When you’re just starting out in rappelling, it can be really intimidating looking at all of the gear, not knowing what it is or what it does, but don’t worry.
Knowledge will come with experience, and experience will come with time. Starting out, you should trust in the rappellers who know more than you, which will be almost everybody at first.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes, we all make mistakes. However, rappelling is a dangerous sport, and in some circumstances, one small mistake could mean life or death.
That’s why you should surround yourself with people who know more than you and ask for their help in making sure you get to the ground safely.
You don’t have to go into a rappelling adventure completely blind though. You can research ahead of time to understand the gear and etiquette so that you’ll be prepared when it’s your turn to rappel down the mountain.
Why rappelling is dangerous
Most climbing injuries happen during rappelling.
There are many reasons for this. Maybe the climber is tired by the time they get to the top and aren’t paying as much attention to what they’re doing.
They might set up their rappel wrongly, missing a vital carabiner or not doing one of the important steps to setting up your belay device.
In addition to issues of user error, rappelling puts constant tension on the line.
This isn’t the dangerous part, climbing ropes are designed to hold much more than human body weight, but when a line is under constant tension, it becomes susceptible to cuts and slices from sharp objects, like the edge of a cliff for example.
If you’re hanging from the rope over one of these sharp edges, the small side to side movements that you do to walk down the rock face can act as a sawing motion on the rope, and you might fall that way.
If you’re only rappelling, as opposed to lead climbing to the top of a route and rappelling down, then you have one point of contact between you and the dangerous ground below.
Having a system with only one point of failure can lead to catastrophic accidents.
Now, rappelling can be very dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be.
If you stay vigilant and pay close attention to the setup every time you make any adjustments to it, then you’ll be just fine.
Preventing rappelling accidents
“But we all make mistakes,” I hear you cry.
That’s why you should get in a habit of checking each and every connection in some consistent order. By having a checklist of sorts, and going through it in a consistent order every time, you’re less likely to forget something.
Beyond that, having a second pair of eyes goes a long way. Before a climber makes their way up the wall, the climber and belayer check each other’s work.
The belayer makes sure that the figure 8 knot the climber’s tied in with will hold under force, and the climber checks to see if the belayer has their system set up properly. The same goes for rappelling.
If you’re lucky enough to have a second pair of eyes when you’re at the top of the rappelling route, use them. Ask another rappeler, preferably one who knows more than you, if you’ve set up your anchor correctly.
Or ask them to double check your work.
No climber or rappeler will get mad at you for asking for a second opinion on your work. It shows that safety is your number one priority, and might even earn you some brownie points in the process.
Another thing you can do to keep yourself and those around you safe is to constantly be communicating with the people around you.
I don’t mean talking about what you had for lunch and other idle conversation, I mean communicating about where you are, and what you’re doing.
There have been several times that a rappeller calls down to their belay person saying that they’re ready to go. But the belayer doesn’t get the message, maybe because there’s a loud scream right by them or other rappellers being loud.
The rappeler leans back into their harness expecting to be caught by the belayer below but is caught by nothing and falls. Even if they’re caught by the belayer in time to prevent them from hitting the ground, such a tumble will definitely leave you injured and maybe even worse.
This is why you should be in constant communication with your belayer or your fellow rappellers. Announcing loudly when you’re throwing ropes down, calling out and waiting for a reply before sitting back into your harness, etc.
Rappelling safety gear
Knowing what gear is involved in rappelling and how to use it properly is arguably the most important thing you can do to keep safe on a rappelling trip.
Knowing how a belay device works and understanding how to attach yourself to an anchor; this knowledge will help you and those around you stay safe while rappelling.
We’ll begin with the belay device.
Knowing how to properly thread a belay device, and how it holds your weight, can give you a sense of security when you’re life is literally hanging from it.
There are two main types of belay device, the ATC (Air Traffic Controller), an analog belay device with no moving parts, and the Grigri with assisted braking technology.
An ATC belay device is a metal armature, usually made of a light metal like aluminum, with a steel cable looping around the back of the device. This cable is there just for storage purposes, and it’s a handy way to keep track of it when it’s not in use.
The armature will have two holes in the front, these are the holes that you will put your ropes through to thread the belay device.
There are two holes for climbers who wish to use two ropes while climbing, either with half or twin ropes or perhaps you wish to rappel with two ropes to make you doubly secure, but by and large you only really need one.
To thread the belay device, pinch the ropes into a bight, (a bend in the rope that is not on one of the ends,) at the point you’d like to attach to the belay device.
With the end that connects to the anchor on the top of the bight, push your rope or ropes through the hole or holes of the belay device.
What you should have now is the rope coming into the device from the anchor on the upper side of the hole, it forms a loop inside the belay device, and coming back out of the same hole on the underside.
From this position, you clip your carabiner through the rope or ropes and through the steel storage wire, for safety.
The belay device setup is now complete. You should be able to hold your entire body weight with just the grip of one hand if you lean back into your harness.
To let yourself down, you can either move the braking rope or ropes into the belay device in small increments, or you can let the rope slide steadily through your fingers.
Your belay device might be set up perfectly, but sometimes belay devices don’t hold the rope tightly enough. Or perhaps the rope you’re using is too thin or too thick for your specific belay device.
This isn’t the end of the world, and won’t kill you on your way down if there’s a bit of slippage in the belay device. But it certainly is not comfortable when you’re sitting on the end of a rope and you can’t stop the slippage.
This is where a friction hitch comes into play.
