How to Rappel
You go up, then what? How to get down with minimal hassle and danger. Includes the all-important back-up.
Rappelling is the most dangerous—and frightening—part of climbing. It is the only time when you rely on single systems, such as one rappel device and one carabiner—your life depends on your gear and whether you use it correctly. Seasoned climbers die every year because they make simple rappelling mistakes, such as rappelling off the end of the rope, or rappelling from inadequate anchors. Rappelling uses friction for a controlled descent. The most common way to rappel is to thread the rope through a specialized belay/rappel device attached to your harness with a locking carabiner.
SETTING UP A RAPPEL
Make sure you have a device suitable for rappelling. Braking-assisted devices are excellent for belaying, but, because they only accept one rope, you can’t double-rope rappel off one without making complicated gyrations. The most versatile rappelling device is a “tube” type. These will usually have two slots, so you can use them to rappel on one or two ropes.
Before you can rappel, you need a rope that’s anchored at the top of the climb or cliff. Regardless of the situation, remain connected to the anchor until you are rigged to rappel, only then disconnect yourself from the anchor.
Rappelling breaks down into single-rope and double-rope rappels. For the single-rope style, you rappel on a single-strand of rope. Usually, you do this to leave the rope “fixed” on the cliff, and reclimb the line at a later date to reach your previous high point.
Double-rope rappelling is when you rappel on two strands of rope. When you reach the ground or a lower rappel station, you retrieve your line by pulling on one side of the rope, causing the other side to snake up and through the anchor. Since double-rope “rapping” is the most common, and since the basics of single- and double-rope rappelling are the same, this text will only detail double-rope rappelling.
If the rappel is less than half the length of your rope (you have a 60-meter rope and the rappel is less than 30-meters), you can double your rope through the anchor. Thread the line so that its middle is centered through the anchor and both ends reach the ground. To safeguard against the deadly consequences of rappelling off the end of the ropes, tie a figure-eight knot in the end of each rope. These “stopper” knots will jam in your rappel device, stopping your rappel. Always leave a four-plus inch tail below your stopper knot.
If the rappel is longer than half a rope length, you’ll need two ropes to descend. Use the double-fisherman’s knot to tie the two ropes together.
Once the ropes are rigged and you can see that the ends touch the ground or reach past the next rappel station, thread the rope through your device, and then attach the device to your harness. Most devices work similarly, but don’t assume they are all the same. Always attach the device to your harness belay/rappel loop, which is specially designed to keep the device properly oriented, and use a large, locking carabiner. If you are going to be doing a lot of rappelling, invest in a bi-color rope—the differently hued halves make it easy to gauge the length of your rappel, and also simplify orienting the middle-mark of the rope at the anchors.
BACK UP YOUR RAPPEL
As a precaution, attach a backup prusik on the rope below your rappel device. If you lose control of the rappel, the prusik will lock, stopping your rappel. Construct your prusik from a loop of 5 to 7mm nylon cord (cordelette) tied with a double-fisherman’s knot. Wrap the prusik around both strands of rope and clip the prusik to the leg loop on the same side as your brake hand. The loop of the prusik should extend no more than three inches. The loop length is critical: if it’s too long, it can ride up and jam into your belay device, causing it to fail. If you lose control of the rappel, the prusik will lock onto the rope, saving you (well, probably, but don’t count on it).
Now that your rappel is rigged, it is important to double-check a few things:
1) The rope is properly threaded through the anchors (which you are sure are bomber).
2) The rope is correctly threaded through your rappel device.
3) The locking carabiner connecting your device to your harness is locked.
4) The rope reaches the ground or the next rappel station.
5) You’ve scouted and planned for odd rock protrusions, trees, and other natural features that could complicate your rappel.
6) You remember which side of the rope you’ll pull on to retrieve it, if you are using two ropes tied together. 7) Before you unclip from the anchor, get up close to the anchor and fully weight your rappel device, just to make sure everything is correct.
For gear route rappels, keep in mind that the best rap station may not be the spot you finished your climb. If you need to traverse or downclimb a bit to find bomber placements, or if the rap gear on a sport climb isn’t in excellent condition, do so. Pitons are suspect: you don’t know how solid they are, and the freeze/thaw of winter can cause a piton that was bomber one summer to fall out in your hands the next—don’t use them unless you are sure they are safe. If you elect to fix your own bail biners to the bolts and rappel off this hardware instead, use locking carabiners.
Slinging trees and large boulders as rappel anchors is an acceptable practice, but make sure those trees are thick, deeply rooted and alive, and that the boulders are deeply sunken, solid, and that the edges aren’t so sharp that they will slice your webbing.
Take a deep breath and put yourself “on rappel,” a command you should relate to your partner. The basic idea for rappelling is to have your dominant hand operate as the brake hand (as you would for a regular belay), while the other hand keeps a relaxed grip on the rope above the rappel device, holding you upright. Your brake hand simultaneously keeps tension on the rope while sliding the prusik down the rope.
Rappelling is a pillar of climbing—especially multipitch climbing—and it is prudent to get professional lessons. Your buddy isn’t automatically a suitable teacher just because he or she has done a few double raps. Ask your gym if they offer rappelling lessons. Likely, it does.
The most awkward moment of a rappel is typically right at the start when you step off the ledge. Plant your feet right at the edge, work your butt down until your device and brake hand are near the lip, then swoop clear in a short bound.
After establishing yourself on the wall, assume a position similar to sitting on a chair: knees bent and back straight. Keep T-shirts and hair clear of the rappel system. If you have long hair, make sure it’s tied back before you begin your descent. Rappel in one steady flow rather than bounding. Go slowly—zipping down the rope military-style is hard on the gear and makes it easy to lose control.
