Rappels, Retreats & Emergencies

Many seasoned climbers regard rappelling descending the rope to the bottom of the route as potentially extremely dangerous. More than any other element in the sport of rock climbing, rappelling can lead to high drama, serious injury and even death.

The reasons for this are manifold. Many people don’t take rappelling techniques as seriously as they should, and don’t make the effort to learn and master the essential skills required for safe rappelling. During rappelling, you are completely dependent on your equipment, including your gear placements and your attachment to the rope. If any procedure or technique has been carried out incorrectly or incompletely, the consequences can be disastrous.

Rappelling Accidents

Most commonly, rappelling accidents occur when:

  • Poor anchor points are used, and these subsequently give way.
  • An incorrect technique is used to attach to the belay device.
  • A knot failure occurs during the use of double ropes.
  • Not enough rope is allowed for the rappel -that is, the rope proves to be too short.

Rappelling For Fun

Despite the dangers inherent in rappelling, it can be undertaken for fun and it does offer a great deal of excitement. Provided all the necessary precautions are taken, there is no reason for things to go wrong. Amongst some thrill-seekers rappelling, also known as abseiling (sliding down the rope in a controlled way) has become a sporting activity in its own right.

Making Your Rappel Safer

In all likelihood you will be using your belay device as a rappel device. Most of these devices produce enough friction to slow you down reasonably. If they don’t, then it is advisable to either:

  • Insert an extra carabiner.
  • Wrap the rope around your body.
  • The friction hitch allows the use of either one or two ropes, but it does twist the rope, so always use a large, locking carabiner.
  • However, some devices – like the Grigri and SRC – only allow one rope to be used. Others – like Tubes, Plates and the Figure 8 descendeur – allow for two ropes.
  • Most climbers rappel with their dominant (stronger) hand as the braking hand, using the other hand to hold themselves upright, or push off from rocks. For the sake of safely, hold your braking hand fairly low down, not close to the rappel device – and never let go with this hand!
  • Keep your feet widely spaced, and level with your waist if possible.
  • When descending over an overhang, lower your body past it, bend your legs, and then gradually slide in under the overhang to avoid hitting your face on the edge.
  • Always give novices a top safety rope until they are totally familiar with rappelling.
  • Use multiple-backups on anchor points – it is cheaper to abandon gear that to pay hospital bills!
  • Check and double check the knot(s) used to join ropes. If in doubt, use a simple over-hand knot, leaving a tail at least 30cm (12in) long. This is the knot of choice of many guides and instructors, as it slides easily over edges when pulling down.
  • Back up your rappel with a shunt, or a prusik loop.
  • Always tie a knot in the free end(s) of the rope(s).
  • Rappel smoothly – jerking and bouncing causes the rope to stretch a lot, which can abrade it dangerously on edges, and stresses the anchor points.

Rappelling With A Heavy Pack

If you are rappelling while carrying a heavy pack, you can easily be flicked upside down if you’re not careful. There are some ways to help prevent this:

  • Wear a chest harness to help support the upper body.
  • Suspend your pack below you, attached directly to the rappel carabiner.

Long Or Multi-Pitch Rappels

To speed up multi-pitch rappels, send one member down with gear to rig the next rappel. He or she can then fix the next point, safeguard the other members by tying off the rope ends and holding these, and help to pull them in to the rappel stance if the pitch is overhanging. Tie the rope ends off to the next anchor point before the following members rappel in case of the failure of the top anchor.

Marginal Rappel Points

If the top points are a bit suspect and the rappel is absolutely unavoidable, then:

  • The last rappeller should use his or her body weight to help support the system (sit or lie on the ledge, or brace your feet on a rock).
  • The second last rappeller should place protection on the way down, which could help hold a fall if the top points fail on the last rappeller.
  • Place very secure anchors at the bottom and tie the ropes to these.
  • The last rappeller should back up with a strong pruslk loop or something similar. and a carablner should be clipped in between the doubled rope, to avoid sliding off the end if the anchors and pruslk fail.
  • The last rappeller should rappel very carefully. removing the runners as he or she passes them.

Ascending The Rope

You may ask why climbers sometimes ascend via the rope. The answer is that it may be necessary as an emergency action, or to speed things up on a long, multi-pitch route, or when bolting a route, or just for fun! All that is needed for an ascent is a rope tied to a solid top anchor, and something that will grip the rope either some form of mechanical ascender (often called ‘jugs’) or a gripping knot.

Mechanical Ascenders

There are various devices, such as jumars, that help you climb a rope, either by gripping via a set of teeth, or by using a camming action. The shunt is unique in that it can be used to ascend a double rope.


A variety of knots can be used to ease your ascent. The two most useful are the French prusik and the standard prusik named after Karl Prusik, the Austrian climber who developed them. These knots are best tied using accessory cord of 5mm to 8mm in diameter, but, if all else fails, use strong shoe laces for your foot-loop! A longish sling can also be used to tie a French prusik.

Tips For Ascending

  • Always remember to let your legs do the work – don’t try to pull yourself upward using only your arms!
  • Tying a small weight (a small pack, for instance) to the bottom of the rope allows you to slide the knots or ascendeurs upwards more easily.
  • where possible, join both ascending devices to your harness – the foot one with an extension loop – to cater for any system failure on the top loop.
  • If you are wearing a heavy pack, either haul this later, or suspend it below you from your body carabiner.

