Rappelling Basics

In this section, we share some of the most common points of Rappelling.

Proper Technique

A proper rappelling technique can save your life. The correct equipment, body position, and rope handling will keep you in control making every rappel just a simple slide down the rope.

The ten commandments for safe rappelling technique are:

1. Keep all loose clothing, hair, slings, helmet straps, and all other equipment away from your rappel device: If anything gets caught, you may be trapped or lose control.

2. Keep your brake hand on the rope: If you let go, you could lose complete control of your descent.

3. Keep your brake hand on your hip, feeding rope out by relaxing your fingers: If your brake hand creeps up toward your rappel device, you may get pinched and let go.

4. Keep your upper body upright: Many beginners lean in, making it much harder to see where they are going and increasing the likelihood that clothing or hair will be trapped by the belay device.

5. Keep your toes on the rock and your heels low: This ensures that your body position will be correct and that your feet will not get too low-if they do, they may slip, sending you face first into the cliff.

6. Go slow and take short steps: Do not rappel the way they do on TV; “be all you can be” by not bouncing, bounding, or taking big, fast drops-walking down slowly will keep you in control and minimize the stress and wear on your equipment.

7. Watch where you are going: Look down, make decisions where to step; if you are caught by surprise by a ledge or overhang, you may lose control.

8. Stay in the fall line: Stray to the side, and you may swing dangerously if you lose your footing.

9. Be cautious on overhangs: Small overhangs are no problem-just step over them-but overhangs bigger than about 2 feet could cause you to smash your knuckles against the cliff as you swing under them, and you could let go; if you cannot step easily over the overhang, stop with your feet at the lip, lower yourself down until your hands are below the lip, and then gently step off – you will swing under the roof, the rope will contact the lip above your hands, and you should be able to maintain control.

10. On a multipitch rappel, stay on rappel until you are securely clipped to the next anchor: Do not decide to hang around without being clipped in-even on big ledges.

The System Backup

Use a solid anchor and proper technique, and you will probably never use a backup. But bad things can happen even when you are diligent: Hazards like falling rocks, bees, and lightning sometimes just happen.

Many climbers, competent with building and assessing anchors and proficient in the techniques of rappelling, do not realize the risk they take by not backing up the system. Most rappelling accidents occur because the climbers break one of the ten commandments of rappelling technique, and are injured or killed because they have failed to establish a system backup.

This is often because they do not understand the three simple backup methods, or they feel that backing up is unnecessary and too time-consuming. Backing up the system is always easy-get in the habit of doing it.

The most fundamental backup is to tie a large knot, such as a figure eight on a bight, on the end of the rope or ropes. Do this on every rappel-unless you know absolutely that the ends of the rope are on the ground. If you do this, you will never run the risk of rappelling off the end of your rope. But you can still fall all the way to the end of the rope.

The following three methods provide quick and secure ways to maximize safety during a rappel by stopping you immediately if you lose control. After reading this section, you will have no reason to rappel without a backup ever!

The Fireman’s Belay This simple method can be used anytime there is a climber positioned at the bottom of the rope, either on the ground or at an anchor. The person below holds the rappel rope loosely while the rappeller is descending. If the rappeller loses control, the belayer can stop him or her immediately by pulling down on the rope-the belayer’s hands take the place of the rappeller’s brake hand.

The belayer can hold the rappeller securely-with surprisingly little effort-until control is regained. The belayer then loosens his or her grip on the rope and the rappeller continues to descend. This is a very quick method that requires nothing more than a strong grip and good attention on the part of the belayer.

The Separate Belay-Rope Belay This method can be used when there is no one below to provide a fireman’s belay, but there is a belayer and extra rope available at the rappel anchor. It is especially useful when the transition over the edge is difficult or when the person rappelling is a novice, because it provides an extra feeling of security.

Using whatever top belay method will work best, simply tie a separate rope to the rappeller and give a belay during the descent. If the rappeller loses control or there is some emergency (hair caught in the rappel device), the belayer can stop him or her immediately.

The Autoblock Belay If a separate belay rope is not available or a fireman’s belay is not possible (for example, rappelling first on a multi-pitch route when both ropes are being used), then the rappeller can set up an “autoblock” backup. If more climbers knew about and used this technique, the number of rappelling accidents could be reduced dramatically.

The only extra pieces of equipment needed are a locking carabiner, a 16- to 24-inch 6-7 nom prusik loop, and a 24inch sling (every climber should have these on hand-see the Equipment section at the beginning of this chapter). The steps for the autoblock backup are as follows:

1. Girth-hitch the sling to the harness.

2. Attach the rappel device to the rope and clip it to the sling with a locking carabiner.

3. Clip the second locking carabiner to the harness.

4. Clip the prusik loop to the second carabiner, position the knot farthest away from the carabiner, wrap the loop around the rope (both strands) below the rappel device four to six times (more wraps yield more holding power), and then clip the loop hack into the second carabiner-this forms the autoblock. (A standard 24-inch sling can also be used to form the autoblock, though it may take more wraps than cord does to hold securely.)

Once the system is in place, the rappel proceeds as usual, with two minor differences: The rappel device is now about 2 feet away from the harness, which feels weird at first (you will get used to it), and your brake hand now has to hold something during the rappel. Hold the autoblock loosely in your brake hand during the rappel.

Now, if you let go of your brake hand accidentally (if it is hit by a falling rock) or need to use both hands to do something such as unclip a quickdraw, the autoblock will clamp down on the rope and hold you in place. To release the autoblock, simply pull it downward. It releases easily because it is only asked to take the place of your brake hand, and thus only has to hold a small amount of weight-the same amount you hold with your brake hand to stop yourself.

In another method that uses a prusik hitch attached above the rappel device, the sling must hold all the climber’s weight. This causes it to clamp very tightly to the rope, which makes it difficult to release. The autoblock is much easier to use.