According to a 2012 study by the American Alpine Club, here are three big reasons for death or injury while rappelling:
- Inadequate anchor systems, or in other words, anchor failure.
- Inadequate back up for rappels.
- Rappelling off the end of the rope, largely due to uneven ropes.
I am not a member of the American Alpine Club, nor an AMGA-certified guide or instructor. I am a recreational climber with some experience in lead trad climbing, sport climbing, multi-pitch rope soloing, and dry canyoneering.
So don’t take anything I say as gospel. And nothing you read online is a substitute for qualified instruction and hands-on experience.
But I do seem to spend a fair amount of time dangling 120 feet above the ground suspended by a rope not even as thick as my pinky finger.
Here’s a little of what I’ve learned in 10 years of recreational climbing and canyoneering!
1. No Stopper Knot at the End of the Rope
Excuses abound why people think they don’t need a stopper at the end of rope.
- I saw both ends reach the ground!
- I’ll be careful. Sheesh.
- I know my rope length is longer than the pitch.
- I don’t want the ropes to snag.
Do not listen to these excuses! These come from the lazy devil on your shoulder. Always, always tie a stopper knot (such as a barrel knot) at the end of your rope. Tie both ends if you’re rappelling on double strands.
You’re not just protecting the pitch in front of you. You’re forming a physical habit that will keep you alive when you’re cold, tired, scared, and operating 90% off muscle memory.
Hot Hint: Don’t forget to untie your stopper knots before retrieving your rope!
2. No Third Hand Rappel Backup
If you come from a sport climbing background, you were probably taught to rappel by threading both strands through your ATC tubular belay device and sliding all the way to the bottom. This is a somewhat “lazy” way to rappel that has become the norm for crag climbing, especially if you’ve switched to a Petzl GriGri or another autoblocking belay/rappel device.
But everywhere else, rappels are rarely this simple.
- Rappels may involve traverses, downclimbs, rebelays, or redirects.
- Rappels are often performed at the end of a climb, when everyone is tired and inattentive.
- Autoblocking rappel devices, especially single-strand devices, are more rarely used in the alpine.
For anything more dicey than a freehanging 40-ft sport climb, I always use a prusik backup, also called a “third hand.”
There are several ways to rig a third hand, both above and below your rappel device. The preferred setup for most climbers or canyoneers is this:
- Extend your rappel device using a 30cm sling.
- Use an Aramid cord or sling as an autoblock (French) prusik around the brake strand[s], clipped with a locking carabiner to your belay loop.
You may see a climber simply clip the autoblock carabiner to his leg loop without extending his rappel device. However, this has fallen out of favor for two reasons:
- If you lift your leg, you can allow the backup prusik to jam and bind in the rappel device.
- When connected to your leg loop, the prusik cannot hold your weight. But if you clip the prusik backup to your belay loop, it also functions as a life-safety backup.
An Aramid (polyamide) material is best for the third hand. Do not trust nylon paracord, as this can melt on a fast rappel. I use a Trango Third Hand or a Bluewater VT Prusik. Another popular option is the Sterling Hollow Block.
3. Not Testing Your Rappel Device
When you’re at the anchor, never undo your personal tether or clove hitch without testing the system first! What if you accidentally clipped only one bight through the ATC carabiner, or threaded the GriGri backward, or tied into the wrong side of a ‘biner block?
Yes, people have died because they didn’t clip both ropes in a double-strand rappel!
Always load your rappel setup before trusting your life to it. You’ll need slack in your personal tether or clove hitch to “sit back” in your system. Once you’ve visually checked everything AND weight-tested it, you can tie off your device, remove your tether, and continue descending.
4. Not Wearing a Helmet
What most people seem to forget is that a helmet isn’t there to protect you from your own stupidity – it’s to protect you from God. And Mother Nature. And whoever’s climbing above you.
Helmets protect against falling rock, upside-down falls, and ledge decking. A helmet is as critical to rock climbing and rappelling as is wearing a seatbelt in a car. It only takes once …
A helmet can also protect against hair getting caught in the rappel device. In severe cases, this situation can also be solved in two ways:
- Cutting off the hair with a knife.
- Building a self-rescue prusik and unweighting the rappel device.
If you have no knife and no prusiks … well, read on!
5. Not Bringing Self-Rescue Prusiks
Any rappel can go bad. You could discover a core shot in your rope. You could realize your anchor is hazardous and may not hold. You could realize your ropes aren’t long enough. The list never ends!
You should always be prepared to ascend any rope you go down! This means you’ll need to be familiar with self-rescue techniques such as the Frog, Rope Walker, Mitchell, and Texas systems.
Ascending a rope doesn’t require fancy equipment. Sure, rope clamps and jumars and progress-capture pulleys make ascension much faster, but you can ascend a rope with nothing more than two prusiks.
At a bare minimum, you can always bring two slings, a double-length and a single-length. With two slings tied in a Kleimhost prusik, you can get up any rope – albeit really, really slowly.
Personally, I bring a Wild Country Ropeman and double-length sling for the foot loop and a Petzl Microtraxion for the waist ascender.
Hot hint: If you’re trying to improve a handled Jumar, try out a Bachmann hitch.
6. Trusting a Bad Anchor
A full discussion of good vs bad anchors is way, way beyond the scope of this article!
But here are some examples of bad anchors:
- Threading the rope through another rope, a sling, cordelette, or any other textile.
- Threading the rope through a sharp object, like a bolt hanger or swaged wire loop.
- Rappelling off a single marginal anchor, such as a rusty bolt, rivet hanger, loose flake, or juvenile tree.
