Rappelling

August 07, 2012
Will Gadd

Note–the comments on this post are really good, every bit as good as the post itself, thanks to all who contributed.

Rappelling is a necessary part of getting back down from many climbs. Yet many climbers really hate rappelling; I often hear, “Rappelling is the most dangerous part of the day,” even from relatively experienced climbers. This statement of imminent doom often comes as they prepare to rappel off whatever raven/rat whatever chewed webbing/cord was left on whatever unchecked gear it was tied to… Otherwise sane climbers seem to somehow think it’s OK to rappel off junk anchors with junk webbing, as the loads are “only” bodyweight.  I’ve seen guys who make a relatively large amount of money every year agonize over leaving a “new!” nut at a rap station, or re-use complete junk cord because they didn’t want to spend $3 on new webbing. I’ve also seen otherwise sane climbers rap off into the dark without checking that their ropes were actually on the middle mark (dangerous if one strand is a lot shorter than the other), or rappel off huge overhanging faces with no knots in the ends of their ropes, or many other relatively avoidable situations.

I suspect that the reason so many climbers view rappelling as dangerous is that so many climbers rappel dangerously. In caving very few people die rappelling down into the cave; caving is where I started learning rappelling systems, and to this day rappels to me seem like a time to take care, but not overly dangerous in comparison to the rest of the vertical world. In Alberta we recently had a double-fatality when two young climbers died while likely simultaneously rappelling off a multi-pitch sport climb (confirmed recently). Here are some of my thoughts on rappelling, in no particular order.

-Have a bomber anchor, with at least one truly bomber piece in it and preferably a backup or two, not several “OK” pieces. I weigh close to 90kg/200 pounds with my mountain boots and other gear on. If I rappel on two strands of 10mm rope and bounce hard I can relatively easily generate 200kg/400 pounds of force (and this link is good for all sorts of peak force data). Do something a little sketchy like have to go sideways and up to get a loop unstuck or something and fall off and I can easily  possibly generate 350kg/800 pounds of force (I’m ignoring kN and just going with pounds here for the pedantic). Most anchors don’t equalize well, no matter how many equallette/WTFet systems people use (research this, unfortunately true). One piece in the anchor must be capable of holding a relatively large load because anchors don’t generally equalize well; three shaky knife blades are NOT an “OK” anchor. If your partner comes down to the anchor, clips in with a static sling just above it (like we often do) and falls past the anchor after unclipping from the rope the load can be extreme… I’m willing to accept slightly less optimal anchors for rappels than while climbing, but not by much. Really solid is the standard, my partners and I are worth it.

-Either know where you’re going or stop “too early” to build the next rap station. I’ve very occasionally found a better rap station 10 feet lower at the ends of my ropes, but almost always it’s better to build/reach an existing station “too early” than to mess about with pushing for another 20 feet of distance. Use the good ledges with good features and everything will go faster even if you have to build an extra station.

-Use a backup auto block on the rope anytime you’re worried about rockfall, the ends not reaching, wind blowing the rope all over hell, etc. I like a Sterling AutoBlok; it slides down the rope much easier than a prussic, but locks up well. In my personal climbing I very rarely use an auto-blok, but when I do it’s for one of the reasons just listed. The reason I don’t like ‘em in general is that they cause more problems than they fix. But when things start getting weird (night, wind, etc) the backup goes on.

-Know how to rap the rope around your leg to stop. Even if you’re a sport climber who wouldn’t know a prussic from a piton you should know how to just loop the rope around your leg a few times to stop sliding down the rope. Every year someone dies somewhere from being unable to stop their descent down a rope that didn’t reach the ground. Better yet, learn to tie your rappel device off while rappelling, it’s not hard.

-Put knots in the ends of your rope whenever you’re unsure about what you’re rapping into, or high enough above the ground that it would be possible to rap off the ends of your rope. Some people always put knots into the ends of their ropes; this can lead to problems also, but if I had to default to one setting it would be to put knots in the ends of my ropes. The same goes for sport climbing; I usually leave one end tied into my rope bag, or put a knot into it. Some really great people and climbers have had accidents from not only rapping off the end of their ropes but also being lowered off them. Make sure to take the knots out before pulling the rope (see photo…) there are many situations where knots are worse than no knots, but it takes a lot of experience to figure these out. In general knots are good, and prevent accidents.

