Essential Skills: Pre-Rigging Rappels

A safer way to set up rappels


Illustration by Chris Philpot

A safer way to set up

Are you a climber who thinks double-checking your partner’s harness and knot is a good idea prior to launching up a route? Me too. That’s why I’m always mystified to see so many climbers ignoring such safety checks when coming back down.

Imagine you’re at the top of a multi-pitch climb and a few rappels are the only thing between you and a nice walk out. Usually what happens is the most experienced person rappels first to find the next station, position the ropes, and deal with any other issues that arise. At the next station she yells “off rappel” and leaves her less experienced boyfriend to fend for himself. This always makes me nervous—it leaves too much room for mistakes due to fatigue and darkness.

Pre-rigging is the solution—it minimizes any chance of a faulty rappel setup.

(1) First, prepare your rappel slings. I like to use a use a 48-inch nylon sling with an overhand knot tied into the middle, creating two big loops. Nylon slings are great for this purpose because they absorb energy and are very durable. This is also a great way to use a personal anchor tether; however, daisy chains were not designed for anchoring and should not be used to pre-rig rappels.

(2) Girthhitch the sling into the tie-in points on your harness, and then clip your rappel device into the inner loop in the sling/

(3) The knot creates a “shelf ” that will hold the device about 20 inches away from you.

(4) The outer loop can be clipped to your harness (preferably to your belay loop), ready to clip into each rap anchor. Using this setup, rig both climbers’ rap devices onto the rappel ropes, one above the other. With the extension, the climber waiting at the top station will have room to move a bit and won’t be jerked around by the ropes as the first person descends.

(5) A secondary advantage to extended slings is your auto-block backup cannot slip up and hit the device, thus rendering the backup useless.

Knot the ends of the ropes to avoid rapping off them. My preference is a barrel knot (half of a double fisherman’s). If there is much wind, consider saddle-bagging your ropes by looping them through a sling clipped to a gear loop on your harness, and thus keeping them with you as you descend.

Both people are now rigged to rappel, and two sets of eyes have double-checked all the set-up. Down you go.


Previous Comments

Patrick : You can observe the squashing effect of girth-hitching a belay loop, particularly if using thinner cords/slings and repeatedly fully weighted. Possibly more importantly, if you have a permanent setup like this (such as a PAS or Purcell) then the biggest danger is the fact that a girth hitch is unlikely to move on the belay loop, which in turn means that the loop doesnt rotate freely during normal repeated use. This means that any rubbing of the loop against other parts of the harness are always in the same place. There's a story (Rock and Ice - "Tragedy on Leaning Tower") about a fatal abseil accident involving a belay loop that was sawn through in this exact scenario.

Emile - 09/21/2014 8:25:40

Hold on a moment, doesn't girth hitching the 2 tie-in points multiply forces on the outer portions of the tie-in points?? We don't tie in with a slip knot, right?

Brian - 05/26/2014 3:15:33

Keep in mind that when extending the rappell device like this, it bring it closer to your hair. Warn the long-haired folks.

Chris - 05/02/2014 9:53:08

Have you ever seen the belay loop get damaged by girth-hitching a sling to it? I use the belay loop and have not noticed any wear. The only real wear i see is on certain harnesses the lower tie-in point wears due to soft materials and the see-sahing motion created by your legs "walking" down the cliff when getting lowered from a climb or rappeling. Im just interested because i have never heard issues of girth-hitches squeezing belay loops so tight, so as to damage them. Interesting point.

Patrick - 05/01/2014 5:09:33

Craig: Using the belay loop is not good practice with the girth-hitch as the hitch can end up damaging the belay loop with time (it squishes it). Although most people do use the belay loop still to this day. Use the 2 tie-in points. And to repeat R.Neil's comment for the backup. Using the gear loop wouldn't create much of a backup in the unlikely event of tie-in point failure. Otherwise, great post!

Ray (K7 Climbing) - 05/01/2014 3:32:01

Add redundancy without changing the basic setup by clipping the carabiner on the rappel device ( #3 in the illustration ) across the knot that creates the "shelf" including both the loops of the tether. Now by clipping the outer loop ( #4 ) to your belay loop ( not a gear loop ) you will be still attached to the belay device should anything happen to either one of the loops. And you can still easily clip the outer loop to go safe into an anchor.

R.Neil Arsenault - 05/01/2014 1:23:41

The girth hitch should be on the belay loop. Not where the rope goes. This makes a loose hitch which is supposed to be even weaker than normal? Is this not true?

Craig - 04/23/2014 12:07:09

I use the system but a purcell prusik knot instead of the sling. works perfectly

Lina - 04/22/2014 8:18:53

This works well with the Metolius PAS

Oscar - 04/22/2014 4:58:45

Looks good. I already did this setup, except I was not using a Nylon sling. Glad I know now that is the best practice. Thanks

Charley - 04/22/2014 4:53:02

Awesome post and tutorial! Thanks Climbing Mag!

Alton Richardson - 04/22/2014 4:41:44