Low-cost Rappels on Ice

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Long rappel descents, whether planned or as a matter of sudden necessity when the weather goes bad or an injury occurs, can quickly turn into expensive ordeals when you have to leave a few pieces of gear at every rappel. Plus, you might need that gear later on. Fortunately for those seeking terra firma, the ice abundant in winter and/or mountain terrain typically provides a much better medium for descent than bare rock, because there’s less chance of rock fall, and you can build gear-free rappel anchors with just the frozen stuff. The technique below creates a safe, fast, and cheap ice rappel anchor that you construct with only a standard rock rack, one screw, and some alpine ingenuity.

Ultralight V-Threads

V-threads are commonly used as rappel anchors on long ice climbs. But even on alpine rock climbs or mixed routes that don’t require ice screws for protection, carrying a single long, ultralight titanium (17cm or longer) ice screw can give you more options for rappelling. Using a screw to construct V-thread anchors is cheaper than building rock rappel stations, and because you don't have to locate cracks for rock anchors, this technique allows you to descend the full length of your ropes each pitch, as long as there’s ice near the ropes’ ends for the next anchor. With this technique, you don’t need to carry a “V-threader,” nor do you need to leave slings behind. Once you pull the rope, only two holes remain in the ice.

First

Ice-Screw-Rappel

Drill your “V” with any 17cm or longer ultralight ice screw. The point of the “V” in the ice should ideally form at least a 60-degree angle. Orienting the two holes in line vertically (one on top of the other) rather than horizontally has shown to produce a slightly stronger anchor. This orientation also makes it easier to thread the rappel rope, as you’ll have gravity working with you as you slide the end into the upper opening. Either orientation in good ice is strong enough for a bomber anchor.

Second

Ice-Screw-Rappel

Slide the cable from a very small nut into one of the ice screw holes, just past the point at which the ends of the holes intersect. If your openings are aligned vertically, slide the wire cable up into the lower opening. Make sure to turn the loop of the wire so it’s facing toward the tube where the rope will come in. Now slide the rope down the top hole and through the wire, far enough that there some rope will extend past the wire loop. This tail is necessary to pull the rope through the bottom hole.

Third

Ice-Screw-Rappel

Once you feel confident that the rope is through the wire loop, slowly begin to pull the nut out of the bottom hole. Sometimes it helps to slightly twist the nut (about a half-turn), so the rope is securely caught in the wire loop. Once you get the end of the rope out, you should be able to feed the rest through the anchor, just as you would a two-bolt anchor or rappel rings. As with any other rappel, try to get the middle of the rope in the center of the anchor. The same process works for threading sling or cord.

Rappel Sequence

Because you’ll be creating your own anchors with one ice screw as you go, it’s really important to follow a set sequence so the first rappeler has the necessary tools to make the anchor. At each anchor station you’ll actually be drilling two anchors: one for the rope, and one to clip into when waiting to rappel. If you have multiple screws, it is quicker for the first person to place at least one screw for the temporary anchor. The first to rap should descend from the original anchor equipped with a screw and other protection required to build the next anchor. If you’re rapping with just one screw, this will mean creating a V-thread anchor at the bottom of the rappel, threading it with a sling, and clipping into this before disconnecting yourself from the rappel ropes. As the second rappels, the first should build a lower V-thread anchor at least 12 inches below the first one, and thread the rope here for the next rappel. The sling running through the upper V-thread can then be clipped onto the rappel rope as a backup with a few inches of slack in the connection. The first person to rappel from this stance should take the ice screw and begin the process again. The final climber to rappel should remove the upper back-up sling before leaving.

A veteran alpinist and outdoor writer, Herrington has made dozens of alpine first ascents (and rappels!) without placing a single bolt.