Rappelling is one of the most dangerous aspects of climbing. Even in the best conditions, things can go wrong quickly on a multi-pitch route and you need to bail off by rappelling. It might start raining; lightning might play on the ridge above; the climb takes too long and darkness falls; your partner gets injured; or you use up valuable time by getting off route. In all these situations you probably will have to rappel to get down so your rappel anchors better be good. Rappel anchor failure is one of the leading causes of climbing fatalities.
Existing Anchors on Trade Routes
Many trade routes are equipped with existing belay and rappel anchors. These are often a two-bolt anchor with rappel rings attached to each bolt hanger or a combination of bolts and pitons joined together by a bunch of slings and webbing and have a metal rappel ring to thread the rope through. Sometimes there will be a thick wad of webbing and you add a new piece and then thread your rope through all of the slings. This is not the safest anchor for rappelling.
Check the Anchors and Slings before Rappelling
These established rappel anchors are usually good and you won’t have a problem using them. Just make sure that you double-check the bolts and pitons to make sure that they are sturdy. Be wary of trusting old bolts, especially if they are the ¼-inch kind; these are usually old, rusted, and will usually fail at some future time, even under body weight. Also check the arrangement of rappel slings to make sure that they are equalized. It is always a good idea to carry extra webbing on long climbs so that you can rethread rap anchors if necessary. If there is a big wad of slings on the rappel anchor, it’s good to do some public service and cut all the old webbing off and put a couple new slings on the bolts. It simplifies the anchor, making it easy to check that all is well before heading down.
Use Enough Gear to Avoid CBS
Sometimes you will have to rappel off a route that does not have established rappel anchors. In this situation, you have to make your own anchors on the way down. This almost always entails leaving some of your precious gear behind. The big problem most climbers have, however, is that they are leaving gear that cost them hard-earned cash behind on the cliff and as booty for the next party. Don’t get caught up in the Cheap Bastard Syndrome (CBS) and not place and leave enough gear for proper and safe rappel anchors.
Smart Tips to Avoid CBS
Use the following tips to avoid CBS and stay safe on all your rappels:
- Always remember that the next rappel might be your last rappel if you skimp on the anchors.
- Always use at least two pieces of gear for your anchor; don’t rappel off a single nut to save money. If you fall and die, then that extra few dollars you saved won’t matter.
- Always use two rappel rings to run the rope through, even if one is a carabiner. It’s always smart on long routes to carry one or two screw links or lap links to beef up the rope attachment point.
- Avoid using jammed knots made with slings or bits of rope crammed in a crack instead of a nut for an anchor.
- Always use a new sling or piece of webbing to replace old, brittle, faded, bleached webbing on the anchor. This is especially true in harsh climates like those in Moab or Red Rocks.
- Always carry extra gear on routes that you may need to bail off. Smart climbers carry extra nuts like Stoppers and Hexentric nuts to leave for anchors because they are cheaper than cams.
- Conserve gear as you rappel down so you have enough to construct anchors to reach the cliff base. Don’t, however, use this as an excuse to avoid creating a beefy anchor in the here and now.
Create Equalized Rappel Anchors
When you create rappel anchors, place your gear, usually a couple pieces or a nut and a natural feature like a tree, and then equalize it using slings or webbing. Arrange the webbing so that an equalized anchor is created, just like one used for belaying or for top-roping with a master point that directs all of the weight load downward to the direction of the rappel. Use the acronym SECURE to check the anchor’s safety. Read the article Use SECURE to Evaluate Your Anchor for more information. Also remember to double up your slings for redundancy and safety.
Avoid the American Triangle
Avoid using the so-called "American triangle" arrangement where webbing runs through all the pieces of the anchors together. This multiplies the forces on each separate piece and weakens the entire system. Instead run separate slings from at least two of the anchor points down to a single master point, which the rappel rope runs through.
What to Bring in a Rappel Kit
It’s a good idea to put together a rappel kit that you can carry on long routes or routes that you might need to rappel. In my personal rappel anchor kit, I bring the following items:
- 20 to 30 Feet of Webbing. I prefer ½-inch Supertape since it’s compact, easy to carry, and strong. It also threads anchors more easily than 1-inch webbing. Bring rock-colored webbing rather than gaudy blue or white.
- 2 to 4 Descending Rings. These can be aluminum rappel rings, screw-lock links (combination of 5/16-inch and 3/8-inch links), or lap links, which are hammered together and are great if you’re threading a bunch of slings.
- Knife. Bring a sharp lightweight knife. Some climbing companies make knives specifically for this sort of purpose.
- Extra Nuts and Hexes. They’re lighter and cheaper than cams to leave behind.
- Other Extras. A basic bolt kit with a hand drill and a half-dozen bolts and hangers is useful sometimes. Also a piton hammer and a few pitons are good for some anchors.