of several things to correct
this problem:
Decrease the safety factor
Decrease the load

Increase the breaking strength of the rope

A good solution to our problem is to effectively increase the strength of the rope to it's unknotted

rating by the addition of "prusik bypasses". We can use 8mm prusiks to bypass the knots where they
connect to the litter. We can then make our calculations based on the brealdng strength of the
unknotted rope.

Load on the Rope Breaking Strength Safety Factor

Slope Litter Load

(4 person)

(unknotted rope)
30 kN (6750 Ibf

30deg 3.60 kN (810 Ibf)

1.80 kN (405 Ibl


2.06 kN (464 Ibf) 30 kN (6750 Ibf)

2.31 kN (520 Ibf) 30 kN (6750 Ibf)





60deg 3.60 kN (810 ibf)

2.55 kN (574 Ibi

30 kN (6750 Ibi
30 kN (6750 Ibi
3.12 kN (702 ibf) 30kN (6750 Ibf)
2.76 kN (621 Ibl

The prusiks will start to slip somewhere around 7.0 kN (1575 Ibf) and 9.5 kN (2125 Ibf). This is

more than the force we intend to put on the rope and less than the breaking strength of the rope. The
prusik bypass is now the "weak link" in the system instead of the knot in the rope. If, for some
reason, we put so much force on the rope that the prusik starts to slip, it will slip until the strength of
the knot comes into play. The combination of the knot and the pmsik will be much more than ttie
breaking strength of the rope. This will also give us a warning that something has gone seriously
wrong and we are putting too much force on the system.

Rope rescue on steep angle slopes usually involves having more than one attendant attached to the

litter. The force on tiie rope due to the slope and the increased load due to the attendants can easily
exceed the safe working limits that we set for the system. We need to make sure we have a basic
understanding of these increased forces and take the necessary precautions to operate safely. The use

of prusiks to bypass the knots in the rope will help us to get the maximum rating out of the rope.