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…