Climb Safe: Ascending Rappel Ropes 101
At some point in your climbing career, you’ll probably end up at the bottom of a double-rope rappel, marooned in space, staring wistfully at the next rap anchors overhead. Fear not! With a little bit of knowledge, you can quickly and easily climb the rap ropes. Here’s how.
Having to re-climb doubled rappel ropes is one of climbing’s most taxing situations. In my 30 something years of climbing, I’ve only had to do this twice, and both times were epic.
The reasons why you might need to regain the anchors are as countless as the sands: The last person down didn’t properly rig the station for a pull, or the ropes partly pulled, jammed and luckily you still have both rope ends. Or, you accidentally rappelled past a station. Then, there’s always Murphy’s Law.
Often, troubleshooting the descent will eliminate problems, or at least simplify them when they arise. At some point in your career, however, despite the planning, you’ll probably end up at the bottom of a double-rope rappel, marooned in space, staring wistfully at the rap anchors 60 meters overhead. Fear not! With a little bit of knowledge, you can quickly and easily climb the rap ropes. Here’s how.
One or two ropes, doubled through the anchor. Ropes run through webbing. This situation is common when you rappel a seldom-traveled line that hasn’t been modernized with metal rappel links, chains or fixed carabiners. Ideally, you’d add carabiners to the system, avoiding the dangerous rope on-webbing situation. But, if you didn’t upgrade the anchor, rappel, then are forced to re-climb the ropes, you’ll have to do so without causing the rope to saw back and forth through the anchor sling, cutting it in two.
If you have a partner who is still at the belay, simply have him tie off the rope. You can then prusik or jumar up one side. Tying off the rope does require that you unweight the anchor, a tricky task if you can’t establish yourself at a lower anchor. If you cannot unweight the rope, your partner can set a prusik on the side of the rope opposite the joining knot, then clip the prusik to the anchor (Figure 1). With the rope secured by the prusik, you can jug up using ascenders or prusiks on the rope’s anchored side. For additional back-up, once your weight transfers onto the prusik, your partner should tie a figure-eight loop in the slack side of the rope near the anchor, and clip this loop to the rap station.
If your partner is with you at the lower station, or is at the upper station but is incapacitated, or you are alone, no one will be able to tie off the rope at the upper anchor. Then, the only way up is to prusik up both sides of the rope. Easy, if you have prusiks. Impossible if you don’t. Assuming you have prusiks, wrap both around both ropes, and “jug” up both strands (Figure 2.). Prusiking up both strands of rope prevents them from sawing through the rappel slings.
Note: This technique is only possible with prusiks ascenders, which only attach to one strand of rope, won’t work.
You might already know how to “jug” up a rope. If so, skip to Scenario 2.
Set two prusiks on the rope. Clip a full-length sling (or a daisychain) to the top prusik, and clip the sling to your harness belay/rappel loop. Use locking carabiners for all connections. If you do not have lockers, substitute two non-locking carabiners with gates reversed and opposed.
Clip another sling to the bottom prusik and also to your belay/rappel loop. Make a foot loop by clipping two more slings girth-hitched together, to the bottom prusik.
To ascend, push the top prusik up the rope as far as you can, then “sit” on this prusik. Slide up the unweighted, bottom prusik, and stand and extend in the foot loop. Slide up the now unweighted top prusik, and repeat the process.
One or two ropes, doubled through the anchor. Ropes run through metal rings, links, chains or carabiners. This is the type of rappel rigging typical on popular descents. In some cases, such as when you thread the rope through small-diameter chain links, you can jam the knot joining the two ropes against the links, effectively tying off one side of the rope. Then you only need to jug up the “anchored” side of the rope to regain the rappel station. But never count on the knot to jam! Large knots, even the double fisherman’s, can, under load, squeeze through carabiners and certain links and rings.
If you must jug on a jammed knot and are by yourself, tie a figure-eight loop on the slack side of the rope nearest you and clip this to your belay/rappel loop. Now, if the jammed knot pulls through the anchor, the back-up figure-eight loop will prevent the rope from pulling completely through the anchor. A better scenario, if you have a partner at the rappel station, is to have him set a prusik on the side of the rope opposite the jammed knot, and clip the prusik to the anchor (Figure 3).
Or, instead of relying on a sketchy jammed knot, you can easily “slingshot” yourself up the rope with a technique similar to the one used to winch yourself back to your high point after falling on a sport route. (The slingshot method also works on a single rope doubled through the rappel station, i.e., there’s no knot joining two ropes).
Note: do not use the slingshot system when the rope runs through webbing or perlon—the sawing action of the rope can easily cut; the anchor slings!
If you can unweight and disconnect from the rope, rigging the pulley system is quick and easy (See opening art).
After anchoring yourself independently of the rappel rope, disconnect your rappel device. Tie a figure-eight loop in the strand of the rappel rope opposite the knot that joins the two rappel ropes. Clip (use a locking carabiner) the figure eight loop to your belay/rappel loop.
Set both prusiks (or ascenders) on the other side of the rope. (Attach yourself to both prusiks and rig a foot loop as previously discussed.)
Jug up the rope. As you pull down on one side of the rope, the opposite side will pull up. Jump your prusiks past the knot when it comes to you.
If you cannot unweight the rope, you can still rig the pulley system, but must do so a bit differently.
When you are at least 10 feet from the ends of the ropes (which have stopper knots in them, right?!), lock off your rappel by wrapping the free ends of the ropes around your thigh at least three times. Test the lock-off and make sure it holds.
Set your prusiks on opposite strands of rope, and rig your rope-ascending system, using slings, daisychains, etc., as previously discussed.
Unwind the leg wraps and weight your prusiks.
Tie a figure-eight loop in each side of the rope, directly below your rappel device, which you keep on the rope.
Clip each figure-eight loop to your harness belay/rappel loop.
Rearrange your prusiks so both are on the knotted (and same) side of the rope. The figure-eight loops will jam into your rappel device. This is fine; you do not need to free them.
Jug up the rope. Jump your prusiks past the knot when it comes to you.
Don’t forget to tie back-ups.
Getting Back Up
✔ Innumerable problems can arise when you climb a rope. Carabiners can unclip. Slings can untie. Prepare for the worst by always backing up your prusiks or jumars. Tie an overhand figure-eight loop in the rope directly below your pusiks or ascenders, and clip this knot to your harness belay/rappel loop. (If you are ascending two strands of rope, tie a back-up knot in each strand and clip to both knots.) Now, if your prusik system fails, you’ll only fall the distance between your “ascenders” and the back-up knot. To minimize your fall potential, retie the knots every 30 feet you climb, more often if you are ascending above a ledge.
✔ Clip the stopper knots in the end of each rope to your harness belay/rappel loop to back up your back-up knots.
The Mother of Invention: How to Improvise
✔ Don’t have long slings to connect yourself to the prusiks? Then, chain together quickdraws and/or the cords and wires on nuts. A chain of this sort is clumsy to use and you have to keep an eye on it so the various components don’t cross load or unclip themselves, but it works.
✔ Don’t have jumars or prusiks? Almost any bit of cord or webbing will work as a prusik. The cord slung through nuts is one option, although if it’s Kevlar or Spectra it’ll be slippery and hard to work with. Nylon tie-offs might also work. Last ditch: use your shoelaces—it worked for James Bond.
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