-Don’t simul-rap and otherwise get tricky on your raps until you’ve really, really figured your systems out, and even then simul-rapping doesn’t generally speed things up much. If you are going to simul rap then have knots in the ends of the ropes, have some sort of prussic attaching the one climber to the other’s rope (so if one person loses control both don’t plummet, and if this idea doesn’t make sense then definitely don’t simul-rap), consider putting a blocking knot on the weak climber’s side (with a quick link so it doesn’t pull through), use aut0-blocks on each climber, etc. I did a lot of simul-rapping over the years but have pretty much given up on it in the last decade, it’s open to problems unless so many control measures are put in that it becomes very slow. Very, very rarely is simul-rapping justified by expediency; I have left two ropes fixed on the last two rappels to get off quickly; they are tied to the anchor with an overhand on a bight or something, and just left, that gets you down 120M in a hurry. If expediency is that important then ropes are cheap, or can be retrieved later. I’ve also left one rope tied into the next rap anchor when I couldn’t build something solid, and then gone back and sorted it out.

-Use a quick link or carabiner if the pull is at all in doubt. $5 for a new ‘biner is totally worth not getting the ropes stuck on a big rap session two hours before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive… Climbing back up stuck ropes (which you should know how to do safely if you’re rappelling) is still often dangerous, better to just cut the friction at the start.

-Visualize the pull. Fix problems from above.

-Pull the skinny rope (otherwise the rope can “walk” as the friction through the device is unequal with unequal diameter ropes), and put the knot (straight overhand with tails as long as your lower arm) past the edge of the belay ledge… Tricky to do, but makes the pull way smoother normally.

-Use as little and as simple communication as possible. There should only be one “yell” each rap from each climber, when they are off rappel. Keep  your verbal systems clean and simple, and know what to do if you can’t communicate with each other verbally.

-Put the rap stations in protected places, like you would belays for ice climbing. This is essential here in the Rockies; I hate getting hit with rockfall when pulling the rope… Often we have to do more short rappels to keep the rope from killing us with rockfall while rappelling.

-Drink your Red Bull before the rappels… We’re often tired going down, which leads to inattention. There are temporary fixes for fatigue.

There are hundreds if not thousands more tricks for rappelling ranging from the useful to the inane, and hopefully people are getting some sort of good mentoring or training. I am definitely eyes open and mind fully on while rappelling, but I really believe many rappelling accidents are among the more preventable accidents I’ve seen or read about in the mountains. I try to keep my  margins wide while rappelling because it’s relatively easy to do so; rappelling shouldn’t be made unnecessarily dangerous.

Note–I found this knot stuck in the quick-link recently, the climber had simply forgotten to take it out, and was too tired to sort it out. He lost about 40 feet of rope, but didn’t die from rapping off the end of his rope…

 

 

 

33 Comments. Leave new

Great advice and comments! I will add another safety tip I always practice: Always weight the rope before unclipping from the anchor. If you messed something up and you (and your partner) didn’t catch it when you double checked, then at least you will still be anchored to something.

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hey will

really happy to see this post. the notion of ‘rappelling is insanely dangerous’ bugs me too – especially coming from competant climbers. im constantly amazed at the number of people who would rather scramble and sketch about walking off a route in twice the time, than simply rapping off.
its a basic skill of climbing, just like anything involved with go upwards. done properly it can reduce risks rather than increase them.

like you say: cavers, canyoneers and mountain fishermen all learn to rappel properly and confidently. just not all climbers.
there are entire sports based on rappelling and they are not all dead – climbers just have bits of the process missing.

i rappel a LOT, as a guide, an instructor and for several aspects of my work and i put part of it down to people not learning properly to start with – either they learn it as some aside to climbing stuff, or simply the instruction is no good.
when taught intelligently, someone can be abseiling proficiently in half a day. i regularly see teenagers with proper instruction better than experienced climbers hacking it together.
of course its dangerous when someone doesnt know what theyre doing – ask any serious canyoneer and they just roll their eyes when they hear about accidents with climbers getting messed up abseiling.

