Smooth Operator

(BluuGnome version of the Fiddlestick)
retrievable rappel anchor 

Smooth Operator!  What's that?

The Smooth Operator is a variation of the retrievable anchor system also known as a Fiddlestick.  The Smooth Operator was developed along a similar time line as the Fiddlestick with many of the same players involved in the development process. 

When rappelling while canyoneering something is normally left behind at the top of the rappel after the ropes are pulled down.  What is left behind may be webbing, rapids, bolted anchors, cams or other materials.

A retrievable anchor allows the canyoneer to pull everything down leaving nothing behind at the top of the rappel.  A Smooth Operator is one of the retrievable anchor systems in use.  The basic concept is simple, tie a rope around an anchor using a knot that is held together with a stick.  After everyone has rappelled to the bottom, the stick is pulled from the knot using a pull cord.  After the stick is removed the knot falls apart then the rappel rope and pull line fall down separately.

 The Smooth Operator does not have a permanent cord attached to the stick and has a safety carabiner hole on each end.  So the Smooth Operator is basically a polycarbonate stick with an elongated hole at each end.  The Fiddlestick has a permanently attached cord and does not incorporate the holes at the end of the stick.  So a Fiddlestick is basically a stick with a string attached to it.  Other than that they are pretty much the same tool, with each having a slightly different procedure.

 Some of the benefits of the Smooth Operator:

  • You can set your anchor 20, 30 or more feet back from the top of the rappel if you need to.  Only a short section of rope is used for the knot which results in very little friction during the pull.  An anchor set way back from the rappel is still very easy to pull.  This greatly adds to the possible anchors at some drops.  Anchors for the Smooth Operator can also be placed around corners in some cases.
  • Using the Smooth Operator reduces the amount of webbing and rap rings used during canyoneering.  In many cases using the Smooth Operator requires no webbing or rap ring to be left behind.  This can add up to a cost savings over time for the canyoneer who gets out a lot.
  • Using the Smooth Operator in many cases makes the pull much easier.  With a standard rappel set up, the pull line is tied to the rappel rope.  The pull line is pulled which pulls the rappel rope from the bottom of the rappel all the way up and through the rap ring at the top.  With the Smooth Operator the pull line is pulled only a few inches then it falls as a separate piece from the rappel rope.  The rappel rope has only a few feet of rope to be pulled around the anchor then it falls as well.  The reduced work of pulling the rappel ropes is much more noticeable on taller rappels.
  • Using a Smooth Operator can also reduce rope grooves.  The pull line is pulled only a few inches before the Smooth Operator pops free of the stone knot then falls.  The rappel rope is pulled only a few feet around the anchor then also falls free.  This reduced work load also translates to little or no rope grooving, even when used with softer sandstone.  If you have visited Spry Canyon in Zion you know how bad rope grooves can get.
  • In some cases Going Smooth on a rappel (setting up a Smooth Operator anchor) can be faster then setting up a standard rappel anchor.  This especially true on first descents where no previous anchors exist or when a new anchor needs to be made.
  • Another possible benefit of the Smooth Operator is rope retrieval when your ropes are not long enough for the drop and ropes need to be tied together to finish the rappel.  Those rappelling will still need to pass the knot but after everyone is down all the ropes can be retrieved by pulling the Smooth Operator down.  Other methods of retrieving all the ropes in this situation can be more complex.
  • Those who enjoy the challenge of ghosting a canyon (leaving nothing behind) will also benefit from the use of a Smooth Operator.

Thank you to everyone who has put time and effort into helping with the evolution of the Smooth Operator!  Those with notable influence on the BluuGnome version are Brendan Busch, Tom Jones, Matt Williams, John Diener and Mike Schasch.  Feedback from various others has also proven valuable.

Smooth Operator History

As with any new concept or tool there are both function and safety aspects that continue to evolve toward a more refined version.  This section is an attempt to give a brief history of the origins of the Smooth Operator.

May 2011
Steve Fisk made a post on the Yahoo Canyoneering Group asking if anyone had played with using a pin in a stein knot (aka stone knot) instead of a carabiner.  The title of the thread was Stein Knot Rigged for Remote Release.  A handful of people contributed to the thread discussing things like stick size, stick material, effects of how the stein knot was tied, adding pull cords and various placements for safety pins.  Several people were involved in the thread but only a few had comments showing real thought on the subject; Steve Fisk, Tom Jones, Mark Smith, John Harlin, Clint Poole and Bill Aho.  Activity in that thread died by the end of the month.

Between spring 2011 and spring 2012 a few people had made various versions of the concept using various things for the stick like screwdrivers, wooden dowels, tent poles, PVC pipe, aluminum rods and other things.  One of these versions was made by Brendan Busch after Tom Jones introduced Brendan to the concept and called it a Fiddlestick.  Tom credits the name of the Fiddlestick to Drue Kehl.

May 2012
In a Yahoo Canyons Group post titled Fiddlestix Anchors, it is announced that Brendan Busch had made a prototype of the Fiddlestick from used sailing battons and used it in over a dozen canyons with 100 percent success.

After finding Brendan's version worked well, he made some and got them out to a few people in the canyoneering community through Tom Jones.   Brendan's Fiddlestick was made of retired fiberglass sailing batons and had a safety slot at the tip where the pull line could be placed keeping the stick from falling out.  When the pull line was pulled, it first pulled out of the safety slot then pulled the stick from the knot.  The Fiddlesticks that Brendan and Tom distributed were tested in the field by those who had them.  Over time most people came to the consensus that the safety slot only helped with specific situations and had mostly stopped using the safety slot.  The overall feeling was everyone loved Brendan's Fiddlestick and the name stuck!