A friction hitch is your safety net in case something goes wrong with your belay device.
Maybe your hand slips off the rope because it was hit by some rock fall, or maybe you’ve fallen unconscious and let go of the rope. A friction hitch will catch and hold onto the rope to keep you from falling to your death, how nice of it.
To tie a friction hitch, you’ll need a loop of cordage about a foot to two feet in length, tied in a loop with a double fisherman’s knot.
To tie a double fisherman’s knot you tie one end to the other with a half hitch, (simply wrapping one end around the other and passing it through the loop it just made.) and do the same on the other side. When ready, pull the two ends of the loop, and the knots should slide together.
Clip this loop into a locking carabiner on your harness, but don’t lock it just yet.
Wrap this loop around the main line three or four times, and clip the other end of this loop into the same carabiner. Once this carabiner is locked, you should test the friction hitch out.
The friction hitch has been tied correctly if you can easily slide it forward or backward with your fingers, but it will bite into the rope when tension is applied.
How to set up an anchor properly
If you’re on a trip of some sort where more experienced rappellers have already set up the anchors, it’s alright to trust them and trust their work, (especially if you have some legal recourse over them if you get hurt.)
But you may want to have the knowledge of how an anchor is properly set up so that you can check their work is done correctly.
Rappellers often double and triple check each other’s work to be absolutely sure that nothing will go wrong, and rappelling becomes much more dangerous if you do it alone with no one to double check your knots and anchors.
Don’t attach your rappelling line directly to the anchor. An Anchor is a word that is used for both the steel loops at the top of a rappelling route, and the apparatus you attach to those loops.
There are often two anchors side by side on a rappelling route. It’s a good idea to use a combination of a short section of rope and a few carabiners to make your own apparatus that you will attach to these anchors.
You will then attach your rappelling rope to the apparatus you just added to the anchors.
It may seem confusing, why waste the energy building a brand new anchor when there are these tried and true ones?
The answer is that if everybody used these anchors day after day they’d begin to wear down and get weaker. The friction from the ropes would slowly deteriorate the anchors and they would need to be replaced.
It is a big hassle to replace these kinds of anchors, you have to drill a fresh hole in the side of the rock, and hammer repeatedly this four-inch steel bolt into the wall.
All of this, mind you, you’re doing at the top of a rappelling route with a dangerous amount of space underneath you without a reliable anchor point to keep you safe.
So by adding your own rappelling anchor, with some rope, a couple of carabiners and maybe a rappel ring, you can reduce the friction applied to the steel anchors, and it will keep you and your fellow repellers safe for years to come.
There are many different ways to create your own anchor, in this article we’ll cover one popular method:
The Quad Anchor
To build the Quad Anchor, you’ll need four locking carabiners and about 20 feet of rope, tied in a loop.
- When you’re standing up next to the anchor bolts, make sure that they are in good condition. Loose or twisting bolts should not be used to support body weight.
- Once you’ve ensured that the anchors are healthy, attach yourself to one of them with your personal anchor.
- Double up your loop of rope so that you have four equal strands.
- Clip one carabiner through one end of your loop and attach this to one of the bolts.
- Find the midpoint of this anchor and tie two overhand knots on either side of the midpoint. You should now have two knots in the middle of your anchor.
- Attach the other side of your anchor to the other bolt with a carabiner, and make sure that all carabiners are locked.
- Clip the last two carabiners around three of the four strands between the overhand knots in the middle of the anchor.
- You can then feed your rope through these two carabiners and lock them into place.
- Call down to your belay person and announce that you are ready to rappel, wait for them to respond, “Belay on!” and you’re all set to go.
Are You Ready to Rappel? (A Checklist)
Does all your gear fit?
- Harness – Does your harness fit nice and snug, with little to no wiggle room?
- Helmet – Does your helmet fit tightly over your head? It should hold tightly when unbuckled, but not so tight to give you a headache.
- Shoes – Are you wearing appropriate shoes? Your shoes should fit nicely with any laces tucked away. Your shoes should be securely attached so that there’s no way of them falling off in mid-rappel, so no flip flops.
- Clothing – Is your clothing fit well, not too loose not too tight? Baggy clothing risks getting caught in the ropes or one of the mechanisms. Tight clothing will restrict your movement, making it more difficult to climb or rappel.
Have you inspected your gear for damage?
- Ropes – Have you inspected your ropes looking for any frayed or cut parts? Ropes should be pristine before using them to climb or rappel with.
- Harness – Have you inspected your harness? Your harness should be in good as new condition, no damaged or frayed webbing and your buckles should be completely intact.
- Carabiners/ belay device – Inspect your belay device and carabiners for any undue wear and tear. Carabiners can often have hairline fractures that are difficult to spot but cause the carabiner itself to weaken drastically. The same will go for your belay device, inspect it to make sure that it is in tip-top shape.
Have you set up your anchor properly?
- Have you made sure that you’re not connected directly to the anchors?
- Have you performed all the safety features of the anchor?
- Locking all your carabiners
- Your two main carabiners only looped through three of the four strands across your Quad Anchor.
Have you threaded your belay device properly?
- Fed the ropes through the belay device with the anchor side on top.
- Clipped the carabiner through the rope or ropes and the steel wire.
- Locked the carabiner and made sure that it is attached to your belay loop.
Have you set up your friction hitch?
- Wrapped it around your main line three or four times and clipped it again into a locking carabiner connected to your harness?
Are you communicating with your fellow rappellers or belayer?
If you’ve done all the above, you are probably ready to rappel.
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