all your points are spot on i reckon.
especially the one about simu-rapping which is quite topical right now. there are simple methods that when set up properly acheive the same thing and massively minimize the risks – again, just a matter of learning them. people will obsess endlessly over grams or silly details, but not learn basic skills.
getting 2 people down fast is rarely best acheived with dodgy simu-rapping and all the f*ckery that goes with it.
only ‘except when’ here is for groups of 3 – when the anchor is different anyway.

if i may, id add ‘protocol’ to your list.
in my world rappells – especially when multiple down long routes – have a process just like going up: a leader and a second.
one guy drops down first and sets the anchor for the next. its his lead. part of what he does is test the ropes for pulling with a quick yank when hes down, BEFORE the second comes down, so adjustments can be made if needed.

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jason nelson
August 8, 2012 5:41 am

The one thing that stresses me about rappelling is when I’ve done a huge remote route and am rapping perhaps a different line with the fear of getting ropes stuck. Climbing some rotten 5.12 FA (or worse yet, a blank face) to retrieve a stuck rope while completely exhausted is a daunting task with nightfall fast approaching. Now that I think is a legitimate fear of rappelling, and also keeps us on our toes to prevent those scenarios. I think many accidents occur when people stop paying attention to detail.

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Ernst Bergmann and Cyril Shokoples just wrote a great article on rappelling safely that was published in the ACC’s Gazette. It provides a nice overview and a good acronym to help you check are your bits. The issue of the Gazette (27, 2; summer 2012) can be accessed free through this link: http://www.alpineclubofcanada.ca/gazette/index.html

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How do you work out that rappelling on two strands you can generate 200kg of force? IT not the same as being belayed and falling off, the force on the ancor doesn’t double when rappelling.

Mark

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It’s a vicious little circle. “Rappelling is dangerous! So I don’t practice it as often as I do my climbs! Which makes it more dangerous when I need to it! But I don’t do it because its dangerous!”

This mindset drives me bonkers.

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Jay Harrison
August 8, 2012 1:20 pm

Spot on. Saving a buck to rap off cheese makes no sense. Carry a couple “leaver-biners” and a spare cordalette, or at least have in mind which ones you’re most ready to kiss good-bye, and don’t hesitate to do so. Not only does it make things so much safer, you can treat yourself to new, shiny gear when you get back home.
Have a head for the weird stuff. Be keen to the scene: is the wind picking up, the weather going bad, the rock getting chossy, darkness, overhangs? What can you – what should you do about it? Think before you head down.

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Good comments, thanks to all.

Ed, yes, as usual, cool.

Cam, cool link, Cyril produces some great articles. http://www.rescuedynamics.ca/articles/article.htm

Mark–I added a link on the data behind the 2kN number in the post above, and here’s another one: http://www.geir.com/mythbuster.html They say it’s difficult to hit 600 pounds but do; 600 pounds is closer to 3kN. I expect they didn’t try very hard to really smack the belay; the heaviest load will happen with two strands very close to the belay. Add in an icy or wet rope and things also add up fast. Strong=survival. Build it STRONG.

SGT Kane–Exactly.

Jay–yes, it’s the weird stuff and situational awareness that usually gets me in trouble.

Cool to see so many responses on this, thanks.

PS–and unfortunately it looks like another local fatality due to something going wrong on a rappel.

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Also have the first person down give the rope a test pull so that the climber up at the anchor has a chance to fix or move the anchor point to ensure the rope can be pulled. Much better than finding out later and being forced to prusik back up!

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It is so refreshing to read this. I took a rock course that emphasized so many of the points you listed, but outaide the classroom, the finer pints of rappelling are often ignored. And when you put a knot in your rope people look at you like your crazy Maybe we don’t understand how to rappel safely, and therefore we fear it as a dangerous activity. Anyway, good read thanks for posting.

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David Thoenen
August 8, 2012 3:19 pm

No matter how experienced the climber, the basics of “safe” rappelling need to be reviewed and reviewed and reviewed. Never boring, always important and life saving. Thanks for once again reminding me that short cuts kill and good protocols/practices will help you avoid death through stupidity or laziness.

