My friend was the last person up our toprope and was cleaning the anchors. He intended to rappel, but he failed to feed both strands of rope through his tube style-belay device, only clipping catching one strand instead. As soon as he leaned back, the rope started zipping through the anchor. He was falling head first down the pitch. Somehow I managed to grab the other side of the rope and arrest the fall just before he hit a ledge. We had discussed the plan before he started climbing, but he spaced out on top and didn’t double check his system.—William, via email
LESSON: Rappelling deaths are all too common, from two accidents in El Potrero Chico, to one on El Cap. The saddest part is that they’re almost always preventable. Something about rappelling leads to complacency. Maybe because it’s easy. Maybe because we do it all the time. But when something does go wrong, it’s not usually a close call like in the story above. Rappels need to be treated with respect.
The first way you can safeguard yourself against rappelling accidents is to have a routine. You should have a series of steps that you repeat in the same order every single time you rappel. You should practice this system until it’s automatic, but still perform the steps thoughtfully. Before you transfer your weight onto the rope, go through the steps in your head to be sure you’ve performed all of them. Once you’re confident you did everything correctly, it’s time to double check your system. The best defense against human error is to test your setup. Before you begin rappelling, while you’re still direct on the anchor, pull up slack in your rappel device and weight it to be sure you set it correctly. Do this every single time you rappel. You may make mistakes, but as long as you catch them early, they won’t be disastrous.
For added safety, I recommend extending your rappel and using a backup. The basics of these techniques are outlined in our video Rock Climbing Basics: Extend a Rappel. Extending your rappel gives you more control in your descent, and the backup cord will catch you if you begin to fall uncontrolled. You should also tie stopper knots in the end of the rope before tossing it. These will prevent you from rapping off the ends if you misjudge the distance. A barrel knot (basically a double fisherman’s using only one rope end) works great, as do many other knots. One more precaution you can take is to have a fireman’s belay: a partner on the ground holding both strands of the rope, ready to pull down and brake for you if you need it.
Rappelling can be dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be.
Want more? Check out these stories of near misses.