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Through years of experience, you’ve learned how to safely ascend a multi-pitch route and descend via the walk-off or rappel. But what if your partner gets injured on the climb or descent? Or what if you’re with a newer climber who panics and feels uncomfortable rappelling on his own? Every climber should be able to troubleshoot difficult rappel situations, and one of the best ways is by mastering the buddy rappel.
In the buddy rappel, two climbers attach themselves to a single rappel device for an easy descent. One climber controls the descent, choosing the appropriate speed while stabilizing her injured partner and guiding him around any obstacles. This system allows you to safely assist an incapacitated, anxious, or scared partner. One caveat: Before you decide to descend, assess the situation. Is your partner capable of being part of the buddy rappel without compromising the safety of your descent (e.g., do they have a head injury or are they traumatized, anxious, or combative)? Make the safest decision in the moment, which may be to call for help and wait.
Extend the rappel
Extending the device while rappelling allows you to place the prusik third hand below the device without creating interference. You’ll use one double-length sling to extend for both you and your partner.
1. Girth-hitch the sling to your partner’s belay loop.
2. Tie a small overhand on a bight 8 to 10 inches from your partner’s harness—this is where the atc clips into the system. Your partner’s extension should be slightly shorter than yours, such that you’ll be situated below him while rappelling in order to stabilize, assist, and guide him down as needed.
3. Clip the sling’s free tail to your belay loop with a locking carabiner. Now you and your partner are both extended and ready to rig the rappel. (See figure 1 above.)
Rig your device
Now it’s time to set yourself up for a safe rappel.
1. Rig your rappel device to the rope and clip it—using a locking carabiner—to the overhand on a bight on the extension sling. As stated above, your goal is to be positioned a few inches below your partner so you can navigate him down the rock. (See figure 2 above.)
2. Hitch your third-hand backup to the rope and clip it to your belay loop with a locking carabiner. While you should always use a third hand while rapping in case something goes wrong and you need to be temporarily hands-free, this is especially true with the buddy rappel, in which you might need to assist your partner. (See figure 3 above.)
Double-check your system and begin to rappel
It’s time for a final safety check before you start to rappel.
1. Weight the system and double-check that the extension is tethered to you and your partner correctly, the device is rigged correctly, all locking carabiners are locked, and your third-hand is dressed properly and will engage.
2. Unclip from the anchor and begin your rappel. (See figure 4 above.)
3. Rappel slowly, continuously scanning for hazards. Place and clip directionals on overhanging and traversing terrain if needed and don’t accidentally rappel past your next station: You cannot ascend the line with two people.
Reach the next anchor
This next step is applicable only with a partner who is able to unweight the system on her own (otherwise, see “Dealing with an Unresponsive Partner” found below).
1. At the subsequent anchor, clip yourself and your partner in with your anchor tethers and lock the carabiners. (If you’ve safely reached the ground, you can unclip both of you from the system and continue first aid or get further help.)
2. Take yourselves off rappel. Pull the rope such that it falls away from your injured partner and prepare for the next rappel.
Dealing with an Unresponsive Partner
If your partner is unconscious or seriously injured and unable to transfer his weight onto and off of the anchor, then don’t use a personal tether for him. Once he weights the anchor, you’ll have to lift his body weight each time to unclip and continue downward. Instead, use a simple Münter-mule overhand to control the weight transfer.
1. As you reach the next anchor, take out your cordelette and undo any knots, essentially creating a small rope. Tie one end through your partner’s tie-in points using a figure-eight follow-through. The cordelette will act as the anchor-tether point for both you and your partner; your partner’s body weight will naturally be your counterbalance.
2. Clip a locking biner to the rappel anchor and then clip the cordelette through that carabiner and lock it. Clip a locking carabiner on your belay loop and hitch the cordelette to this locker using a Münter hitch. Remove any slack from the system such that the cordelette is taut from your partner, up through the anchor, and then back down to you. Now tie off the Münter using the mule overhand knot. (See figure A above.) This load-releasing hitch will help you complete the following steps.
3. Lower yourself and your partner onto the cordelette and go off rappel. Now you’re both clipped to the anchor with the load-releasing hitch, allowing you to easily transfer your partner’s weight when ready.
4. Pull the rope and rig the next rappel as described in the main article. Once you’re ready to begin your next rappel, transfer your and your partner’s weight onto the rappel device by undoing the mule overhand and slowly lowering his weight off the anchor using the Münter.
5. Once both of your weight is fully on the rappel device, release the Münter hitch by letting the rest of the slack feed through the system. Take the cordelette with you to use at the next station.
Buddy Rappel Gear List
- Double-rope rappel device (e.g., ATC)
- Third-hand/friction-hitch backup (a 20-inch, 5–6 mm prussik)
- Four locking carabiners
- Double-length sling or webbing
- 2 anchor tethers (e.g., a PAS), one for you and one for your partner
- Cordelette (20 feet of 6–7mm) for dealing with an incapacitated partner
Alexa Flower lives and works seasonally in Yosemite as a climbing ranger. She worked for three years as a member of YOSAR, and in the winters trades off between ski patrol and traveling.