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Using Your Brake Hand

Learn How to Rappel

By

Bill Springer and Brian Shelton rappel off Tezcatlipoca at Sunshine Wall, Utah.

Bill Springer uses one brake hand on an easy rappel off a tower near Arches National Park.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Never Let Go of Your Brake Hand While Rappelling. That’s the prime directive and main rule for personal rappelling safety. Obey it, and you’ll live long and prosper.

Rappel Ready Position

When you rappel, use both hands on the ropes. Before rappelling, place your hands in the basic ready position with the top or guide hand above the rappel device and the bottom or brake hand below the device.

The Guide Hand

On easy rappels down slabs or faces that are less than vertical, use your top hand as your guide hand above the rappel device. Lightly grip the rope and let it slide through the hand. You can slip your guide hand’s index finger between the two rope strands to keep them separated as you descend. This keeps them untangled and makes it easier to pull the ropes down.

The Brake Hand

Your brake hand, the most important hand for rappelling, is your lower hand. The brake hand does exactly that—it brakes and stops you as you rappel. The brake hand manages the speed of your descent down the rope. The brake hand lets you control your rappel. If you let go of the ropes with your brake hand, the ropes, especially if they’re thin, will slip through the rappel device and drop you to the ground. To rappel with a single brake hand, keep the hand down by your hip so you’re able to maintain constant friction of the rope through the rappel device.

Apply Friction to Slow Down

As you rappel down the ropes, let them slide through your brake hand. If you feel like you’re going too fast, apply more pressure to slow down or ratchet the ropes down in the rappel device with your brake hand, increasing the friction of the rope through the device. Some rappellers use a leather glove on their brake hand to help control their descent speed and to keep their hands from getting dirty from the ropes, but remember, if you need a glove to slow down, you’re probably rappelling too fast.

Use Two Brake Hands

On steep or overhanging rappels, what climbers call “free rappels” since you’re suspended in space and not touching the rock with your feet, it’s best to use both hands as brake hands. This allows more control than using a single brake hand. On free rappels, always use an autoblock knot as a safety backup knot, which prevents you from zipping down the rope in an out-of-control fall. Put your lower brake hand on the autoblock knot so it easily slides and doesn’t lock up unless you need to stop. Place your upper brake hand below the rappel device and let the rope run through it.

Extra Friction on Free Rappels

On very steep rappels, you need more friction than both your brake hands and the rappel device can provide. For extra friction and control on free rappels, wrap the rope strands around your butt and hold onto themwith a brake hand on the opposite side. You can also drop the rappel ropes between your legs and then pull them up against a thigh for more friction. Try either way and see what works best for you.

Use Both Hands for Safety

Rappelling is one of the most dangerous parts of climbing. A lot can go wrong and the results of rappelling accidents are not pretty. The good thing is that rappelling is skill-based and most accidents happen because of climber error. If you use both your hands and never let go with your brake hand, all your rappels should be safe and smooth.

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