Successful rope retrieval after a rappel depends on some important steps even before the last rap-peller starts down the rope. It takes just one frightening experience with a stuck rappel rope to guarantee that you'll always take these precautions.
If you're using two ropes for the rappel, they will be tied together near the anchor. It's critical that you know which rope to pull on from below. Full the wrong one, and you'll be attempting the impossible task of pulling the knot through the rappel sling. In some parties, the last two rappellers say out loud which rope is to be pulled, as an aid to remembering which is which.
The last rappeller should take a good final look at the rope and the rappel sling to see that everything is in order and that the rope isn't about to catch on the rock or the sling. Before the last person starts down, a climber at the bottom can test the rope by pulling to check that it can be moved and to see that the connecting knot in a two-rope rappel can be pulled free of the edge.
With such a two-rope rappel, the last person who starts down may want to stop at the first convenient ledge and pull enough of the rope down so that the connecting knot is clear of the edge. This helps take some of the uncertainty out of the difficult business of recovering a long rappel rope. However, it also shortens one rope end, so be sure the rappeller still has enough rope to reach the bottom.
The last rappeller has the main responsibility for spotting any retrieval problems. This last person can get twists out of the rope by keeping one finger of the braking hand between the ropes throughout the descent. (The same purpose is served by splitting the two ropes through a carabiner on your harness, just uphill of the braking hand.)
With the last rappeller down, it's time to retrieve the rope. First take out any visible twists. Then give the rope a slow, steady pull. Other climbers should take shelter to stay out of the way
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of falling rope or rockfall. If you've taken all the right steps and luck is on your side, the rope will pull free.
A jammed rappel rope is among a climber's worst nightmares. If it hangs up, either before or after the end clears the anchor, try flipping the rope with whipping motions before trying to get it down with extreme pulling. If you can, move both left and right and try more flipping or pulling. If all else fails, it may be necessary to climb up and free the rope. Belay the climber if enough rope is avail able. As a final resort if the party can't proceed without the rope, a climber might decide to attempt the desperate and very dangerous tactic of ascending the stuck rope with prusik slings or mechanical ascenders.
After you've studied rappelling and tried it a few times, it will be easy to see why climbers approach the technique with a fair degree of caution. But it's one of the activities central to climbing, and if you know what you're doing, it works well.
Sherpa climber rappelling on a crag with Ama Dablam in the background, Khutnbu region, Nepal. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie
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