Follow These Tips For Safer Rappelling
Congrats you made it to the top of the climb. That means you’re only half way. Whether you’re climbing, ski mountaineering, or alpine climbing, you still have to get down. Ideally there is a nice and simple walk off, but if not you’re going to have to rappel. Now is NOT the time to make any mistakes.
Rappelling or abseiling requires a lot of climbing knowledge and it is often the cause of many accidents in the mountains. And it’s easy to see why – you are using your own rope to lower yourself off an exposed area and are completely trusting your life to your gear and skills. When performed properly, a rappel allows for a safe and controlled descent, but you need to know what you are doing.
Here are a few tips to make your next rappel a little bit safer.
- Build A Bombproof Anchor – A solid anchor is super important when you are rappelling. Don’t worry about leaving a piece of gear like a carabiner or a bit of webbing behind – your life is more important than a few dollars. Even if there is other webbing there, add your own. People say that a rappel anchor only has to support body weight, but it usually supports much more than than and needs to be built accordingly.
- Manage Your Rope – Take the time to flake your rope and find the mid point. Thread your rope through the anchor to that mid point. Ideally thread it through a carabiner or a ring as it will be easier to pull later and doesn’t damage any slings.
- Tie Knots – Tie knots in the ends of the rope. This closes the system and ensures that you do not rappel off the ends of your rope. I typically tie figure eight knots or overhands in both ends with long tails, but other knots work well too. It’s a personal preference. Don’t tie the ends of the rope together so that they can unkink naturally as you rappel. If you need to join two ropes together for a long rappel, use a flat overhand knot or a double/triple fishermans knot. Here’s some more info on the safest rappel knot from RockAndIce.com. Double check all knots and get your partner to do the same.
- Add An Extension – An extension places the belay device further away from your body, but still within arms reach. It allows you to easily add an autoblock backup underneath the belay device off of your belay loop (instead of your leg loop). It also allows for easier transitions on multi-pitch rappels and limits the chances of getting anything stuck in your belay device. I typically use a shoulder length sling threaded through my belay loop then clip a locking carabiner through both ends of the sling. Use that carabiner to clip into your belay device. Add a second sling for redundancy.
- Thread Your Belay Device – Make sure both ropes go through your belay device. I always say “Teeth To Tail” out loud when threading my BD ATC to ensure it is threaded correctly. If you dropped your belay device (it happens), use a munter hitch (twists the rope and adds rope to rope friction) or build a carabiner brake with four carabiners – either will work in a jam.
- Add A Backup – A backup is an essential safety component of a rappel. When tied correctly, it allows you to go hands free during your rappel. I use a Sterling HollowBlock and tie an autoblock below the belay device, utilizing a locking carabiner off of my belay loop. The more loops you add to the autoblock, the more friction there will be. At the same time, too few wraps and your backup won’t bite. Generally I find an autoblock slides better and is easier to adjust and tie than a prussik loop, which will also work. It’s also wise to learn a leg wrap in case you need to stop mid rappel – basically a backup to your backup.
- Wear Gloves – Wear durable gloves whenever you rappel (or belay). It protects your hands from rope burn and dirt.
- Test Anchor – Before you commit to the rappel, test the anchor you are rappelling off of. Give it a solid pull and a proper bounce test to ensure that it will hold. Do this with backups in place.
- Toss Rope – Double check that there are knots in both ends of your rope, coil both ends, and give them a good toss. Watch to see if you can see both ends of the rope hit the ground below. If it’s a multi-pitch rappel, the rope needs to at least give you the distance to reach the next rappel station. If the rope kinks or knots, pull it up, flake it, and toss it again. It’s easier to deal with a rats nest while at the anchor than while hanging mid rope.
- Visualize The Rappel – Picture what you are about to do. It should help calm your nerves, but it also allows you to think about where you need to stop. I also find it helps me remember what rope I need to pull if I’ve joined two ropes together.
- Buddy Check – Get your climbing partner to look at everything you’ve done. Is the belay device threaded correctly? Are your carabiners locked? Is the anchor bombproof? Is your harness double backed? Will backup bite into the rope? Are their knots in the ends of the rope? Is your extension correct? Are the ropes joined correctly? Do you both know what rope needs to be pulled?
- Trust Your Gear – If you’ve built a bomber anchor and your gear is utilized correctly, trust it. Don’t freak out. Stay calm during the rappel. It will help you to limit the forces on the anchor and allow you to focus on not making mistakes.
- Know Where You Are Going – If you’re on multi-pitch rappel, know where you need to stop. Watch what is below you and stop in time to build the next anchor in a good spot – even if its not a full rappel length.
- Rappel – Lean back, trust your gear, and rappel as smoothly as possible. I like to have one hand on the autoblock to help it slide and one hand behind my back/to the side on the tails of the rope. I find this allows for the smoothest ride.
- Utilize A Fireman’s Belay – Once the first person has rappelled, supply the second person with a fireman’s belay by pulling down on the rope to add friction. Watch out for rocks falling from above.
- Have Emergency Gear To Ascend – If you end up in the wrong place you may have to ascend the rope. Always have the appropriate self rescue tools on your harness – usually that’s a prusik and a cordelette. Practice ascending a rope before you have to do it in real life. It’s harder than you think and proper technique makes a huge difference.
- Pull The Rope – Once you reach the next anchor or you touch down on the ground, it’s time to pull the rope. Untie the knots in the ends first! If I’m on a multi-pitch rappel, I tie one end of the rope to my new anchor or my harness to ensure the rope can’t be dropped. Then it’s time to pull the rope. Hopefully it doesn’t get stuck, but that’s a topic for a different article.
Rappelling is something that needs to be taken seriously. Whether you’re rappelling into a ski line, cleaning an sport climbing anchor, or descending from an alpine summit, rappelling is an important climbing skill to master. There are many different ways to rappel safely. Find what works for you and implement it every time.
It’s your responsibility to learn how to rappel safely. Seek professional training to ensure you know how to rappel. With rappelling, your life is literally in your own hands. Be safe in the mountains.