Down-Climbing, Traversing Off And Retreating

If a climb proves too difficult, or bad weather threatens, it might be necessary to down-climb or traverse off the route, particularly if there are no suitable rappel points. Down-climbing can and should, if possible, be done ‘on lead’. This means that the first climber places protection on the way down, and this is removed by the second (or last) climber, exactly as in leading upwards. To speed things up, it is often easier to ’lower’ the first climber (or for him/her to rappel), placing gear to protect the second climber. Down-climbing is seldom practised, but is a valuable tool in your climbing armoury. Try doing it now and again!


To speed things up if the party is larger than two, and the traverse is fairly easy, then you might consider the second and third climber (but not the last) moving across a rope fixed by the leader, by clipping onto it via slings and carabiners (usually two slings for safety). This also allows one to pass protection points and remain clipped to the rope. The last climber comes across on the rope ends and removes the gear as usual.

Emergency Procedures

Climbing always holds an element of risk, despite the best preparations. As each emergency situation is unique, it is usually a combination of training, experience and improvisation that saves the day.

‘Frozen’ Second Climber

At some stage, you may be faced with a companion who just “can’t make it”. This could be either a psychological or physical inability to complete a climb. Various options exist:

  • Haul on the rope and pull the climber up toward you – this is not as easy as it sounds!
  • Talk (or shout) them through the moves.
  • Use a secure point to tie them off, rappel down and help them
  • Abandon the climb, and let the whole group rappel off.

Fallen And Injured Leader

If the leader takes a fall, and is hanging below you, then you may have to tie him or her off, and rappel down to render assistance.

If the leader is way above you, prusik up the leader’s rope until you are level with him or her, or prusik to the top anchor point and then abseil down to the leader. You may then need to rappel off yourself, or to lower the leader to the ground or to a stable, safe ledge before proceeding. It is far easier to lower someone off than

to haul someone up – even if you are one pitch from the top of a 10-pitch climb.

Whatever happens, avoid panic and haste. If you feel you can’t deal with the situation try to attract attention, or sit and wait for a search and rescue party, giving what first aid you can.

Escaping From The System

As a belayer or leader you may need to escape from the belay chain to assist someone in trouble.

  • Lock off the belay device as per its instruction manual.
  • Attach a prusik loop or locking device to the rope going to the climber a French prusik is best, as it can later be released easily, even when under load.
  • Tie the prusik or locking device to the anchor points using a sling or loop of rope. If you use the rope, plan carefully – you may need to use its far end, for instance. Don’t be afraid to cut a piece off the rope end if you need it – this is often overlooked.
  • Tie a back-up clove hitch knot or locked off friction hitch (for easy release later on) in the stricken climber’s rope, and attach this to the anchors. It should be tied well enough back not to tighten when the belay is released onto the prusik.
  • Slowly release the belay hand, transferring the load to the prusik, and check that it is holding.
  • You (the belayer) may now remove the belay, and release yourself from the system.

Part of the rope is now free for use to get down to the climber via rappel, or to arrange a hoisting or lowering system.

Essential First Aid

The role of first aid is to act to preserve life, prevent further injury or trauma, and to promote recovery. Memorize the so-called ABCs:

  • A is for AIRWAY. Is there any injury to the neck or obstruction to the mouth or nose? Noisy breathing could be a symptom of the obstruction of an airway. Remove any obstructions gently with your finger if this is possible.
  • B is for BREATHING. Is the chest rising and falling, or can you detect the movement of air in the nose and mouth? If there is no breathing, attempt mouth-to-mouth (rescue) breathing, if this can be done without endangering either yourself or the injured person.
  • C is for CIRCULATION. Can you feel a pulse next to the windpipe (carotid artery)? If there is no heartbeat, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) may be necessary.
  • D is for DECREASED LEVEL OF CONSCIOUSNESS. Is the injured person awake, aware and capable of speech, or is he or she unresponsive? Further procedures may also be necessary.
  • Check for bleeding. Attempt to stem any bleeding, firstly with direct pressure and, failing this, by using a tourniquet – the latter only as a last resort.
  • Check for possible head, back or neck injuries – do not move the climber until you have ascertained this. You may need to immobilize the injured person.
  • If there are no back or neck injuries, place the climber in the recovery position.

Other things, such as the comfort of the fallen climber, shock, hypothermia, broken limbs, minor bleeding and so on should all take second place to the above major trauma. Don’t let bleeding from an obvious, but relatively minor wound, take precedence over more important issues. The splinting of fractures (if done carefully) will help prevent further injury and damage to nerves and blood vessels.

If In Doubt, Sit It Out!

Bad weather, getting lost, injuries, or being overcome by darkness all offer choices -to push on regardless, or to sit it out until conditions improve or rescue arrives. There is no easy answer, as the particular set of circumstances could dictate either course. in general, however, it is often wisest to sit it out. Packs can offer warmth, one can sit on (or wrap oneself in) the rope, and huddling together can offer warmth and security. A small pack containing a bar of energy food, a tiny torch, a small bottle of juice or water, a light raincoat and jersey and a small first-aid kit, could help you avert a tragedy, or avoid a rather uncomfortable night!

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