Safety Is Paramount in Rappelling

Safety is Paramount in Rappel Training

Bruce B. Stansbury, MAJ (ret.)

The Timothy Group enjoys participating in high risk activities such as rappelling.  When safety procedures are used correctly, rappelling becomes a safe sport that looks risky.  Rappelling is said to be one of the most dangerous aspects of rock climbing or rock rescue, which is why our team performs safety checks even on the most experienced members, some of whom have been at this for 15 years.  Our rappel Masters check and recheck the following items before allowing our students to approach the edge, let alone going over (our students are taught to check these items as well):

Helmet:  Always wear a helmet any time you're rappelling.  On your descent you may encounter uneven terrain.  As a result you may lose your footing and swing into the wall or rocky surface.  The helmet is there for your protection.  Wear a helmet while performing belay duties on the ground below.  Rocks can come dislodged.  Gear and ropes can be dropped.   A carabineer may not seem like much when you drop it on your foot. But having one hit your head when dropped from 100 feet up will do much more than sting.

Harness: Rappelling can be one of the most dangerous times in the climbing day. Rappelling accidents tend to be unforgiving, so it is important to be vigilant while rappelling. Make sure you've doubled back on your straps (if that's the type of harness you have), so the harness doesn't loosen while you're on the rope. Have someone check it over, looking at all buckles and attachment points.  Check the buckle on your harness. It may seem unnecessary, but there have been cases of climbers launching themselves on rappel only to have the harness come undone because the buckle was not doubled back. Check the anchor. I have seen people unknowingly rappel off slings at a rappel station that was over 75% cut through. Check the webbing for cuts or loose knots, and when in doubt back it up.

Hardware:  Check to see if your rappel device is threaded correctly. We only use locking carabineers.  Make sure the carabineer is locked.  If it's not locked, the gate can come open. Always use locking Carabineers and don't buy them used. Is the spine on the brake strand side? Is the device on the correct rope? A friend of mine rappelled off the end of a rope that was incorrect due to threading the wrong rope. It was a 40 section of haul line not the rappel line. A back up saved his life.  Ensure the descent device is properly rigged.  If not set up properly, there will not be enough friction, and the rope can come out. Always test the rappel system before approaching the edge or before unclipping from an anchor or safety line.

Human:  Here is the rappel master’s number one priority.  No one care how much you know until they know how much you care.  Watch out for clothing and hair that can become stuck in the rappel device. Shirts are tucked in, shoe laces are double knotted, jewelry is removed and secured, straps are tucked away, hair is pulled back and tucked away.  Vertical rappels are notorious for pulling clothes and hair into the device and getting the rappeller stuck. A friend of mine once got her hair caught because the wind blew her pony tail around.    Let the student know you know your business.  This lets them feel very safe. Show the students how all the ropes work.  This allows them to feel comforted to know that they have no chance of falling to the bottom of the terrain!  They will all feel the scary bit…climbing down a steep cliff face!  With their back to the cliff, they need to walk slowly backwards closer and closer to the edge, holding on to a thin blue rope. The first moments are the most difficult, and their first instinct as they stepped back over the edge is “I can’t do it!!!”  You need to talk them through it one step at a time. You need to make them feel like they CAN do it.  Rappel Training will turn out to be the highlight of their day. They will feel the adrenaline rush and want to go again and again! The scenery is spectacular at altitude.  Few people see the dramatic landscapes that rappellers do.

Hands:  Gloves are padded with heat-resistant padding.  Gloves protect your hands from rope burns.  Many folks enjoy a fast descent.  Gloves protect your hands, if you rappel too fast.  Additionally, gloves keep your hands from getting dirty from rope contact.  For first timers, rappelling is scary.  Some students grip the rope tight.  Gloves can indeed provide a better grip on ropes.  Often palms and knuckles come in contact with the terrain, rock walls, jagged surfaces.  Gloves prevent the potential scratches and wounds.  Gloves are comfortable in terms of keeping your hands unhurt and giving you a tight and safer grip on the rope. 

Check all knots: Obviously, they can come undone if done incorrectly. We were taught no rappel knot is ever complete without a safety knot or locking knot. A safety knot can be a half-hitch, simple overhand, or Fisherman's knot. Safety knots should be snug up against the main knot.

Software: Ropes, webbing, and cordage should be checked each time they're put away and when taken out for use.   A visual inspection is key, but not enough.  In a kern mantle rope you cannot see the core of the rope.  We teach our rappel masters to feel for "squishy" spots, bumps, narrowing and fraying.