August 2012
Luke Galyan reports loving Brendan's Fiddlestick but the Fiddlestick he owned began to split down the middle from repeated falls.  After researching various materials Luke made Fiddlesticks from polycarbonate (Lexan).  Luke distributed the polycarbonate versions to Brendan Busch, Tom Jones, and to others who had been using Brendan's fiberglass versions.  Those with the polycarbonate version reported liking them and several more were given to various people in the canyoneering community.

March 2013
Tom Jones announces a polycarbonate version of the Smooth Operator is available for purchase from Imlay Canyon Gear.

March 2013
While discussing ways to improve the Smooth Operator further Matt Williams suggested to Luke a hole in the end to add a safety carabiner for all but the last man down.  This idea addressed a few safety concerns of current Fiddlestick design.

April 2013
Luke Galyan decides to discontinue using a permanently attached cord.  The new version with no permanent cord attached also uses identical holes on each end that can be used for safety carabiners and pull line.  Luke adopts the name coined by Mike Schasch, calling the newly modified version the Smooth Operator.

May 2013
Tom Jones expresses concern on the Canyon Collective web site that the Safety hole in the end of the Smooth Operator prevents accidental pull in only one direction.  Since the holes are only large enough for a rope OR a carabiner, a safety can not be clipped into both sides when the pull line is also attached.  Luke Galyan rethinks the design and elongates the holes on the ends to accommodate the pull line safety carabiners in both ends of the stick for all but the last man.  The Smooth Operator is now protected from accidental pull in all directions for all but the last man down.

July 2014
Luke Galyan opens the webstore and offer the Smooth Operator for sale.

Want Some Details?

Smooth Operator Caution / Warning / Disclaimer
Using a Smooth Operator is an advanced technique.  Before using a Smooth Operator educate yourself on the proper use and possible pitfalls.  It is important to practice and gain an understanding of the Smooth Operator in a safe setting BEFORE use in the real world.  As with any anchoring system there is potential for failure where injury or death may occur.  The Smooth Operator is an advanced techniques that has proven reliable if used properly but should be used with attention to detail.  The Smooth Operator is not designed for shock loads.  Avoid situations where the Smooth Operator can experience a shock load from a fall.  Do not ascend on a Smooth Operator.

Click here for a very basic outline of the Smooth Operator concept.
This will help if you are unfamiliar with what a Smooth Operator does.  This page does not constitute instructions.  For instructions on how to properly use the Smooth Operator please read and fully understand the information on the detailed outline on how to use the Smooth Operator.

Click here for a much more detailed outline of the Smooth Operator concept
If you already understand what a Smooth Operator does and how to use it; this section may provide additional details or helpful practices.

Click here for a detailed look at tying the stone knot for use with a Smooth Operator.
This section covers details of the using the stone knot with the Smooth Operator and helps explain why the UP version is preferred and how to tie the stone knot so no twists are left in the rope after the stone knot is released.  Even those experienced with use of the Smooth Operator or the Fiddlestick may learn a couple things from this section.

Click here for care and cleaning of your Smooth Operator.

Click here if you are considering making your own Smooth Operator.

A Few Takeaways

Those who already feel comfortable with the Smooth Operator may not take the time to read everything here.  I would like to point out a couple key points to keep in mind when using the Smooth Operator.  More detail on all this can be found in the various pages.  If any of these points catch your eye take the time to look at the information provided.

It is important to cinch the stone knot very well.  Don't just tighten it until it looks good; cinch it down very well and put some force into it.  This will increase the force needed to remove the Smooth Operator from the stone knot and will help reduce any accidental pull outs.  This is very important for those using the Smooth Operator solo where previous rappellers will not be going ahead of you to cinch the stone knot with body weight.

In most cases a single twist in the rope will not be much of an issue when using the Smooth Operator.  In a few cases a single twist can cause a difficult pull or maybe lock a pull up.  Tying the stone knot so it will release with no twists in the rope is counter intuitive.  Tying a nice neat knot will leave one full twist in the rope after the stone knot is released.  For information on how to tie the stone knot so it releases twist free can be found at the bottom of the how to tie a stone knot page.  The video will be most useful in showing this.  Take the time to learn this and get in the habit of tying it properly to help avoid twist related issues.

Always cinch a bowline knot well.  Don't get lazy and forget to cinch it down tight.  If the bowline knot is left loosely tied in stiff rope it can act as a slip knot if it catches in a crack just right and cinch down on the Smooth Operator.

The pull line should never weigh more than 8 pounds.  In a lot of case it takes a significant amount of force to pull the Smooth Operator from the stone knot.  However on some rappels (free hanging from the anchor) it can take only 12 pounds to pull the Smooth Operator from the stone knot and that is if it was cinched well.  The force required to remove it is much lower if you do not cinch the stone knot well, even after loading then unloading.  The 8 pound limit on pull cord is planning for worst case scenario.  If you don't know how much your 200 foot rope or pull line weighs put it on a scale.  Keep in mind wet and sandy ropes will add weight to the rope so it may weigh more than what it did at home!

If you choose 1/8 inch Dyneema as a pull line it can reduce the pull line weight (and bulk when packed) and be used on much taller rappels.   However Dyneema is slick and some knots have been shown to slip out of it.  The recommended knot is the bowline with a couple half hitches as a back up.  Dyneema can NEVER be used as an emergency rappel or lower rope.  The friction associated with rappelling or lowering can melt Dyneema causing a catastrophic failure.

Keep all harsh chemicals away from the Smooth Operator.  If you enjoy cleaning your Smooth Operator use only mild soap and water.  Check out the video about how acetone (commonly used as nail polish remover) effects the Smooth Operator; located on the care and cleaning page.

A Smooth Operator will likely last much longer but it is recommended that a Smooth Operator be retired and replaced after 3 to 4 years.  They are not expensive so its not a big deal to play on the safe side.