Bonus Columns

Unbelayvable: A Hairy Rappel

What to do when your hair gets hopelessly stuck in your rappel device.

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Cristian Bortes/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

I was in the middle of a free-hanging rappel this weekend when a chunk of my hair got sucked into my belay device. It hurt like hell, but I was able to rip out the ringlet and keep going. Any more hair, and I would have been really stuck. If that had happened, what could I have done?

Molly S.


There’s no nightmare quite like finding yourself a ponytail deep in a Grigri. It might make you feel better to know you’re not the only one to suffer so. In 1994, a woman was rappelling with her hair down, and got so stuck that the local fire department had to come cut her rope to rescue her. And just a few years back, a handful of climbers near Lemon Reservoir, Colorado, had to rally to free a woman whose hair was trapped in her ATC.

Now, getting your hair super stuck in your belay device is embarrassing enough. Having to dangle there while you wait for some dude to rap in and rescue you is a touch harder on the pride. Fortunately, you can free yourself with a few basic self-rescue techniques.

  1. Arrest your rappel. As soon as you feel your hair get caught, stop descending. If you’ve got a backup in place (usually an auto-block or prussik hitch tied below your rappel device), make sure it’s grabbing the rope well enough to stop your progress.
  2. Go Hands-Free. If you’ve got a solid backup hitch, let it take your weight. If you don’t, wrap both strands of the rope around your upper thigh three or four times until the friction of the wraps is enough to take your weight. (It’s old-school, but it’s pretty reliable and easy to do mid-panic.) Then, tie a backup hitch between the leg wraps and your rappel device. Clip yourself to the hitch with a locking carabiner.
  3. Tie an overhead friction hitch. Now that you’ve got use of your hands, grab a loop of nylon webbing or cordelette and tie a Prussik or Kleimheist hitch a few inches above your rappel device. Tighten it until it cinches onto the rope. 
  4. Create a foot loop. Attach a sling to your overhead friction hitch with a locking carabiner. Put one foot in the sling and stand up to unweight your rappel device. You should then be able to pull your hair free. 
  5. Commit to the new ‘do. If your hair’s hopelessly stuck, you can clip in direct to your two (solid, well-dressed) friction hitches, remove the Gri-Gri, open the device to untangle it, and reload the device to continue rappelling. However, more steps means more risk, and if you’re not feeling confident, chopping that pigtail might be the smarter move.

Never Get Your Hair Caught in Your Belay Device Again

As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Next time you rappel, consider extending your rappel device. It’ll put more distance between your head and your device (and it’s way more efficient for multi-pitch rappelling.)

Always back up your rappel with a friction hitch in case you should need to go hands-free, and carry a couple extra slings, some spare carabiners, and a small knife with you for self-rescue situations. Oh, and this should go without saying, but put your hair up. Because in climbing, the only hairdo worth being self-conscious about isn’t a tight bun—it’s the trim your rescuer would administer with a dull pocketknife 50 feet above the deck. 

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