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How to Toss Rappel Ropes

Learn Essential Rappelling Skills


Easter Rock at the Garden of the Gods is a small sandstone spire.

Ian tosses each rappel rope separately off the small summit of Easter Rock, ensuring that his rappel rope strands are separate.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

You've just climbed a long route at Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas and you need to rappel back down the big cliff. Each rappel that you make requires that you toss your rappel ropes down.

Tossing Rappel Ropes is Not Easy

It sounds pretty easy…but tossing rappel ropes is not always easy or fun. Ropes can get snagged by flakes or trapped in cracks; ball up into knots and snarls; or get stuck, requiring that you get out your knife and start cutting. You want to avoid these rappelling disasters? Learn how to properly toss your rappel ropes down.

First Flake the Rope Out

First, let's assume that you are standing on a good ledge and using two ropes for rappelling. First you tie the ropes together with a secure knot. Next you thread the rappel ropes through the anchor. Now you need to flake each rope out separately and neatly stack it on the ledge below the rappel anchor. It is best if the rope strand closest to the anchor is at the bottom of the stacked rope, while the end of the rope is at the top.

Hand Coil the Ends of the Rappel Rope

The next step is to hand coil each end of the rappel ropes separately. It's best to coil one end and then toss it down, rather than coil one and lay those coils down and then coil the other strand. Here are some tips to coil the rappel rope:

  • It is best to coil 30 or 40 feet of the rope in coils that are about two feet long.
  • Lay the first coil in your hand with the free end hanging down a couple feet.
  • Now pull the rope up with your free hand and make loose coils, laying each one in your holding hand.
  • Don't coil the entire strand of rope, thinking that you will toss all the rope at once-that will cause lots of kinks, snarls, and knots that you will have to undo while you are rappelling.
  • Remember not to twist the rope as you coil it so you don't introduce kinks into the rope.

Tossing Rappel Ropes is Not Easy

The next step is the crux of the rappel rope toss. It seems like it should be easy to toss a rappel rope off a cliff-top, but it's not. Lots of variables enter the rope-tossing equation, each of which can create all kinds of extra problems that you may have to deal with later. If you toss your rappel ropes properly, you can avoid some of those problems like getting stopper knots jammed, catching the rope behind flakes and in cracks, or having the rope blown around an arête by a wind gust.

Analyze Terrain Before Tossing the Rope

Before you toss the rappel ropes down, first look down yourself and evaluate the rock terrain below. Decide where you want to ropes to be after you toss them. Analyze the terrain below and ask yourself questions like these to decide where to toss the rappel ropes:

  • Do they need to be angled off to the left because that's where the next set of rappel anchors is located?
  • Do you want them positioned so that you rappel down a slab rather than over a big roof?
  • Are there flakes that the ropes could hang up on? And how can you avoid them when you toss the ropes?
  • Are there cracks that the rappel ropes can snake into and get stuck?
  • Is there any wind that could carry the ropes around the corner of the buttress below and snag them on flakes?
  • Where are ledges, bushes, and trees that could grab and hang up your rappel rope?

Yell "ROPE!" to Warn Others Below

Okay, you're on a sloping ledge at the top of Solar Slab at Red Rocks and you're ready to start down the nine rappels to the base of the cliff. You've coiled 35 feet of one strand of the rappel ropes and the coils are gripped by your hand. The rest of the rope is loosely stacked on the ledge by your feet. Now you need to alert other climbers below that you are about to toss your rope. A falling rope that strikes a climber can cause a world of hurt. Always yell "ROPE!" (a basic climbing voice command) before making your toss. Wait for anyone below to shout up, "OKAY!" or "CLEAR!" before tossing the rope.

How to Toss the Rappel Rope

Now is the fun part-tossing the rope. Pull your arm and hand back like you're making a softball pitch, then swing your arm forward and release the coils in your hand. Don't hurl the rope straight outward where it might be grabbed by a wind gust, but instead toss it gently out and straight down. The falling weight of your 35 or so feet of coils should be enough to pull the rest of the stacked rope off the ledge, especially if the cliff below you is steep. If the whole length of rope doesn't fall down, then coil the remaining rope in your hand and toss it. Sometimes though you may have to pull up the entire rope strand and recoil and re-toss it.

Toss Rope Strands Separately to Avoid Snags

Next, coil the other end of the rappel rope and toss it off. Tossing each rope strand separately keeps them separated and it will be less likely that they get tangled together into "rope salad"-which is what climbers call a big clumpy mess of knots. Some climbers will toss both strands off together thinking that they are speeding up the process but most of the time they will have to either pull the ropes back up and separate them or they will have to clean up the mess while they're rappelling down. Take the time to toss your rappel ropes right and you will be happier later.

Don't Weight the Rope Ends with Gear

Lastly, some climbers advise weighting the ends of the rappel rope with a couple quickdraws or carabiners, feeling that the added weight will ensure that the ropes will fall farther and straighter, especially if it's windy. This is not the best idea because you will not only damage the carabiners, which can develop micro-cracks from impact against the rock surface, but you risk snagging that gear and the rope ends in cracks and flakes.

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