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It’s good to see a prominent figure in the climbing community posting some kind of tutorial on rappelling after the recent tragedies.
The main thing that I found lacking in the media coverage of the deaths of the two people in heart creek, was any comment on the actual execution of the technique they attempted to use to get down. Though there was plenty of comment and discussion of the dangers of climbing in general and some of it’s associated techniques, no one seemed willing to comment on what they actually did wrong.

It is a great source of sadness that they passed away, and maybe there is an unwillingness to speak ill of the dead, but at the same time, I think it’s valuable for us to learn from someone else’s mistakes and errors in judgement, then to be shy and repeat the error.

What they did was stupid. It was a bad choice. As Will wrote above, there are many ways to back up a simul-rap, but they did none of them. It was also a stupid choice to bother with the technique when it was completely unnecessary. I have been in tons of discussions with climbers, and some of the rescue crew from that day, about what went wrong, and what could have been done by the deceased climbers to prevent the fall. And what I keep coming back to is better judgement.

I’d rather be alive and never red-point whatever route it is I’m obsessed with, than tick something off only to die on the descent.

Please be safe. Your future kids will appreciate it.

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LOL. Coach, the most dangerous part of the day is the drive to and from the crag.

As the most experienced member of my crew, I alway am the first one down the rope. Maybe it’s that the others are younger and have small kids, but I go first. I think there’s value in knowing your role and practicing it. I always do the rap the same way. I clip into the anchor with my PSA. I set up my backup and test it. I set up my rap device an test it. I unclip my anchor. I rap. (If I’m carrying a pack I clip it to a sling and clip the sling to my belay loop and hang the pack below me. I don’t rap wearing a pack – unless it’s really light.

As the first one down, I build and clip the anchor, call “off rappel and on belay” and always keep my hands on the rope to give a fireman’s belay. (I’m going to change my procedure to do a test pull. That’s like a “Duh” moment.) The second one down fireman belays the third while I untie the knot in one strand, thread the rope to the anchor and retie the knot.. That way we can’t drop the rope! When all are down we pull the rope threading the rope through the anchor. We tie a knot in the end and toss the rope. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

All this said, I had my first rappel accident in 41 years of climbing. Maybe I’m getting old or loosing it but I think not. I was 4′ off the deck with knots tied. I decided to untie the knots to make it to the ground. I did and ended up 1′ off the deck. I though just rap off the end. I did. landed off balance, sat back hard and broke my coccyx. Deeply embarrising and deeply embarising. This was a failure of my ambition. I wanted to get down. I could have down climbed 12″ but instead decided to be a cowboy. Deeply stupid.

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Kim, next time you are in that situation leave a knot in one side and grab the other side above the rappel device with one hand and you can safely lower yourself that extra foot.

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And even if that was longest day you ever climbed, DON’T rush it.

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Marshall Jamison
August 10, 2012 4:16 pm

Will- Thanks for an informative article. I have never minded rappelling, (With my knees they way they are, it’s more comfortable than walking downhill).

Look for the rap stations on the way up, (if applicable). Check the guide books.

Keep your wits about you! Most times you rappell is due to inclement weather. Take it slow until you and your partner have a system. Every once in a while have a “rap route”. Work more on the descent then the ascent. (Classroom days are always fun).

Enjoyed the article. Thanks.

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excellent advice,i carry 2-3 prussics and use them

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David Thoenen
August 11, 2012 6:05 am

All of the comments are really on the point and give me some confidence that many climbers actually understand what they can do to help avoid rappelling accidents. Its one thing to remember how to do it right when composing a post and quite another to remember to do it right every time you’re descending. So much of this is about being alert, never failing to go through the drill, avoiding short cuts, never trying to move too fast (regardless of the lightning – maybe that’s asking too much), and so forth. These are obviously not difficult skills to learn. If your head’s together the techniques will work for you. If your head’s not working right, bad things happen.

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Richard Goldstone
August 11, 2012 10:43 am

Thanks for an excellent piece. The words of well-known climbers carry extra weight and hopefully your contribution will help to stem what seems like a swelling tide of rappelling tragedies.

