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Beginner Rappelling Mistakes

Updated on June 23, 2011

Rappelling (Abseiling) and rock climbing are inherently related, but each has its own set of challenges and intricacies. These activities should not be attempted without proper training and equipment. But even with training, the beginner with little independent experience will be prone to making mistakes. Due to the complete dependence on gear, rappelling errors can much more easily result in stranded climbers, injury, or worse. Let me share with you some easily preventable mistakes as well as some methods to resolve situations in which you may find yourself.

This article primarily covers some of the mistakes made by beginners on their way back down a rock face. If you are interested in some beginner mistakes made on the way up, check out my other article: Beginner Outdoor Rock Climbing Mistakes.

Insufficient Rope

Not all rappels are created equal. Nor are all ropes created equal. Always check, and double check, the lengths of all ropes and all rappels before you leave the ground.

Also, always tie a safety knot in both ends of the rope. The safety knot will prevent someone from rappelling off the end of the rope in the event of a miscalculation.

It is important to note that the distance between rappelling stations can vary widely. I was dismayed to find on a recent excursion to North Carolina that all of the rappels off multi-pitch climbs were 60 meters in length. I had only brought a single 60 m rope and would have been unable to get back down off the cliff. Proper checking prevented me from ever beginning the climb in the first place.

For long rappels, it is not necessary to have two full-size dynamic climbing ropes. Instead, a smaller-diameter rope can be used for the second rope during a double rope rappel. Climbers can also use twin or double ropes to climb and then separate them for a long rappel.

Neglecting Caught Rope

When rappelling, never lower past a point where an end of the rope appears to be caught. With all the slots and gaps in rock, it is very easy for the safety knots or other parts of the rope to get stuck. If you continue past the point and later attempt to pull the rope down, there is an even greater chance the rope will stay caught.

Before passing the caught rope, attempt to flick it out of its entanglement. Flicking can often loosen the rope whereas pulling can lodge it deeper. If flicking is unsuccessful, be prepared to swing horizontally to the stuck point. Use whatever means you have to lock off your rappel and traverse across the rock if necessary.

I once made the mistake of rappelling past a stuck rope. It was a particularly windy day, and I had failed to notice nearly a quarter of the rope had gotten wedged behind a large boulder. Eventually I reached a point where I was about 30 feet above the ground and could rappel no further. The caught rope looped back above me preventing downward progress. Fortunately, this was a single pitch rappel, and I was able to sacrifice some rope from the free end and transfer it to the caught end. I was able to lower myself to about 15 feet before I had the safety knot and the caught loop at my harness. At this point I had two choices: ascend the rope to the bolder or detach from the rope and down-climb (with spotters). I elected the latter and ultimately made it down safely. We were able to hike to the top of the cliff and try again to retrieve the rope.

My method is not recommended from a safety standpoint, nor would it work on a multi-pitch rappel. Instead, I recommend the first person to rappel have the equipment and knowledge to ascend the rope should they find themselves in a similar situation.

Having No Backup

Climbing safety revolves around having redundancy for practically everything. The climber has a belayer. The harness has multiple attachment points. The anchors are attached to multiple points. But in rappelling, people often neglect to use backups.

The person rappelling should have the equivalent of a belayer. There are three basic ways this can be accomplished: an extra rope, fireman's belay, and backup the rappel device.

An extra rope is often used by climbing guides when taking groups rappelling. However, this method is unreasonably gear intensive and complex for a simple rappel.

A fireman's belay is useful when a partner is already on the ground. The technique essentially requires the partner to pull down on the rope in the event of a loss of control. This pulling will activate the brake on the rappel device and bring the person to a stop. This method is useful in certain situations but can be difficult and dangerous for the belayer.

The best option is to use a prusik or autoblock knot below the rappel device. These knots will wrap around the brake side of the rope and attach to the harness's leg loop. When rappelling, the person merely keeps the knot loose so the rope can slide smoothly. If there is a loss of control or a need to take a break, the knot will pull down on the brake bringing the rappel to a stop. While this method does not backup the device itself, it will backup any human error.

Wearing a Top-heavy Backpack

A top-heavy backpack is more of an inconvenience than a danger, but it is still worth mentioning. Proper rappelling form depends on balancing and sitting back in your harness. However, being top-heavy can cause a person to flip upside-down while rappelling. Combined with an improperly fit harness, this could prove deadly.

If possible, lower the load down separately rather than on your back. If that is simply not an option, consider a makeshift chest harness to keep you upright. The best way to be safe while rappelling is to ensure that there are no surprises on the way down.

What about you?

Have you ever had any rappelling close calls? Leave a comment with your story below so we can learn from your experience!


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      Rankin707 4 years ago

      Sterile Check List

      I was rappelling with someone less experienced than myself and broke the "sterile check list" rule.

      It was a simple 50' + rappel almost free hanging, a perfect place for a beginner to learn. We rigged up and I was the first one on the line. I explained each step while rigging my harness and descender. For reasons still unknown to me today I was interrupted and began to unclip. I unclipped my harness but not my chest harness to attend to whatever it was??? Stepped back to cliff and apparently lost my head, I saw my chest harness rigged and stepped off. Immediately felt and saw that I was not clipped in at my harness. the ATC was rigged in with rope with a carabiner in place but not clipped to me. My chest harness was the only thing holding me as it was clipped in above the ATC. The ATC did not perform correctly but good enough as it was running below and against the chest harness carabiner. It was not the most comfortable ride down but it worked. I think both my friend and I both learned from that one.