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What is the safest way to rappel?

What is the safest way to rappel?

About six years ago my then-girlfriend (now wife) rappelled (also known as abseiling) down a rock side and fell 50 feet uncontrollably, breaking almost everything from her waist down – she had to re-learn how to walk and has only recently started climbing again. Since then, I realized that not all rappelling techniques are equal and that it was time to find the safest way to rappel.

The safest way to rappel is by having someone belaying the person at the bottom of the route with an auto-locking belay device such as a Grigri to control the descent of the person. For an even safer descent, the belayer should be equal to or heavier than the one being lowered, though you can safely belay someone heavier than you.

This is also considered “lowering” someone instead of repelling and isn’t always the most popular way to rappel because there is less freedom than other forms of repelling. However, if you’re reading this, you’re probably more interested in safety than “fun” so I’ll share with you how it works. 

Warning: Always consult a professional before rappelling. This guide is only a recommendation and should be evaluated critically before use. By reading this guide, you understand that Send Edition is not responsible for anything that may happen.

What you need to create the safest rappel 

Though you can technically belay with just a rope and anchor system, the following is what you need for this type of rappel.

  1. Climbing/Rappelling Rope
  2. Harnesses for both people
  3. Helmets for both people
  4. 1 Locking Carabiner
  5. 1 Auto-locking belay device (not all auto-locking devices are made equal but I like the Madrock LifeGuard for lowering lighter people and the newest Grigri for anyone over 150lbs)
  6. Gear for an anchor system (see below)

What you need for an anchor system

Most of the time, people who want to rappel in the safest way possible will have two main options for an anchor system. One of those options requires you to have access to bolts and the other option requires you to have a boulder or tree that you can use for the anchoring system.

What you’ll need for making an anchor on a bolt

  1. 1 Sling
  2. 5 locking carabiners 

Creating an anchor with bolts for rappelling

Before using the bolts to create the anchor system, ensure that the bolts are in good shape and are safe to use. To do this, review the bolts for signs of wear, tear or rusting. If visually they look ok, then check to make sure that it is securely in place by trying to twist or move it. If it seems sound, then you are good to use the following for the anchor system.

  1. Clip the sling into one of the bolts using a locking carabiner. The carabiner’s gate should be facing away from the other bolt
  2. Clip the other side of the sling to the other bolt with a locking carabiner. Like the first carabiner, the gate should be facing away from the other bolt/carabiner.
  3. Tie a figure eight on a bite in the middle of the sling
  4. Take two more locking carabiners and clip them onto separate strands of the bite on the figure eight with the gates facing away from each other. 
  5. Thread the rope through the two carabiners on the bite.
  6. Place a third carabiner between the two carabiners that the rope is running through (this is optional as it doesn’t add extra safety but will help your rope last longer)
  7. Make sure that each carabiner is oriented so that the screw part is screwing down toward the ground (let gravity help you stay extra safe).

What you’ll need for creating an anchor with a tree or a large boulder

If bolts aren’t available, then you will need a large boulder or tree that you can wrap your sling around to anchor. Before doing so, make sure that the boulder or tree is secured in place and won’t move.

Using a tree for an anchor can hurt the tree, so use a boulder if possible.

  1. 2 slings – one big enough to go around the boulder/tree
  2. 5 locking carabiners

How to create an anchor system on a boulder or tree

  1. Wrap the large sling around the boulder or tree – make sure that there isn’t a way for it to slip up or down or off in any way
  2. Clip the second sling into one side of the sling using a locking carabiner. The carabiner’s gate should be facing away from the other end of the sling
  3. Clip the other side of the second sling to the other end of the large sling with a locking carabiner. Like the first carabiner, the gate should be facing away from the other bolt/carabiner.
  4. Tie a figure eight on a bite in the middle of the sling
  5. Take two more locking carabiners and clip them onto separate strands of the bite on the figure eight with the gates facing away from each other. 
  6. Thread the rope through the two carabiners on the bite.
  7. Place a third carabiner between the two carabiners that the rope is running through (this is optional as it doesn’t add extra safety but will help your rope last longer)
  8. Make sure that each carabiner is oriented so that the screw part is screwing down toward the ground (let gravity help you stay extra safe).

Preparing to rappel down

Once the person descending is properly in their harness (and helmet) and the anchor system is built, it’s time to tie the climber into the rope. 

How to tie the person being lowered with a figure 8

The figure 8 is the best knot to use to tie a person’s harness into the rope. It gets tighter with more force placed on it but it is still possible to untie when done instead of cutting a person off the rope. 

  1. Take a bite of rope about an arms-length from the end of the rope with the short end of the rope facing your body
  2. Take the short end and wrap it around the back of your hand and back to the beginning position (by your body)
  3. Thread the end of the rope through the hole (from the bite)
  4. Pull the end through until there is a loose single rope figure eight
  5. Thread the end of the rope through the harness
  6. Using the end of the rope, following thread the rope through the figure eight following the other end of the rope
  7. Once threaded through, pull it tight
  8. Do the 10 point check to make sure it’s right – 2 rope pieces at the bottom, 2 at the beginning of the knot, 2 in the middle, 2 at near the top of the knot and to above the knot
  9. Make sure there is at least a fist-width from the top of the knot and the end of the rope
  10. If there is a lot of excess rope at the end, tie it off in any kind of knot – stopper knots work great

With the person tied into one end of the rope, it’s time for the belayer to go through their part of the process.

How to set up the belay for repel

Before even setting up the belayer, the loose end of the rope should have a stopper knot. This ensures that if the rope is too short, it won’t slip through the belay device and cause the person repelling to fall uncontrollably.

How To tie a Stopper knot on the other end of the rope

  1. Take a small bit of rope about an elbow’s distance from the end of the rope
  2. Wrap the loose end around the bite 1-2 times
  3. Fold the loop of the bite toward the wrapped pieces of rope
  4. Thread the end of the rope through each of the loops, including the folded bite
  5. Pull it tight – there should be a beautiful loopy knot at the end that is big enough to prevent the rope from slipping through any belay device

Once the stopper knot is in place, it is time to place the rope in the auto-locking belay device.

How to set up the Grigri

  1. Open the grigri by sliding the metal plate out
  2. Using the icons as your guide, place the end of the rope that matches the climber’s end of the rope to the part of the device closest to the carabiner loophole then run the rope through to the other side of the device (following the divot from the grigri)
  3. Slide the grigri metal plate back into place
  4. Use a locking carabiner through the Grigri and through your belay device
  5. To check that you did it right, first make sure that the end of the rope the repeller is attached to is closest to your body and that the other end is poking out away from your body
  6. Have the repeller pull on their end of the rope – the device should lock and prevent the rope from running through the device

Once everyone is ready to repel, it’s time to lower/ actually repel.

How to lower the person with a Grigri

Before lowering someone, communicate with the repeller to ensure they want to be lowered. Once that is established, then you can do the following steps

  1. Ensure the rope is placed in the grigri properly
  2. Have the repeller lean back so that their feet are against the wall (this is more for the repeller so they don’t hit their face on the wall while being lowered
  3. With the right hand on the brake end of the rope, place your left hand on the handle of the grigri
  4. Lighty pull back the handle until the cam of the device lets off of the rope slightly and the rope slowly starts to go through the device
  5. The further back you pull the handle, the faster the rope will run through the system
  6. In an emergency, let go of the handle and place both hands on the break line pulling the brake-end toward the back of your side or below your butt

Once you try this way of repelling, you will likely become more comfortable with lowering off a rope and may be interested in self-repelling, which can be safe when done correctly. If that is the case, then you’ll want to read this article as well “How to self repel using a Grigri

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