Rappelling isn’t the most glamorous part of climbing, or the hardest. Despite these facts, and perhaps because of them, rappelling is one of the most dangerous aspects of climbing. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine analyzed climbing related search and rescue incidents in Boulder, Colorado between 1998 and 2011. For technical roped climbing, researchers identified belay (rappelling and lowering) accidents as the cause of 21.5% of all climbing search and rescue incidents. This category was second only to lead fall related injuries.
Unlike lead falls, however, belay incidents are more easily anticipated, and can usually be avoided by taking a few precautions and making modifications to the basic rappel system.
A basic rappel system consists of a rope passed through an anchor, with tails of equal lengths on both sides. The rappel is rigged by inserting a bight from each tail into a climber’s belay device. The climber then descends by slowly releasing rope through the device, much like when lowering someone on top-rope. This system is expedient, but leaves you vulnerable to a variety of risks. The following is a list of preventative adjustments to help maximize the safety of your rappel system:
No matter what, if your anchor fails, you’re in trouble. Whether it’s a bolted rappel station, or a tree trunk, always make sure you’d trust your mother’s life on whatever you’re about to rappel from. Be sure to assess the integrity of your anchor before rappelling. To make sure your anchor is bomber, remember the acronym ERNEST: Equalized (each component of the anchor has equal load), Redundant (always have backup components in case of failure), No Extension (in case of component failure the remaining components won’t be shock loaded), Strong (pretty self explanatory), and Timely (simple and efficient).
Locking carabiners at critical points of failure.
Stopper knots tied at both ends of the rope.
Unless you can confirm that both ends have touched ground (the ground, not the next belay ledge), rappel systems should always be closed with reliable stopper knots. Too many people have died rappelling off the ends of their rope. Tying stopper knots is a reliable way to prevent this from happening.
Girth hitch a 60 cm sling through your tie-in loops (not your belay loop) and connect your belay device to the other end with a locking carabiner. This serves two purposes. First, it positions your belay device out in front of you where it is easier to mind with your brake hand. Second (discussed next) an extended rappel comes in handy when backing-up your rappel with a friction hitch.
Just like in all other aspects of climbing, your life should never depend on a single critical point. In the most basic rappel system, this critical point is your break hand. Always be sure that if your break hand slips, something else is there to prevent free-fall. Incorporate one or both of these techniques into your system:
- Fireman’s belay: Have someone on the ground holding both rappel strands. If your hand slips, they can yank the rope ends into brake position to arrest a fall.
- Friction hitch back-up: Like a fireman’s, a friction hitch serves as a “third hand,” ready to pull the rope into brake position should your brake hand fail. This time, however, the third hand is a special knot connecting your harness to your rope. Tied below your belay device and clipped with a locking carabiner to your leg loop or belay loop, a friction hitch will constrict around your rope and pull it into brake position when sudden force (a fall) is applied. Friction hitches are tied with a thin (5-7 mm), looped accessory cord or specialized Prusik cord (like the Sterling Hollowblock) wrapped around your rappel strands. The greater the difference between the cord and rope diameters, the stronger the breaking ability.
Three friction hitches are commonly used: the Prusik, Klemheist, or autoblock. Any of these choices are appropriate for rappelling. Whichever you choose depends on personal preference and degree of comfort.
Extending your rappel and securing your friction hitch to your belay loop with a locking carabiner is the cleanest and safest way to backup a rappel.
Although counted separately from belay related incidents, rockfall accounts for 5% of the search and rescue calls included in the 2012 study. A helmet can mean the difference between a bump and fractured skull when your rope dislodges a rock above you.
I’ve never heard of anyone who climbs primarily to experience the thrill of rappelling. I have, however, heard of those who no longer climb because of rappelling accidents. Taking the time to incorporate the safety measures listed above before descending a climb will help to ensure that you can continue focussing on what really matters: embarking on the next climb. In addition, brushing up on safety procedures and techniques, regularly checking the integrity of your gear, and partnering with people whom you trust are all good practices that will keep you safe and happy at the crag.
Check out these items listed in the article to make sure you’re rappelling safely with the best of gear:
Another important aspect of climbing safety is practice, practice, practice. Click here to learn how to build your own splitter crack anywhere so you can train for big days on the wall: