Problems when rappelling

Certain rappel devices, for example the popular eight, cause significant twisting of the rope while you are rappelling. This causes problems primarily when rappelling along a doubled rope, when both strands become tangled around each other in a spiral. As a result the friction between both strands of the rope is increased while pulling, and if friction occurs against the rock at any point the result can be that the rope cannot be pulled down after rappelling is finished. Somewhere in the middle of a high face during a long rappel on several pitches, such a situation can become a serious problem. This twisting can be partially prevented by clipping a carabiner to one strand of rope above the eight, which you can tie to the harness using a sling. You can then pull this carabiner with you while rappelling. You may not completely eliminate the twisting of the rope, but at least each strand will twist by and around itself. After you finish rappelling you need only deftly and swiftly separate the strands from each other while removing the rappel device so that they will not become once again tangled up in each other as they “untwist”.

A carabiner threaded between two strands of rope when rappelling limits mutual twisting of both strands of rope.

A carabiner threaded between two strands of rope when rappelling limits mutual twisting of both strands of rope.

If the rope has already become twisted and the resulting friction is so great that the rope cannot be pulled down, then there is no other option than to try to untwist it from the bottom, which is very time-consuming work and may not be successful. At which point the only solution is to climb up it as if along a fixed line and to try rappelling again, and better. Here, however, a word of caution: when ascending along a doubled rope as if it were a fixed rope, it is necessary to load both strands of the rope at the same time so that the rope does not slip out of the rappelling station in case it comes free suddenly and unexpectedly!

A precarious situation is one when the rope can’t be pulled down; it has already slipped out of the ring of the rappelling station but the falling end of the rope has become caught somewhere in the rock (it has fallen into a rock crack, become coiled around a rock horn, etc.). If the rope can no longer be pulled down, then there is no other option than to tie in to the second end of the rope, the one which is down and under your control, and try to climb up the rock while placing intermediate protection as with normal climbing, as your belayer manages the rope using a belay device. Up top you can then free the rope and rappel again, depending on the situation either from the original rappel station or from a new, lower placed one.

If you do not have another rope with you, then the next solutions are as follows:

  1. if you can already head down on foot from the place where you currently are, then you should simply head home and buy a new rope
  2. cut as much rope as you can, and finish rappelling with it
  3. call for help

Solving crisis situations

First it is necessary to say with all seriousness that the method hereafter mentioned can be reasonably used only in maximum emergency, where there is no chance of other rescue, for example in remote mountain ranges of exotic regions, where no rescue service operates, if applicable where any delay would be to risk grave danger.

If your rope has become caught while rappelling, and the terrain leading to the place where it has caught is not within your abilities to climb it, you can shinny up the caught rope as if along a fixed rope, but it is absolutely critical (!!!) to have accompanying protection. That is, to once again tie in to the end of the rope which is down under your control and build intermediate protection in the face, while the belayer manages the rope using a belay device. Careful – the caught rope can come free unexpectedly, particularly if you load it more heavily in a different direction, from a different angle, than your fruitless efforts to shake it free from below. A fall will follow!

The situation can become even more complicated. If the bottom end of the rope which is under your control is too short and does not reach up to the spot where the rope has become caught, you have another problem. There is always the option of clambering up slightly higher and building a new belay station (stance), take in the rope for a fellow climber, once again clamber up higher and once again build a new, higher stance… and so on until the rope reaches the spot where the upper end of the rope has become caught in the rock.

Worst-case scenario: The bottom section of the rope is not long enough to reach the point where it has become caught, the rock is smooth, unclimbable, and belaying is impossible higher up on the rock, let alone even thinking about building a belay station. A possible solution: if you are still higher on the face and there is a free space underneath you where you can fall, then you can reliably and firmly fix the bottom end of the rope to the rock, place the rope into the belay device which the belayer can operate (allowing the inactive part of the rope to be as long as possible), and then the second can risk shinnying along the stuck part of the rope either using a bidirectional ascender (e.g. the Russian Ural/Ushba), or along a prusik sling. Use two in a row (both connected to the seat harness for hanging), and let them be strong, ideally slings with a round 9 mm cross-section tied with a Machard prusik. In case the stuck rope is prematurely dislodged, a long fall into the prusik slings will follow. For this reason use two solid prusik slings so they can back each other up. And the belayer should let the rope slide dynamically through the belay device. In conclusion, another warning– this desperate solution is worth doing only after a long and fruitless wait for rescue. For example, in regions of the Alps or the High Tatras it is foolish to use such a solution right away. In civilised mountains the correct solution is of course to signal for help and wait for rescue.

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Title Part 3Mountaineering Methodology – Part 3 – Belaying and Rappelling

ISBN 978-80-87715-09-3

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

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Title Part 3 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 3 – Belaying and Rappelling

ISBN 978-80-87715-14-7

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play.