- Rappelling off a single piece of pro. Don’t be cheap! If you’re trad climbing, build an anchor you would trust your life to. I hate losing $50 more than anyone, but I hate dying more.
- Rappelling off a widow-maker. Lots of people seem to think that all trees make bomber anchors. This is not true. Some trees are dead; some are dying. Some have shallow, broken root systems. Some can be tipped out of the ground if you use a Wrap-2-Pull-1 hitch anchor too high on the trunk. Inspect a tree carefully before slinging it!
7. Not Using a Locking Carabiner
Always use a locking carabiner for your rappel device attachment. An HMS anti-cross-loading carabiner is best for most devices.*
And if it’s a screwgate, remember to screw it tight! Make sure the rope runs along the spine of the carabiner, not the gate.
*And learn the Munter hitch just in case you drop your device but still have your HMS.
Simul-rappeling is when two people rappel at the same time on one rope. In a simple simul-rappel, the climbers counterbalance each other as they descend.
People have died simul-rappelling. If one climber unweights the rope (say, lands on a ledge), weighs more than the other, or miscommunicates at the anchor, one or both can enter an uncontrolled fall.
As a rule, stick to single rappelling. If you must simul-rappel, adopt the LAMAR techniques from canyoneering for larger parties. But if it’s just a 2-person climbing party, consider adding a biner block or knot block on one side of the rope (preferably the heavier climber). This ensures that at least one side of the rope cannot slide freely through the anchor master point.
9. Not Knowing How to Stop or Tie Off
There are many situations you may need to “go hands-free” during a rappel.
You can stop at any point during a rappel by tying off your belay device (such as a Munter-Mule on a tubular device) or by wrapping the brake strand around your leg three times (a leg wrap isn’t a hands-free tie-off, though).
A big perk to a third hand is you can stop hands-free at any time simply by allowing the prusik to cinch around the brake strands. Keep a loose hand on the brake strand until you’ve confirmed the autoblock cinches, though – sometimes they fail to tighten!
10. Not Knowing How to Add Friction
People have died because they lost control of the brake strand while rappelling. Their hands got tired, they couldn’t add friction, and in just a few seconds, they were zipping along at 32 feet per second per second.
You might also need to add friction for heavier climbers, thinner ropes, icy or wet conditions, etc.
You can add friction any number of ways. Most have to be done before beginning the rappel, such as rigging a Z-rappel or switching the device orientation.
Adding friction mid-rappel is difficult without a specialty device. In canyoneering and caving, people use special descenders designed to add or relieve friction mid-rappel. In rock climbing, people tend to use dual-purpose belay/rappel devices, which typically don’t have an easy way to adjust friction during a rappel, especially if free-hanging.
In an emergency, you can wrap the rope halfway around your leg rather than hold it behind your back, but that changes the direction of the brake strand. I’ve used this technique, but I don’t recommend it.
Hot hint: Always provide a fireman’s belay when possible.
11. Not Protecting the Rope Against Sharp Edges
Sharp edges are common on alpine 5th class and 4th class terrain.
Two situations that exacerbate the danger of a sharp edge are:
- The risk of a pendulum fall
- The risk of a lead fall
Any fall that could cause a rope to slide horizontally against a sharp edge is a serious, serious situation, and you must avoid it.
It’s a smart idea to bring a small roll of duct tape on your harness. Even 5-10 feet will do. You can “pad” a sharp edge just by applying a layer of duct tape to the lip.
Of course, a dedicated rope protector is even better!
12. Not Knowing Your Knots!
I’m guilty of this one! But there’s a big difference between tying a knot after watching a YouTube video and tying it three months later when you’re scared witless.
In particular, it’s easy to forget the slide-and-grip knots. There are quite a few: the prusik, the autoblock, the Kleimhest, the Bachmann, Blake’s hitch, and the VT prusik. Personally, I recommend you commit all of these knots to mind and muscle memory. They all can do something the others can’t.
When you’re rigging a 3-to-1 haul system, ascending a rope, or passing a knot, these knots can save your bacon. Passing a rope is much easier with a VT prusik compared to, say, a classic 3-wrap prusik.
13. Not Rigging for Contingency
If you’re setting a rappel for a larger group, particularly an inexperienced group, you should consider rigging the rappel for contingency: the ability to lower a stuck rappeller.
You can rig a contingency anchor with a Figure 8, an ATC, a Munter hitch, or a specialty device like a Rock Exotica Totem. These anchors isolate strands by default, but the load-carrying strand can be converted to a lower if necessary. This is useful for passing knots or lowering stuck rappellers.
Contingency anchors come with all sorts of caveats: You can only rappel single-strand, not applicable for last person down, you might accidentally rappel off the wrong strand, etc. But again, you can easily convert them to a lower.
If you don’t rig a contingency anchor, then you might need to fix a loaded rope, escape a seconds belay, or do some other fancy ropework. Just make sure you know how to deal with an emergency!
14. Not Knowing How to “Soft Start”
Rappelling off the lip of a cliff when the anchor is below the lip (or at ground level) can be very difficult. You don’t want to drop and shock load the anchor, so the usual advice to lean backwards until you’re pushing off the wall doesn’t work.
Enter: the soft start.
- Tie off your device.
- Sit on the rock facing outward.
- Scootch over the edge while turning inward.
- Make sure you turn so your brake hand is on the outside of your body, where it can’t get pinched against the rock!
- Untie your rappel device and descend.
15. Not Walking Off
If you can walk off, walk off. Walking is safer!