Climbers have several options to increase the safety of a rappel. The options are occasionally useful in specific situations or for helping a beginner gain confidence in rappelling.
Knots in the end of the rope: It's possible to rappel off the end of the rope if you're not paying attention. Some climbers put a knot in the end of each rope, or tie the ends together, to eliminate this danger. If you add knots, don't rely blindly on them to tell when you've reached the end of the rope. The knots might come untied, of course, and in any case you want to keep an eye on the end of the rope so you can plan where to stop. The knots themselves can cause a problem by jamming in the rock if you ever find it necessary to pull the rope back up to work on it.
Pulling on the rappel ropes: A person standing below a rappeller can easily control the rappeller's movement, or stop it altogether, by pulling down on the rappel ropes, putting friction on the brake system. To safeguard the rappeller with this method, the person at the bottom simply holds the rope strands loosely, ready to pull them tight the instant the rappeller has difficulty (fig. 8-20).
Top belay: The rappeller can also be protected by a belay from above with a separate rope. If the belayer uses a separate anchor, the rappeller is safe
from even a total failure of the rappel anchor. A top belay is recommended for all beginners, for climbers with minor injuries, and for the first person down on a suspect anchor. The belays are too time-consuming for routine use because they drastically increase a party's descent time.
Prusik backup: Some climbers like the security of a prusik or Bachmann knot while rappelling, sliding the knot along the rappel ropes as they descend. The knot is in place above the brake system, and the prusik loop is clipped to a carabiner linked to your seat harness. If the brake system fails and you start to drop, the pull causes the prusik knot to automatically grip the ropes and stop the fall (fig. 8-21).
Backing up your rappel with a prusik knot has its dangers. Be careful it doesn't lock up unexpectedly—once it's under tension it can be tough to get loose—and keep the loop short so you can reach it if it locks. There's also the opposite danger: that the prusik knot will fail to lock when it should, particularly if you forget to release your
hold on the knot. The prusik also has the unfortunate potential to burn through during a sudden stop from a high-speed rappel. Remember that controlling the prusik requires the full-time use of your guiding hand, which then isn't available for balance or protection.
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