Half way up a long mountain route the heavens open halting your progress. How do you get out of this one?!
If you intend to progress beyond very simple crags you will need to learn how to abseil safely and efficiently. Climbers regard abseiling as a mundane but potentially dangerous task, observing with wry amusement that it is presented as a glamorous activity in some quarters. Abseiling has caused more fatalities than any other mountaineering activity.
Abseiling involves descending rope(s) using a friction device attached to your harness, such as your belay device. Terrain that would be too dangerous or time-consuming to descend by foot is descended by abseiling. This may be to escape a route beyond your ability, to get off a pinnacle you have just climbed up, or to approach the start of a sea cliff route. Even steep grassy slopes can feel a lot safer on an abseil rope!
If you have never abseiled before start at ground level down a shallow slope, before doing it 'for real' on a cliff.
Abseiling for real
Be careful - remember that you are at the top of a cliff!
Practice on a small cliff, but not down a popular route on a sunny day! You should be able to look over the edge to check no one is below and see that the ropes reach the ground.
Be careful when throwing your ropes from the cliff top. With one end attached stack the rest into a neat pile, then holding the last few metres in coils throw them out and down. Shout 'Rope below!' very loudly so that everyone is duly warned.
Attach the belay device to the central loop of your harness with the rope running through it, just as when belaying. With both hands locking off the control rope adopt the same body position as when lowered off a route: lean back and legs apart. In this position you will gracefully abseil down the cliff as you let the rope slide through your hands. Or you may judder nervously if it's your first time!
The take-off is often the hardest part of abseiling as you are leaving the horizontal cliff top for the vertical cliff face. If you find it awkward consider sitting on the edge and slowly sliding off. This lowers your centre of gravity making you more stable - part of the knack of abseiling confidently comes down to your balance skills.
When abseiling you can easily slip and let go of the rope - not a good idea! - but with an autobloc you can have a safety back up. This is a clutch that when correctly set up should hold the control rope if your hands let go.
To make a French prusik wrap the prusik loop around the control rope four or five times. Clip both ends with a karabiner and attach that to the leg loop of your dominant hand. If you have too many turns it can be very hard to release it, so get to know how many you need.
When held in your hand the knot is loose allowing the rope to slide freely, but if released it grips the rope and prevents further progress. The prusik is not fail-safe, it could rub against something and release, so always try to keep hold of the control rope.
If retreating from a longer climb when more than one rope length above the ground, then abseiling on doubled ropes will be necessary. This allows one end to be carefully pulled once everyone is down, and in this way the cliff is descended in stages. Try to pull the rope slowly and treat spikes directly below the anchor with suspicion. They are likely to snag the rope as the free end falls causing a tangle that may well be difficult and dangerous to reach. Almost all commonly used belay devices have two holes to allow you to belay or abseil using double ropes.
One advantage of climbing with double ropes is that when making a multi-pitched descent off a cliff face you can tie your two ropes together and so abseil a full rope length at a time. It is common to tie them together with an overhand knot, as this will be less likely to jam in cracks when retrieving your ropes.
If at all unsure whether your ropes will reach the ground there is a real risk of abseiling off the end of them. In these cases it is always best to tie a knot in the end of them.
Anchors and attachments
Roped descents rely on sound anchors and careful checks of all attachments. An
inadequate anchor negates the entire system, and if anything becomes detached the consequences are often fatal.
Bouncing should be minimised, despite the popular television image of the commando-style descent! Shock loading a belay strains the system unnecessarily; an abseil descent should be steady and avoid sudden drops.
If an existing abseil point is used, all equipment should be carefully inspected for secure anchors, signs of serious corrosion, and damage to slings. Retrieving a rope after abseiling can drastically weaken slings by melting them, sometimes after only a single abseil. This is not a problem if you are leaving your own gear behind, but you may be using someone else's already damaged sling. It is preferable to link the abseil rope to the anchor arrangement with a reliable metal link such as a karabiner.
Most climbers have at some point made an emergency descent off a cliff face. It's not a sign of failure! If you do find yourself in that position then do not panic - easy to say of course! The large majority of popular climbing cliffs in Britain can be descended in three long abseils at most, so just do a stage at a time.
If you do have to retreat off a multi pitch climb then consider abseiling down your line of ascent - at least it will be familiar territory.
If there are solid spikes or threads you can trust then maybe only a sling will be left behind. Even better buy a few metres of spare rope and with a knife cut bits off to tie into loops as you descend. Do not hesitate in leaving climbing gear behind, as losing any amount of equipment is incomparable to losing a life.
Just remember that abseiling is dressed up at outdoor centres as a safe and fun activity, which in that setting it is. However, when used by climbers as a means of descent it is a much more serious undertaking.
• Harness tied correctly?
• Are you 100% confident in your anchor?
• Rope(s) threaded through anchor and abseil device correctly?
• Karabiner screwed up?
• Do your ropes reach the ground? If in doubt, knot the ends
• Make it Safe - Think about wearing a helmet and using a prusik loop
Anchors and Attachments r thebmc.co.uk
The BMC and Mountain Leader Training:
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