Rappelling, not climbing, is the most dangerous—and frightening—part of the game, for it is the only time when you must rely on single systems, such as one rappel device and one carabiner. Simply and literally your life depends on your gear and whether you use it correctly. No matter how seasoned a climber you become, never take rappelling lightly. Seasoned climbers die every year because they make simple yet avoidable 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 and easiest way to rappel is to thread the rope through a specialized belay/rappel device attached to your harness with a locking carabiner. The device, through the miracle of friction, allows you to slowly slide down the rope.
Setting Up a Rappel
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 at all times. Only disconnect yourself from the anchor when you are on rappel.
Rappelling breaks down into single-rope and double-rope rappels. A single-rope rappel is when you rappel on a single-strand of rope. Usually, you do this to leave your rope “fixed” on the cliff, and reclimb the rope 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 pull on one side of the rope, causing the other side to snake up and through the anchor, letting you retrieve your ropes. Since double-rope rappelling is the most common, and since the basics of single- and double-rope rappelling are the same, this text will 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 rope 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 loop in the end of each rope. These “stopper” knots will jam in your rappel device, stopping your rappel.
If the rappel is longer than half a rope length, you’ll need two ropes to descend. In this scenario, use the double-fisherman’s knot to tie the two ropes together. Make sure the ropes are of similar diameter. Different diameter ropes stretch differently, causing a host of serious problems.
Once the ropes are rigged and you can see that the ends touch the ground or reach past the next rappel station, follow the directions that came with your device to attach it to your harness. Most devices work and thread similarly, but the nuances can vary. 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.
As a precaution, attach a back-up 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 tied off with a double fisherman’s knot. Wrap the pusik around both strands of rope and clip the prusik to the leg loop on the same side as your brake hand. When you are done, the loop of the prusik should extend no more than three inches. The loop length is critical: if the loop is too long, it can ride up and jam into your belay device, causing it to fail.
Now that your rappel is rigged, it is important to double check a few things:
The rope is properly threaded through the anchor (which you are sure is bomber).
The rope is correctly threaded through your rappel device.
The locking carabiner is clipped into your harness and is locked.
The rope reaches the ground or the next rappel station.
You remember which side of the rope you’ll pull on to retrieve it, if you are using two ropes tied together.
Before you unclip from the anchor, get up close to the anchor and fully weight your rappel device, just to make sure everything is okay.
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 backup prusik down the rope.
The most awkward moment of a rappel is typically right at the start when you step off the ledge. It often helps to 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 that of sitting on a chair: knees bent and back straight. Keep T-shirts and hair clear of the rappel system. Rappel cautiously in one steady flow rather than bounding. Go slowly—zipping down the rope military-style may look cool, but is hard on the gear and makes it easy to lose control.
If you are the first 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 back-up prusik take your weight, then wrap the ropes around your leg three times to cinch them off.
Stay on rappel until you are either on safe ground, or are anchored to a belay/rappel station. Either way, once you are disconnected from the rappel rope, yell “off rappel” so your partner knows she can begin her rappel.
Though most trade routes are equipped with existing anchors, sometimes you’ll have to leave gear for rappel anchors. No one would stick rotten, old tires on a race car or skydive with a moth-eaten parachute, but, oddly, many climbers use their most delinquent gear to set rappel anchors. An odd choice considering gear failure is deadly.
Do not get chintzy 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.
Thread each anchor independently to minimize loads and keep redundancy in the system. Use a sling for each piece and adjust each so it equalizes at a common low point. Do not thread the runners American Death Triangle style, nor with the popular but dangerous “sliding X.” The triangle will double the load through leverage. The sliding X, should any piece fail, places a dangerously high shock load on the remaining anchors. (See the section “Anchor Systems” for more on this topic.)
Pulling the Ropes
At the end of your rappel you’ll need to pull and retrieve your ropes. Ideally, they’ll pull smoothly, but 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.
Before you rappel, make things easy on yourself by arranging the ropes in the proper pull order. 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.
Anchor friction is the easiest culprit to banish. Avoid running the rope directly over nylon slings or rope. Nylon on nylon generates tremendous friction, and even if the ropes do pull they will saw partly through the rappel slings, leaving them dangerously weak for the next team. Attach the ropes to the anchor with metal. Two carabiners with gates reversed and opposed or two rappel rings will do fine.
Friction of the ropes running over bulges is harder to avoid. One solution is to lengthen the anchor slings with additional slings 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 it jams. As you rappel, direct the ropes away from bulges or grooves that can bind or snare the rope and make sure the ropes don’t cross over one another.
As a final measure, 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 down the ropes.
If the ropes don’t pull, make sure you are tugging on the correct side of the rope. If you aren’t certain, give the other side a pull. Whip and flip the rope around. If you are on a broad ledge, walk out, belayed or tethered in, and try pulling from a different angle. A last resort is to clamp the pull-side with an ascender or prusik and apply full body weight. Bounce vigorously but make sure you are well anchored!
If your ropes won’t pull, you’ll need to hike up and free them, or, if you are on a multi-pitch climb, abandon them. If the latter is the case, cut off what rope you can reach and use this to continue the descent, via a series of very short rappels.