If you are the first in your group to rappel, you may have to deal with tangles of rope hung up on ledges or in bushes or snagged on flakes. Never rappel past any snafu—always deal with it from above; 10 to 20 feet above, preferably, to give you a safe cushion. Stop and lock off the rope anytime you see a knot or snarl in the rope below you. Pull up the rope and undo the tangle or flip the rope free of the snag.
If you need to let go with one or both hands to set an anchor, pendulum, or straighten out the ropes, let the backup prusik take your weight, then wrap the ropes around your leg three times to cinch them off.
Stay on rappel until you are on safe ground, or are anchored to a belay/rappel station. Once you are disconnected from the rappel rope, yell “off rappel” so your partner knows she can begin her rappel.
MAKING RAPPEL ANCHORS
Though most routes are equipped with rappel anchors, sometimes you’ll have to build your own. No one would stick rotten, old tires on a racecar or skydive with a moth-eaten parachute, but many climbers use their most delinquent gear to set rappel anchors. If you must use two less-than-perfect fixed anchors, add an anchor of your own as a backup.
Do not get cheap with rappel anchors. Use at least two solid anchors, and use good gear. Nuts and hexes often make great, inexpensive anchors. Use three anchors if you have any doubts. If you are rappelling from a cliff top, the rappel gear should extend beyond the edge where the ropes can run with rubbing over the edge. Review the chapter on anchors for more about rigging. The rules that apply to belay anchors are the same for rappel anchors.
SAVE THOSE ANCHORS
It is proper protocol to rappel, not lower, off sport anchors—even if they are brand new—unless you are at a heavily trafficked crag that consistently and promptly replaces the fixed gear on the anchors. For example, Rifle Mountain Park in Rifle, Colorado, is so well maintained that lowering is considered proper form. In contrast, a small, local crag is almost certainly not where you should lower. Lowering through an anchor wears grooves in the fixed carabiners.
PULLING THE ROPES
If you’re on a multipitch climb, stay clipped into the rope until you have set the gear for the second rappel. Once everything is set up, you’ll need to pull and retrieve your ropes. Stuck rappel ropes are a common malady, usually caused by demon friction from the ropes binding at the anchor, running over bulges, or twisting around each other. Remember to untie the stopper knots in the bottom of the rope—they will not pass through the anchors.
Before you rappel, arrange the ropes in the proper pull order. If there are more rappels before you reach the ground, thread one end of the line through the next anchor, tie a stopper knot, and now you’re ready to pull. If the ropes are different diameters, set up the knot so you pull the thickest rope down. A thick rope, besides being easier to grip, will stretch less, transmitting more of your pulling energy to the right cause.
FIREMAN’S BELAY FOR BEGINNERS
Worried that you’re going to splat? Send down a friend first, then have him hold onto the ropes as you rappel. This is known as a “fireman’s belay”—your buddy can pull on the ropes at any point, locking your device via friction and preventing you from decking if you lose control.
To prevent anchor friction, avoid running the rope directly over nylon slings or rope. Nylon on nylon generates tremendous chafing, and even if the ropes do pull they will cut into the rappel slings, leaving them dangerously weak for the next team. Attach the ropes to the anchor with metal. Two carabiners with gates opposite and opposed or two rappel rings will do fine.
Friction from ropes running over bulges is difficult to avoid. One solution is lengthening the anchor slings with additional runners so the rope hangs below the friction-causing bulge. Alternately, split the long rappels into short ones—less rope equals less friction, and less rope to abandon if the line jams. As you rappel, direct the ropes away from protrusions or grooves that can snare the rope and make sure the lines don’t cross one another. If you’re in a group, the first climber down should be experience with rappelling—if anything unexpected happens, they’re the one to solve the problem. Conversely, the last climber to rappel should make sure the line runs smoothly down the wall, that it isn’t caught on anything that will prevent a smooth rope retrieval.
Finally, have the first person down the ropes test-pull them from his low station before the last person rappels. “Sawing” the anchor by pulling the rope back and forth three times from the lower rappel station (or ground) previews how easily the rope will pull and alerts your partner that you are off rappel. It’s the duty of the last person down to deal with potential snags. Once everyone is off rappel and safely anchored, untie the stopper knots in the rope ends, make sure the ropes aren’t twisted, and pull them down.
If your rap ropes get stuck, first make sure you are tugging on the correct side of the line, and not on the side that will jam the knot joining the two ropes into the rap anchor. If you aren’t certain, give the other side a gentle pull. Whipping and flipping the rope around can sometimes free a jammed rope.
If you are on a broad ledge or the ground, walk out, belayed or tethered in, and try pulling from a different angle.
A last resort is to attach a prusik or ascender to the pull-side of the rope, and apply full body weight. Bounce vigorously, but make sure you are well anchored and watch out for rockfall—your rope could have been hung up on a block that is now headed your way.
If your ropes won’t pull, you may have to use what rope you have, and lead up to the anchor to adjust it so the ropes will pull. If you have prusiks, you can prusik up the stuck ropes by winding the prusiks around both ropes.
Another option is to cut the ropes as high as you can reach them, and rappel using the remaining short sections.
Rapping with a Core-shot Rope
When the rope’s sheath has been cut, usually by rockfall or on a sharp edge, and the core strands are visible, it’s called a “core-shot”. When this happens, you’ll need to use a special rappelling technique, so you don’t weight the weakened core shot.
The steps below illustrate how to rappel with a core-shot rope. This technique can also be used for rappelling with a device that only takes a single rope strand, such as an assisted-braking device.
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