There are a few things I’d add.

Friction. It seems to me that many devices give inadequate friction for the thinner ropes more and more people are using. Climbers should know the double-carabiner trick for increasing friction, but should also know a good strategy for increasing friction after they’ve got under way.

In this regard, I’ve become a fan of extending the rappel device away from the harness. It is typical to recommend this in conjunction with an autoblock back-up, but I think it makes sense whether or not a back-up not is installed. First of all, it provides a bit more friction for the device, since it is easy to get the rope angle through the device close to and even a little more than 180 degrees. Secondly, it means the climber can think better of things and install an autoblock after having begun the rappel. And thirdly, it makes it easy to increase friction after the rappel has been started: clip a biner to the device biner, a second biner to the harness belay loop, and snake the brake strand end of the rappel lines through the bottom biner and then the top biner.

Autoblock rappel backups. It seems to me that too few people have thought through the consequences of having a rappeller rendered unconscious and hanging on the rappel line after having been saved by the autoblock. (Isn’t this essentially the point of the autoblock?) The rescue scenarios for the other member(s) of the party are daunting. Because of this, I think that when an autoblock is called for (and I agree that it isn’t called for every time) it should only be used for the first person down. After that, someone who is already at the base of the rappel should give a “fireman’s belay” to the other descenders, who should not be using autoblocks.

If, because of rock or ice fall or lightning, it seems as if there is a serious chance that the first person down could be knocked out while rappelling (the worst-case scenario for the rest of the party), then it is worth considering whether the first person should rappel on just a single strand so that there is another strand available for the rescue.

End knots. Considering the number of experienced climbers who have gone off the ends of their rap lines, I’m beginning to agree with your sense that knots should be the default practice. But there are times when they may not be a good idea, I think especially for very windy rappels when the ropes can blow sideways and hang up. In these and other cases when one is concerned about the knot hanging in bad places, the first person down should either rappel with the ropes flaked and attached to them or should be lowered. I think lowering is an excellent choice unless communication is going to be really difficult and should be used more. I can’t help feeling that the fact that lowering isn’t macho interferes with it as a choice.

Consider using both ropes. I’m part of that minority that climbs with half ropes almost all the time. If you have two ropes, there is a lot to be said for using them even if the rappel can be done with a single rope. It is quicker and easier to set up the first rappel, since you don’t have to pull 30m of rope through the first anchor to the middle mark. Your ropes will never be accidentally uneven. And you’ll have lots of extra rope for most rappels, drastically lowering the prospect of going off the ends. Of course, there are downsides too, the main one being concern about having the joining knot hang up when the ropes are being recovered.

Simul rapping. I’ve done some and I’m not a fan at all. However, I have done classical rappels very efficiently and been smoked by simul-rapping parties; it can be faster. In really bad conditions, there is something to be said for both climbers being together and in communication rather than having each climber taking turns waiting a rope-length away in a raging storm wondering what the hell is going on with the rappeller.

Of course, the anchor has to be good, the rappellers each need autoblock backups, there have to be stopper knots at the end of each strand, the rappel devices have to have enough friction for well-controlled descents on a single strand, and the climbers have to have a foolproof set of conventions for disconnecting themselves from their rappel strand.

Pay attention. This is obvious, but we all have lapses. Experience doesn’t seem to be any help at all; familiarity apparently breeds contempt. How do people manage to rap off one or both ends of the rap lines? You have to look, but what if it is dark? One little thing I’ve done is to wrap mailbox-number reflective tape around the ends of my ropes, which makes the ends show up very brightly under headlamp light.

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There’s a article in this month’s Rock & Ice (I just got around to reading it) where a sport climber was seconding a route while clipped into the middle of the rope. At the top she went in direct with a draw to the bolts and adjusted the anchors. Once she was done, she unclipped the draw and put her rope through the anchor, ready to lower. The problem was, she clipped into the wrong side of the rope. She leaned back to get lowered and fell quite a ways and suffered significant injury. Had she paid a bit more attention she would have realized she was clipped into the unloaded ‘non-belayed’ side of the rope. The article went on to make a very valid point. rappelling/lowing is so mundane, we do it so many times, that often the consequences of a mistake are lost on us and a small change in our system can have drastic consequences.

