This originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of our print edition.
Since 1951, Accidents in North American Mountaineering has chronicled hundreds of rappelling accidents and fatalities in the United States and Canada. While the risks associated with rappelling—and climbing for that matter—can never be totally eliminated, there are steps we can take to boost security and mitigate hazards. While many climbing accidents can leave a climber injured, almost all rappelling accidents leave the climber dead, so there’s no room for error here. As the Director of Operations and a guide for the American Alpine Institute, I’ve compiled a list of five easy steps every climber can take to minimize the chances of a rappel accident. It’s not rappelling once or twice that’s dangerous; it’s rappelling all the time that leads to complacency and real danger.
#1. Walk Off
If it is possible to safely walk off from the top of a climb, just walk off. It might take longer and require more energy, but hiking while tired is a lot less dangerous than putting complicated rope and rappel systems into practice while tired. Limiting the amount of time spent rappelling is a surefire way to limit the amount of exposure to potential mistakes.
#2. Close the System
Always close the system. Often tying knots in the ends of the ropes is the easiest and most straightforward, and the triple barrel knot is a clean knot that won’t slip through any belay device. This is a simple method that is often overlooked, but closing the system should be a default tactic. People seldom think about tying knots in the ends of the rope in single-pitch terrain, but ironically, that’s where most people accidentally rappel off a single end. Knots in the rope will keep such a thing from being anything other than a small problem that’s easily fixable.
If you’re afraid that your rope will get stuck after you throw it—maybe because of vegetation or broken, blocky terrain, or if there are other climbers below—consider tying the ends of the rope off and clipping them to a gear loop, then rappelling with saddlebags. In a multi-pitch rappel setting, this decreases the likelihood of ropes getting stuck and provides the security of a closed system.
#3. Set it Up Correctly
One of the most common mistakes is the failure to capture both strands of a double-rope rappel in the rappel device. When you correctly thread both strands of the rope, equal force is placed on each strand, which keeps the rope from slipping through the anchor. If you only capture one strand and then attempt to rappel, the rope will slip through the anchor, and it’s likely that you will fall to the ground. Check and double-check your own system, as well as having your partner check your setup if possible.
#4. Back it Up
Backing up the entire rappel setup will ensure that any mistakes won’t lead to a groundfall. Adding a friction hitch to the rope above or below your rappel device is the best backup. If you missed one of the strands and you have a friction hitch, the hitch will “catch” you before you fall. A friction hitch is also recommended in the system in case the climber accidentally loses control or lets go of the brake strands while moving down, including if she gets knocked unconscious from rockfall or another reason.
The two options are an autoblock hitch below the device (above) or putting a prusik hitch on both strands above the rappel device (below). The biggest disadvantage with both of these is that it takes extra time to put them together. Rappelling with a friction hitch above the device has gone a bit out of fashion, but there are still uses for it. One advantage is that it is easy to switch a rappel system into a rope-ascending system. The prusik is already attached to the climber’s belay loop, so all she has to do is add a second friction hitch for her feet below the first friction hitch. Most climbers now rappel with an autoblock hitch below the device, clipped to a leg loop with a locking carabiner. This allows both hands to hold the rope below the device, providing more redundancy in the rappel.
Remember, though, that a friction hitch will be disengaged if it gets stuck against the rappel device, which can easily happen if the hitch is too long and the climber twists a certain way. If the climber needs to attend to tangled ropes or something else while hanging from a device and a hitch, she should tie a blocker knot below the hitch; an overhand on a bight will suffice. This will ensure that should something happen, the climber will not fall to the ground.
In addition, be wary of automatically doubled-back buckles which are common on adjustable leg loops of climbing harnesses. The problem with these is that a carabiner clipped to an autoblock rappel backup can get caught up in a leg-loop buckle and release it. Some harnesses have a specific keeper loop for the carabiner clipped to an autoblock rappel backup. However, one may also clip the autoblock carabiner to the leg loop inside of the climber’s thigh (instead of the top of the thigh where the buckle is).
#5. Extend the Rappel
Many climbers and most guides elect to rappel on an extension, meaning the rappel device is extended away from the harness with a sling or cord. There are a number of advantages to this system. Multiple people can set up their rappels simultaneously, which decreases overall time spent on the descent; it allows for people to check one another before rappelling; and it’s also possible to put the friction hitch backup directly on the belay loop, increasing security and decreasing the likelihood that the friction hitch will touch the rappel device and disengage.
Prior to rappelling, you should check every aspect of your system. The rappelling safety acronym BRAKES, developed by Cyril Shokoples 10 years ago and now widely used by climbing schools, can easily be employed as a pre-rappel checklist. It’s a good idea to go through this list out loud by stating each letter and touching the part of the system you’re checking. Confirm with your partner when possible that each component of the system has been set up appropriately and is going to be applied correctly.
B – Buckles: Check the buckles on your harness. Make sure they are snug and that all appropriate straps are doubled-back.
R – Rappel Device/Ropes: Check that the carabiner attached to your device is locked, both strands of the rope have been loaded correctly in the device, and the rope is properly threaded through the rappel anchor.
A – Anchor: Confirm that the anchor is strong. If it’s a tree, make sure it’s alive, large enough to hold your weight, and that it has a good root base. If it’s a boulder, ensure that it is not going to move. If rappelling off bolts or gear, confirm that they are suitably strong enough. Double-check that any webbing or cord isn’t damaged or too faded.
K – Knots: Check all the knots in the system. Make sure that knots adjoining two ropes in a double-rope rappel are correctly tied with enough tail.
E – Ends: Confirm that the ends of your ropes are on the ground or that they reach the next anchor. Confirm that your system is closed with knots at the end of your rappel lines.
S – Safety Backup/Sharp Edges: Use an autoblock backup and check to make sure that you aren’t going to rappel over any sharp edges.