Accidents hurt. Safety doesn’t.
Rappelling may be one of the more dangerous activities we do living a live on the edge as mountain rescuers and guides. We have all heard the stories of elite climbers and rescuers falling to their death or severe injury. Lets all live long and prosper, let’s use a rappel checklist for ourselves, our teammates and clients.
To this day I have seen very few failures of equipment, but many human errors. The American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering reports 382 rappelling accidents from 1951-2014. There were 16 “rappel failures” in 2014! Checklists can save lives by preventing these errors!
Keep your system bombproof & foolproof!
More on the Rappel Checklist ABC’s…
Anchors & Angles:
I like to use the mnemonic ERNEST’R when building anchors.
E: Equalized: You can either pre-equalize your anchor system or build a “self-equalizing” anchor. Both styles have advantages and disadvantages. The point is to use your anchors and angles appropriately to share the load between multiple anchors.
R: Redundant: Never a good idea to hang your entire team off one carabiner, sling or anchor. Always build redundancy into your climbing anchors. Run the whistle or scissors test in your mind to see what would happen to the load or the team if a piece of gear failed. Generally speaking try to use multiple anchor systems instead of just one anchor, “one is none and two is one”.
NE: Non-extending: Shock loading your anchors is BAD. Keep slack out of anchor slings and avoid building systems where if one anchor fails there will be an extension of your other anchor sling. This is most common with a self-equalizing anchor with long sling legs (use extension limiting knots if needed).
S: Strong & Secure: All to often we build strong anchors using gear rated over 20kN and maintaining system safety factors of 10:1. But how secure is your anchor. 4 poorly placed cams connected together is a poor anchor! Be methodical when placing anchors analyzing the possible forces that will be in play.
T: Timely: Speed is safety in the mountains. Know how to tie your knots and anchors in the dark. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
R: Rigid: Your anchor slings or rope should not have any slack in them. Pre-tension your system before approaching the edge to make sure all anchors are weighed appropriately.
I recommend always utilizing 2 ropes for rope rescue operations or rappels that can have BIG consequences. That means that if a rope fails or your technique fails (more likely) you have a back-up system to catch you. This belay system could be a second teammate belaying you off a second rope or utilizing a fall-arrest device like a Petzl ASAP on a second line. I also recommend incorporating a “third hand” or “auto-block” prusik hitch onto your rappel line that can self actuate (if used properly) to stop your descent if needed.
Double check that carabiners are locked and not cross-loaded or tri-axial loaded. Often when approaching the edge, if the rope and anchors are not weighed, carabiners can shift and become cross-loaded. A typical carabiner that is cross-loaded will have 1/3 to 1/4 the strength of a carabiner that is correctly loaded along its long axis.
Double check that your decent control device(DCD) is properly loaded and you have enough friction applied. Multiple times I have seen some of the newer DCD’s loaded incorrectly. Devices like a brake rack, Scarab, Petzl ID (or Rig), MPD & others can mistakenly be loaded backwards or incorrectly. These are all great devices, we just need to watch out for user error. So double check your DCD before lowering!
Also be sure you have enough friction for your descent. If you are using a new rope, thin ropes or a single line descent, practice rappelling or lowering in a controlled setting where you can figure out how many horns you need to wrap or if you need to use a redirect to achieve more friction. Heavy loads (usually more than 1kN) also require the need for more friction. So if doing a 2 person rappel, a stranded climber pick-off, or you have a humongous pack-add more friction. You can always take friction off if needed.
Edge protection/End of rope protection
Protect your rope! Need I say more…Don’t forget you may encounter more sharp edges after the initial edge transition. Rappel down your fall line and avoid pendulums to the side that could cause your rope to be cut on rock edges! Most rescuers carry their ropes in canvas rope bags. These bags can be turned into rope edge pro in a pinch!
Put a knot in the end of the rope or ropes so you don’t rappel off the end of the rope and end up in Accidents in North America Mountaineering. Foolproof and Bombproof! Recent Colorado accident from rappelling off end of rope.
Establish an operations channel for the technical rappel or lowering operation. Make sure everyone knows the plan. Do we need a contingency plan? What commands will we use for communication? What about if we can’t hear each other? Talk this through before going over the edge.
Wear them if you are touching a moving rope! Also be sure that they are leather and not synthetic. I once had a friend take a super fast ride down a skinny 9mm rope b/c his glove started to melt and was burning his hand so bad he couldn’t hold on!
Helmet & Harness
Helmet is secure & buckled. Does your harness buckles need to be doubled back or are they self-locking? Is a chest harness needed? If so is it properly attached to the sit harness? If using a two rope system, 1 line can be attached to your sit harness’ belay loop while the second line is attached to your chest harness’ sternal connection loop (always read and abide by your specific harness’ manufactures recommendations).