Strategies for Safer Rappelling

safer rappelling

A quick read through Accidents in North American Climbing reveals that many climbing accidents occur not while going up, but while going down. Why is this? Why do most accidents occur not during moments of physical exertion, but in the exact opposite?

Part of the reason has to do with objective hazards and fatigue; particularly on alpine routes, descents occur when climbers are tired, the sun is setting, or severe weather is imminent. But accidents are also a result of complacency, familiarity, and sometimes just plain laziness.

The reason climbers think rappelling is dangerous is because most climbers rappel dangerously.

Will Gadd

When rappelling, the margin for error is smaller than when climbing up. All of your weight rests on your anchor, so if it fails, you have no backup, and all of your control is through your belay device. For this reason, it’s critical to make sure your rappel setup is correct every single time you weight the rope.

Rappelling on extension is one way to help decrease the likelihood of a rappel accident and increase your odds of descending safely.

This is meant as an introduction to the practice, and know that there are many ways of rigging a safe rappel; here I share what I do and teach, as well as several other methods. Each is slightly different and suited to different purposes. As with everything in climbing, there are situations where these techniques are not the best practice, and I will also share some insight on the drawbacks of each technique.

Stopper knots

One of the primary causes for rappel accidents is rappelling off the end of your rope.

This problem can easily be solved by tying a single barrel knot (essentially a double fisherman’s without the second rope) in the end of each strand. If in the unlikely case you lose control of your rappel and slide uncontrollably to the end of the rope, the knots will jam up against your rappel device and stop your fall. Tying knots in the ends of your rope is the only sure-fire way to avoid rappelling off the end of the rope.

Despite this, there are occasional times when tying knots is likely to cause more problems than solutions. Most notably, when rappelling in high winds on ledgy terrain, knots in the ends of your ropes will often snag in cracks and cause havoc in throwing ropes. In these situations, I will sometimes decide to leave the knots out. However, doing so requires a much higher level of attention to where the ends of your ropes are and how much rope you have left. For this reason, I rarely leave my ropes unknotted.

Rappelling with a backup

The next easiest way to rig a safer rappel is to use a backup, most commonly in the form of a prusik or other friction hitch tied onto the brake strand of the rope below the belay device.

I like using the Sterling Hollowblock for this purpose, but a normal prusik cord tied from 5mm or 6mm cord will work just fine. When rigging my rappel, I tie an autoblock hitch below my belay device. The reason I use the autoblock is because it’s fast, simple, and omnidirectional. Other options include a Klemheist hitch or a prusik hitch.

After tying the hitch, I then clip a locking carabiner through the two ends of the cord and clip it back to my belay loop (more on this later). Note that when backing up your rappel in this way, you need to ensure that the hitch will not creep up and bump into your belay device as this will disengage the hitch. If you clip your belay device to your belay loop, you should clip your backup through your leg loop to give enough space for the hitch to function. If you rappel on extension, it’s best to clip into your belay loop.

Rappelling on extension

If you just asked the question,

What is rappelling on extension?

Here’s your answer. Rappelling on extension means using a runner, Personal Anchoring System (PAS), or other piece of fabric to clip your rappel device further away from your body. Before we get into the benefits of rappelling on extension, here are a few reasons why not rappelling on extension is a pain:

When you clip your rappel device to your belay loop, it’s tucked in tight to your body, which causes two problems.

  1. First, having your device close to your body makes it more likely for loose clothes, hair, or gear to get sucked into the device and jam it up. I’ve seen a case where a climber had to cut her hair in order to free it from the device.
  2. Additionally, when your rappel device is clipped to your belay loop, you must keep your brake hand down by your thigh to keep the brake strand properly oriented. While not a problem on single-pitch terrain, keeping your hand that low gets annoying when rappelling for hours on end in the alpine.

So, what’s the benefit of rappelling on extension? There are a handful.

  1. By increasing the distance between your body and your rappel device, it greatly reduces the possibility of getting your hair or shirt stuck.
  2. Because your rappel device is relatively higher on your body, it puts your brake hand in a more ergonomic position.
  3. By raising the device it adjusts your center of gravity, which makes rappelling with a pack easier.
  4. Having your rappel device further from your body makes negotiating overhangs and roofs easier.
  5. It allows you to clip your backup directly to your belay loop.
  6. Depending on how you rig your extension, you have a ready-to-go tether to clip yourself into the next rappel anchor.

So, how does one set up an extended rappel?

My preferred method uses a simple double-length sewn sling (120cm), but you can easily use a PAS if you carry one. I like the sling because it’s a piece of gear that I always have with me and that serves multiple purposes.

Metolius PAS

I start by girth-hitching the sling through the two hard points of my harness. I then double the sling back and tie an overhand on a bight with both strands at about the halfway point of the sling. The bight of the overhand becomes the clip-in point for my rappel device and the free tail of the sling becomes my tether for clipping in at anchors.

When I am on rappel, I will then clip the tail back to my belay loop to make my entire rappel set-up redundant. I will also then clip my backup to my belay loop to finish the system.

safer rappelling

safer rappelling

safer rappelling

safer rappelling

safer rappelling
Keep in mind that there are drawbacks to this system, namely that it adds a piece to the rappelling equation with the double length sling. However, I believe that the benefits outweigh this slight drawback, and I personally only use equipment that I fully trust; if there’s any doubt in my mind about the sling, I’ll retire it and buy another for $20.

Conclusion

I hope that this was informative and gave some valuable insight on ways to make rappelling safer. There are too many accidents while descending and in the small climbing community, each accident hits a little closer to home. I hope that collectively, we can work to increase safety and prevent accidents.

Matt Zia is an outdoor educator, climber, skier, and photographer with an AMGA SPI certification as well as four years of experience working rock climbing and mountaineering courses for the Colorado Outward Bound School.


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  • can you use a clove hitch instead of a figure 8 in the middle of the sling where you attach the carabiner with the rappellin device ?