Long Rappel, Short Rope

Safely rappel with a too-short rope

Illustration by Chris Philpot

Do you always know the exact length of every rappel? At some point in your climbing career, you will probably encounter a rappel that is unknown but looks too long for your measly single line. Instead of tossing the rope, crossing your fingers, and getting to the ends of your rope only to discover that, yes, your rope is too short, there is a simple technique to deal with such a situation.

If you’re concerned about the length of a rappel, send the first climber down to the next anchor by lowering him off the rappel anchor you’re clipped into. Lowering has several advantages: Not only do you now have twice as much rope to get your partner safely to the next anchor, but you also get an accurate measurement of the rappel length. If the middle mark passes through the anchor during the lower, you know your rope isn’t long enough for a standard single-rope rappel.

Warning: Before you start lowering your partner, close and back up the system by tying a figure eight on a bight in the other (brake) end of the rope; clip this to the anchor with a locking biner. This ensures that you cannot accidentally lower him off the end of the rope. You may also want to add a friction-hitch backup (like a prusik or auto-block) to the brake strand, so you can’t lose control of the lower and have your partner plummet straight down. While this step isn’t essential to lowering, your partner will appreciate it!

If the rappel turns out to be longer than half a rope length, you can still make it safely down to the next anchor, even if you don’t have a second rope. The key is rigging a system that makes the rope retrievable.

After your partner is safely clipped into the lower anchor, thread the rope through the top anchor; you should now have one end that reaches the lower anchor, and one end that is short. Have your partner stay tied into the rope at the lower anchor to ensure you don't rap off the end.

Tie a butterfly knot (A) next to the anchor on the short side of the rope and clip the bight back to the long strand with a locking carabiner (B). This essentially “fixes” the longer strand of rope and allows you to safely rappel to the lower anchor on this single strand. The preferred knot to use here is the butterfly because it is less likely to get pulled into the chains or rings and get stuck. (Head to climbing.com/skill/butterfly-knot for instructions.)

Next, set up a single-strand rappel on the longer strand, which is the opposite side of the anchors from the knot (C).

During your rappel, attach untied cordelettes and/or slings to the end of the short rope until it reaches the lower anchors. To join cordelettes with the rope, a flat overhand works well. To join slings with the rope, you can tie a knot in the end of the rope and start clipping or girth-hitching them to each other. It’s not as clean as the cordelette attachments, but it will work. Two standard-length cordelettes for building anchors easily turns your 50-meter rope into a 60, or your 60-meter into a 70. Oftentimes, that extra 10 meters is all you need.

Once you are safely clipped into the lower anchor, pull on the cordelettes or slings to retrieve your rope.


Previous Comments

people don't like to carry to much gear but if you carry a figure 8 on a crab on your harness as well as your belay device if you have to pass a knot, you can lock off above the knot fix your figure 8 below it thus swapping one for another and continue your abseil without too much hassle

paul-c - 02/13/2015 1:56:14

I offer no solutions or opinions, only a recent experience that doesn't quite fit with the above scenarios but still illustrates the importance of mastering some of the basic tools - ascending a rope, passing a knot, etc. Climbing on the Roi de Siam in the Mt. Blanc massif, we were on the final rap back to the glacier. The five previous raps were in a relatively straight line and led to established rap anchors. As I made the final rap, I approached a huge roof, which prevented me from seeing whether - in fact - my double 60m ropes were on the glacier or fell short. According to the guidebook, this was definitely the last rappel; I slid over the edge. Unfortunately, it was a low snow year and the ropes, which would probably have normally touched down on the slope near the 'schrund, were about 15 feet off the deck and 6 feet from the wall in front of me. I was dangling in space at the end of my ropes with no other rap station to be seen. At this point (and thinking we'd miss our pasta dinner in the Torino Hut!), I could have (a) ascended the whole rope and re-rapped with a huge swinging traverse to another rap station lower down; (b) attempted to make a controlled 15 foot fall onto the glacier (no way!) or; (c) somehow extend the length of my rap lines to allow me to touch down on the ground or at least reach the rock wall in front of me and then downclimb. I went with option C, which meant: blocking my rap device (a blocking knot in addition to my auto-block); unweighting the rap device by connecting myself via a prusik from my belay loop to the rope above my device (and using a sling for my leg to ascend the rope a bit); "extending" my ropes by tying my 7mm cordalette to each end of the rap ropes, thus allowing it to touch the ground; re-attaching my rap device below the knots joining the ropes to the cordalette; and, finally, transitioning weight gently onto the rap device and off the prusik (this was the part was most awkward). At all points in time, I was backed up redundantly on the rope. I made it to the ground and was able to communicate to my partner (I usually don't have radios in the mountains but was super happy to have them in this instance) to traverse to another rap station off the logicial line and descend further from there. It worked out in the end, but I wonder how I could have been more efficient or safe. Luckily for us, there was still pasta left over at the hut....

Ethan - 09/16/2014 10:15:05

What happen when your rope is not long enough? This method requires the length to be double the height of the descend. I am interested to know of a solution. Thank you.

Bernard Sim - 05/29/2014 2:50:31

why not tie the cordallette s to the non rap side before lowering yourself ? Ir's safer and you'll also find if the 'non rap' or 'pull' side is long enough before being on the rope.

GB - 04/01/2014 1:08:03

This kind of climbing articles should be aways accompanied by a video showing what the article describes.

Pablo - 07/23/2013 2:20:58

this is good to know. why? because u never know.

Ben - 02/21/2013 1:42:11

Then when you get to the lower anchor how you free your rope?

Sedi - 11/17/2012 1:07:27

You could keep it simple and just take a 2nd rap line when you know you're going to be on a route with full-length raps. Even if you DON'T know, it's still safer to carry an extra, thin line. IMHO.

Ben - 11/17/2012 10:23:17

In lieu of a butterfly knot clipped to the rappel line, I use a clove hitch on a locking biner (biner block). It's easier, smaller, and less likely to snag on the way down.

RT - 11/16/2012 7:00:05

As an extra option take a 70-meter 3mm thin dyneema rope with you, then in an emergency you can rappel the full 70-meter of your climbingrope and still retrieve your climbingrope by pulling it through the anchor with the thin line. A 3mm dyneema rope breaks at more than 300 kilo, so it's strong enough for retrieving the climbingrope from the anchor and it weighs almost nothing. The disadvantage is that it's difficult to keep this very thin line from snagging, and it easily gets knots in it. So unroll it slowly and very cleanly while you rappel, and only use this option if there is no other option.

Paul Franssen - 11/16/2012 4:25:18