Safe Rappelling

Descending from a climb requires knowledge, skill and experience. What types of hazards can you run into? How do you backup your rappel? These questions are often overlooked and many climbers have experience some sort of severe emotional event while trying to descend after a climb. Our rappel training prepares you with some simple tips and skills that can make rappelling safer. Our rappel training includes a system for checking rappel rigs, steps for setting up rappels for normal and extended rappel devices.  The training points out situations for which to watch.

The descent usually has two options: walking off or rappelling, and sometimes a little of both. Walking off is usually preferred to rappelling, but may require some advanced techniques, such as short roping and short pitching. Short roping is the act of protecting the group by using natural terrain features to safe guard a slip. The other option is rappelling. Rappelling is the act of safely lowering oneself using a rope. 

The equipment needed is the same as belaying and works essentially as a self-belay. The set up should have the rope running through an anchor and then through your belay device with both ends of the rope touching the ground, or to the next rappel station.

Use one or more safety backups while rappelling. Remember once you commit to the rappel it is extremely difficult to change the set up if it is not working. Many accidents in rappelling are due to the person losing control. This can happen in new situations. For example, steeper terrain, thinner ropes, wet ropes, extra weight from gear, tangled ropes, or an unfamiliar rappel device can all result in conditions causing a potentially dangerous situation.

Whenever possible (with advanced planning all things are possible) practice a new procedure in a controlled environment.  Climbers should be able to adapt to changing or novel conditions. The first time you rappel on overhanging terrain with a pack, you may have a rude awakening. While on active duty, I have seen a rappeller flipped upside down by the additional weight of a ruck sack.  Another time a rappeller lost control from extra gear. These occurred because those men had never been in those situations before and were unprepared for the new conditions.  Thus we teach before we go.

Safety backups include the following:

 Knots on the end of the rope

 Autoblock attached below the rappel device

 Fireman’s belay from below

 Belaying from above on a second line

 Using two carabineers in the rappel device on steep terrain

In addition to rappel backups, climbers need to be aware of rappel hazards because of the terrain. Flakes and cracks can get a rope jammed so tight that it is impossible to retrieve. I have rescued a few parties who have had their ropes stuck. Be sure when rappelling past flakes or objects that you move to the side that prevents the rope from being entrapped.

Using a rope that is too short can be dangerous. Some rappels require two ropes that are 60m. If you are unsure how far the rappel is, use a top-belayed rappel to safeguard the first person down. This will also eliminate the need to toss the second rope for a double rope rappel. Tossing ropes takes some practice and can present hazard for others. You don't want to get to the end of the rope and still be dangling far above the ground. Ropes are measured in meters, while routes are measured in feet, so don't come up short. Be sure to tie a knot (or two) at the end of the rope, so it won't slip right through your rappel device.  Here is a story to drive this point home.  An anchor was placed at the top of the route and a team member was being lowered by a partner using a GriGri climbing device at the bottom of the climb. The rope was too short for the slingshot belay technique and the end of the rope went through the GriGri, dropping the climber 20 feet.

Always yell “rope” before tossing the rope. Wait for the response of “clear” before releasing the rope.  I once witnessed a climber toss a rope without yelling and hit another climber on lead. Objects such as rocks and debris can be dislodged by tossing ropes and pulling ropes after the rappel. This practice is not a courtesy.  It is an advanced warning, a practice of professionalism, and a safety measure used to build confidence in the team.

Carry an added safety tool: A prussic is a loop of 5 mm cord tied with a grapevine knot, which are two double-fisherman knots. Select a cord length of approximately 40” to make the prussic. This length will need to be customized for you. Some harnesses have longer or shorter rises and it is important that the prussic is NOT TOO LONG.

On steep terrain, it will be easier to manage with the belay device clipped directly to the belay loop. The set-up is the same as belaying. Keep the spine of the carabineer on the brake side, the brake strand coming out of the bottom of the belay device and lock the carabineer. An explanation of an autoblock back up follows.  Girth hitch a prussic to the leg loop, not the riser. Keep the double-fisherman knot against the leg loop. Add a carabineer to the leg loop, wrap the brake strands of the rope three times with the prussic and clip the loop into the carabineer. BE SURE that the prussic is not too long, otherwise it can jam against the belay device. It will not lock up if this happens.  For convenience, girth-hitch the prussic around the leg loop so that the grapevine knot is against the leg loop. This keeps it out of the way when making the autoblock.

The first person down should be the most experienced and always use an autoblock backup.  The autoblock “sets the brake” and allows the rappeller to go hands free.  In this situation the rappeller can stop and perform maintenance: clear debris or free stuck ropes. Once the first person is down, he or she should give a fireman’s belay to the others in the party. 

With properly trained and practiced skills, techniques and experiences, rappelling from a high terrain feature will just add to the fun. Always be vigilant and check everything!