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It is nice to see someone write a well written article about rapping. I also learned how to rap as a canyoneer with 1000’s of rappings to my record, including many in waterfalls.

As with any other activity just look at previous accidents to determine what is the most likely method of not making it back alive. For rapping down my list would be as follows:

1) Not checking device at the top – a lot of people died b/c their rope(s) didn’t go properly through their device.
2) Poor anchor – if you just have to use something not too safe, get your partner(s) to back it up and let the heaviest person 1st.
3) Other, less likely accidents:
a) rap of end of the rope, it does happen but usually when people are totally not paying attention like talking to friends on a rap – just look down to check your rope
b) loss control of the rap – again it does happen but usually for “larger” people on skinny single ropes (like 8mm static). Just get “bigger” / “less experience” people to rap 2nd.
c) rock fall – happens but usually rocks have hard time of hitting you and taking you out. If someone knows of someone getting hit while on a rap by a rock that knocks him out let me know. This doesn’t mean you supposed to leave large rocks at the rap station that can get down and cut your rap rope – clean your station.
d) strange knots, simu-rap etc. Just don’t use it unless you know 100% what you are doing – this is usually done either in total emergency or when showing off your skills to others.

I really like comments about auto-block – in canyoneering we don’t really use it that much, like maybe 2% of the raps one puts it on. We also don’t simu rap too often, maybe 4% of the time usually on small raps or raps into water.

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Ernst Bergmann
August 16, 2012 9:20 am

Thank you for this very timely and valuable discussion.

In my view actually practising rappeling is one of the most important things. That will allow you to keep a very smooth rappel, little bounce and minimize strain on the anchor.
Also pays to practice with a Munter Hitch or biner brake once in a while.

I have also seen quite often that climbers actually use a device/rope combination that makes a smooth decent almost impossible. Personally I continue to use an ancient Cassin Rescue Plate which allows a very smooth decent with almost any rope, the capability to modify friction and pick up of another person. ( The latter I would do only in an emergency anyways).

Another consideration many climbers, outside guide’s circles, neglect too often is that lowering the initial person(s) can be a much better alternative both for safety and time wise. For example when lowering you can control where your ropes are going, you know how far they reach and finding the next station (even building it) can be safer and easier.

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Great article and comments. I especially like the one from Richard Goldstone about the consequences of having a rappeller rendered unconscious and hanging on the rappel line after having been saved by the autoblock. That’s something I hadn’t thought about.

A few days ago I was doing a rap on the NW ridge of Uto (Rogers Pass). I was the first one down and leaned out on the desk-size ledge that you start the rap from. It suddenly broke loose and went crashing down the rap route, narrowly missing the rope (which thanks to the wind and a poor throw was sitting on a ledge about 5m down and off to one side). Although it happened so quickly that I don’t remember how I reacted, I was glad that I was using an auto-block.

Unless the rap rope reaches the ground, I always knot the ends. I used to knot each end separately, but have always been paranoid about forgetting to untie the knot in the strand that gets pulled up. So now I tie both ends parallel to each other in one overhand or stopper knot. Unfortunately, this increases the likelihood that the rope will get hung up if you do a bad throw, but I’m questioning the need to throw the rope at all. I’m experimenting with flaking the rope over where my shoulder strap meets the base of my pack, or using a separate sling for this purpose.

I’m almost at the point where the rope automatically feeds out on its own while I’m rappelling. Not only does that mean you don’t have to worry about throwing the rope, it also protects the rope from damage should your feet knock off some rocks (or an entire ledge gives way, as above). You can also intentionally knock off loose rocks that might damage the rope (and you) when your second comes down. I’m pretty sure that with a bit more practice this method will work at least as fast as the coil-and-throw method. Does anyone else have tips on this? I’ve also heard of stacking the rope in a stuff sack, and hanging the stuff sack from your harness while rapping. I haven’t tried it though.

The only disadvantage I can see of feeding out the rope as you rap is that you may not know where you’ll end up when the rope runs out. But in that sort of situation, you can always first throw down one strand (unknotted) to see where it ends up, and then pull the strand back up.

