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.
Many 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 (although there is a growing use of single rope techniques, which have substantial safety and efficiency benefits to single rope techniques, particularly when flowing water is involved). Double rope abseils come with 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 the last decade, 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 specialist 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. These include the Imlay Canyon Gear “FiddleStick”, the BG Gear “Smooth Operator”, the On Rope Canyoneering “Groov-E Ghost”, and the Atwood Gear “Toggle”. For the last five years I have primarily used the Smooth Operator and Groov-E Ghost, along with my own prototypes. (If you want to go down a rabbit hole about the development of these tools, there’s a lengthy post on the BluuGnome site.)
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, such as the Smooth Operator, offer additional safety for all but the last member of the group. This is done by utilising holes on each end of the toggle 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 — its 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 release while an abseiler is on rope. In fact, the loading of the rope tightens the knot. It is very difficult to pull a fiddlestick free — even if you were trying to do so deliberately — while the abseiling 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, place 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:
A standard static rope can be used to release a fiddlestick, or alternatives like the Imlay 6mm pullcord. Be aware that the rope stretch of many semi-static canyoning ropes will make it harder to release. The weight of a long, wet rope hanging from a fiddlestick could also increase the risk of unintended release.
For those reasons, specialist dyneema ropes are the best option. These have the same strength as steel cable of the same diametre, 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. The thin cord can also bite painfully into your hand on a hard pull. This can be avoided by wearing gloves or connecting a carabiner to the rope with an appropriate hitch for hard pulls.
28/10/2018: I began trialling fiddlestick prototypes produced from several specialist industrial plastics, including Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE, better known by some of the brand names: Dyneema and Spectra). This is the black version in the photo above.
6/11/2018: I have already run several workshops covering the basic elements of rigging and retrieving a fiddlestick, along some of the diverse anchoring options it opens up. Future workshops will be advertised on the Canyoning Australia forum.
7/11/2018: After arranging a bulk import of AmSteel-Blue pull cord (previously unavailable in Australia), along with BG Gear Smooth Operators and Smooth Sacs, I have set up a small online store for people interested in buying one of these kits: CanyonGear.com.au.
22/02/2023: After 5 years of development, with incremental improvements, I have released a new, improved version of my custom pull cord bag. The unique design makes coiling, deploying, storing and transporting thin fiddlestick pull cords a breeze. I’ve also updated the fiddlestick kits I offer, allowing fully customisable options with different toggles, bags, pull cords, and other improvements I’ve developed through years of usage.
Next steps: I need to update this post with everything I’ve learnt. I also plan to put together a practical “how to” guide later this year.