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Another tip learned from Cyril – leave a good tail length of rope beyond the rappel knots. If things go sideways and the rappel knot jams in your device, at least you have some rope to work with.

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I’m just thinking off the top of my head about Mike’s comment: If you’re carrying a pack, you could put the two knotted ends into the pack and then flake the rope into the pack. Hang the pack below you on a sling attached to your belay loop. You would think it would self feed The only *danger* I can see is you may not be able to easily tell when you were getting near the end. Maybe Richard has a thought here.

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A couple things to add to the discussion:
1) To add on to the idea of testing that the ropes will pull cleanly before the second comes down, if you’re at a distance where voice communication isn’t possible, this is a good signal for “off rappel.” The first climber down can “saw” the rope back and forth a few times to make sure everything will pull cleanly, and then the second knows both that the first is off rappel, and also that no adjustments need to be made to the rappel setup.
2) I’ve had to use a saddlebag rappel in several instances when there were high winds, and it’s a crucial technique to know for those circumstances. After feeding the rope through to its middle point, butterfly coil each side of the rope independently, hang each on its own sling, and clip the slings to either side of your harness (maybe back it up with your belay loop too, since gear loops can break). If you do it right the rope will feed smoothly out of the slings, allowing you to rappel easily without having to throw your ropes and risk them blowing off to the side and hanging up.

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A couple of thoughts:

First, great rappelling wisdom.

Second, I am generally opposed to knots on the ends of the rope as not once have they prevented me from rappelling off the ends of the rope and almost every time do they get stuck. To clarify, I’ve never rapped off the end of a rope either. My point is that tying knots reflects a heightened awareness about that danger, making me be more careful as I descend. If I feel the need to tie a knot in the end, I also clip the knotted ends onto my harness (making the rope only halfway lowered). That way, I know exactly where the ends are and that they won’t get stuck.

Third, I just got back from climbing in Squamish and the Bugaboos. One striking feature about both of these areas is the ubiquity of double-bolt/chain rappel stations. It seems that folks in these areas recognize the benefit of having bomber rap stations. For some reason, much of the trad community in the US still can’t recognize that this is just a better option to the rat’s nest of slings and crap pro to get off of classic climbs. It’s like they’re only trad climbing if they’re rapping on crappy, ugly, often dangerous anchors. People make all kinds of weak arguments about impact and the bastardization of the spirit of climbing as reasons against bolted anchors, but ultimately bomber metal hardware makes for lower impact and safer climbing (and does little to change the inherent adventure in climbing). My sense is that some folks want to rap on bad anchors as a way of inflating their personal sense of toughness or boldness, qualities I usually reserve for climbing up the wall.

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Alain Finegan
August 20, 2012 10:22 pm

Thank you all so much for the great insight on this topic and if I may add one additional bit of advice. Don’t be pressured into doing something which goes against your better judgement. It’s far to easy sometimes to “give into a stronger personality”, going along simply to avoid an argument all at the expense of your safety and better judgement. Question, discuss, and reach a consensus before proceeding…..Thank you for listening.

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A great article and comments! Ditto on the not getting pressured from others. I was recently rapelling off ofthe Beckey-Chouinard Route on South Howser Tower after an extremely long day on the peak. There were three parties of strong climbers behind us that caught up after the first couple of rappels. They were moving faster than us but were not using prussics, downclimbed the first few easy but exposed raps and, were hanging out on ledges unanchored so that more people could come down the ropes to pass unused ropes down the line. They were pressuring my partner and I to let them fix ropes past us and join the train to get down faster. It was already dark and we were all very tired. We chose to do our own thing our way and ended up holding them up for only a few minutes (despite ropes being thrown on our heads at every belay station!) Not to mention we had to first FIND all of the stations!

At one station I was double checking my prussic and device setup and was told by one of the guys “you look good man, just go”. Unless you’re about to get struck by ligntening, there is no reason for shortcuts in my books – especially after such a long day! Take your time, be careful and be as safe as you can. The few minutes you save by sacraficing safety by not tiying knots, using prussiks, or anchoring yourslef safetly is hardly ever worth it. The mountains are too unforgiving.

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I tire of climbers who coil up 2 60m ropes and throw them all at once, as far out as possible, to let the slightest breeze turn everything into a knotted mess. I prefer to coil each rope separately take about 1/3 of one rope and pitch it letting the rest of the rope follow. I then repeat with the other rope. Yes, I do spend a lot of time kicking the rope off ledges that it stops on but I never have to undo major rat nests or retrieve a tail that is stuck around a corner because that is where the wind took it. Also deal with tangles from above or even with the mess. Figuring that you can flip a stuck tail off of something after you get below it will only end with you climbing the rap ropes more than is truly fun.

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Butch Hillhurst
August 23, 2012 9:49 pm

Here’s the most f**ked up rapelling story of all time:

An Argie I met a Few years ago at Clifhanger in Vancouver told me of climbing a route in maybe Bariloche. He and his partner and another party followed each other up a multipitch route and then rapped together.

One guy was climbing in tight shoes and took them off for the rap. At the end of one rap he was maybe 3 feet above a massive ledge. So he rapped off the end of the rope. And, while his 3 buddies were watching fromabove, his bare feet hit the rock…but he landed on a shRp stone. They heard him curse, and he reflexively jerked his head…smashed it into the rock, and tumbled off the ledge to his death.

So there’s something to be said for having an end-of-rap backup– like a cordellette you cAn prussik to your rap line to extend it– and to remembering that the climb isn’t over until you’re swilling beers on your deck at home

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Good ideas from all.
I have seen that “stacking” the rappelers devices can be useful. In other words both climbers set their devices up on the ropes at the anchor before the first descends. Doing this adds a cross-check of the systems. The only drawback is there cannot be a test pull as the ropes are engaged with the devices.

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Richard Goldstone
August 26, 2012 8:27 am

“Stacking” devices is a standard guiding procedure to protect inexperienced climbers on rappels whose pulling features the guide typically knows well. Experienced climbers ought to be able to use a slightly slack leash to the rap anchor to enable them to weight and test their rap device installation before starting off. Consequently, for experienced climbers, I think device stacking is a bad trade-off. It is really much more critical to be sure that the ropes will pull.

One of the worst epics of my career happened in a lightning storm when we failed to verify that the rappel would pull—see http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/893158/A-walk-with-McCarthy-in-the-Winds for an account.

If pulling is going to be tested, ideally the tester should pull until the knot clears the lip, because in situations with a lot of unavoidable friction, the extra resistance of the knot, even an EDK, can be the straw that breaks the pull-down’s back. In such cases, the last rappeller down tries to adjust the ropes so that the knot is clear of the lip. This can be easy if there is a ledge below the lip, or very hard of the ground below the lip is steep or overhanging.

Here is an approach that has worked for me. The rappeller sets up or adjusts things on the stance so that they are as close as possible to the lip and the knot is just above the rappel device. Girth-hitch a sling just above the knot (a Prusik isn’t necessary) and connect the sling to a biner the harness belay loop with a mariner’s hitch or munter mule (the point being that the connection is load-releasable). The sling must not be so long that the girth-hitch will be out of reach with the sling fully extended. With feet planted on the lip, the rappeller takes a few steps down, feeding out the non-fixed strand, which pulls the knot along with them and allows it to pass the lip. The mariner’s hitch is released, the girth-hitch undone, and the rappel continues normally. It takes longer to describe this than to do it.

An exceptionally important concern is that the ropes will now be uneven. If the rappel was a rope-stretcher, than this process may have created the danger of rappelling off the short end. The first person down is responsible for monitoring and neutralizing this situation. In particular, the knot in the pulling strand that keeps the rappeller from going off the end should not be removed until the rappeller is safely down.

Another concern comes from the fact that this method causes a foot or two of rope to run through the rappel anchor with the rappeller’s weight on it. Nowadays, almost all rap anchors are set up with rings of some sort, but in emergency situations the party may be forced to thread their rappel rope directly around the slings, even though leaving a carabiner (taped shut) is typically a better idea. In this case, you do not want the rappel rope to be moving under load over the slings for fear of cutting them, even though a foot or two of rubbing is most likely not enough.

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