Belaying, Rappelling

If you actually need to learn how to belay or rappel, go elsewhere. I’d recommend finding someone to teach you, hiring a guide, reading a good book, or at least posting a thread on rockclimbing.com.

This page is about alternative techniques, one’s you might not have learned in your gym’s belaying 101 class, that might help you to move faster and carry less stuff.

On any multi-pitch rock climb, a team of two should simply take one Grigri and one Reverso*.

*I say “Reverso” throughout this post. I do very much like Petzl’s Reverso II belay device, but really I’m just using that term for simplicity. Any tube style device with an autoblock mode will suffice, such as BD’s ATC-Guide, Trango’s B-52, Cassin’s Piu 2, and others.

The new mini Gri-Gri belaying the leader during an ascent of Washington's "Thin Red Line"

This system is very simple, light, and provides greater functionality than any other that I’ve used. Simply put, the leader always has the Reverso on his harness while leading, and is being belayed with the Grigri.

Once the leader reaches the end of a pitch and builds an anchor, he puts the second on belay with the reverso in auto-block mode (clipped into the anchor’s “powerpoint”).

When the second reaches the belay, he simply cinches himself up on the Reverso and hangs off it (no need for slings, daisy-chains, etc). Assuming they’re swinging leads, the two climbers swap all necessary gear, and the erstwhile leader puts the second, now the new leader, on belay with the grigri.

Once the new leader is ready to go, he un-weights the Reverso, unclips it from the anchor and the rope, and racks it on his harness. Climb on!

If leading in blocks, the follower should go in directly to the anchor (via clove hitch on the rope), put the leader on belay with the Grigri, and then de-rig the reverso for the leader to re-rack.

Graham chilling at a belay on "The Romantic Warrior", whilst hanging off a Trango B-52 in auto-block mode.

There are a number of reasons that I like this system. As detailed above, the belay swap-overs are simple and fast. Also, both the leader and follower are on belay with a hands-free device, which has a few benefits. Safety margins are padded a bit, since if the belayer becomes incapacitated or needs to use both hands, say to untangle the rope or dodge rockfall, the climber is still securely on belay. From a convenience standpoint, the belayer has hands free to snack, drink, put on a jacket, snap a photo, or whatever. This may seem trivial, but multitasking on a long route speeds everything up, and sometimes speed is safety.

Another common scenario: while the leader is bringing up in the follower, the rope becomes stuck. It may have gotten wedged into a crack, wrapped around a flake, or blown around a corner. Regardless of the situation, the leader can leave the rope essentially fixed (through the reverso in autoblock mode), and the second can use his Grigri to self-belay along the fixed rope.

See more potential uses for a Grigri on “Shortfixing and Simuling” and “Jugging and Hauling”.

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RAPPELLING

 When it comes to rappelling, the traditional method would have each climber slide down the rope in turn using his own Reverso. In my system, though, the team only carries one Reverso and one GriGri. So, in order to rappel, you have two basic options: Simul-rapping, or sequential rapping with the first rapper on a fixed rope with the grigri.

First: simul-rapping. I’m sure most folks will be familiar with the concept. Begin by threading the rope through your rappel anchor as normal, but each rapper takes one end, each threading their respective devices (grigri, reverso). Once both rappers are on rappel, simultaneously weight both strands of the rope and begin to descend. Take care at the end of the rappel, whether reaching the ground or simply the next rap station, both rappers must be secure before either rapper un-weights his strand.

Simul-rapping is great for clean raps with bomber anchors. Have the Grigri rapper descend slightly below the Reverso rapper, so that he can use his free hands to untangle both strands of rope.

There are definitely situations, though, in which simul-rapping is a poor choice. Unknown alpine descents, which often require searching in the dark for the next rappel station, are slower processes that should not be made needlessly dangerous with simul-raps. When building your own anchors, it’s nice to rap sequentially so that the leader can bounce test the new anchor with some backups in place*.

The second rappelling method, better for this situation, is “Sequential rapping with the first rapper on a fixed rope with the grigri.” The name says it all!

But here’s a step-by-step description:

  1. At the first (top) rappel anchor, thread the rope as normal, until the midpoint is at the anchor, leaving two 35m strands hanging below (assuming a 70m rope).
  2. Take one strand, and using a clove hitch and a locker, fix it to the anchor. The first rapper then descends this fixed strand with the Grigri.
  3. Once he reaches the next rap station, or the ground, he calls “Off Rappel!”.
  4. Upon hearing this, the second rapper unfixes the rope, affixes his Reverso to both strands of the rope, and descends.
* Bounce testing rappel anchors: This is often a good idea whether you just built a new rap anchor or are relying on aging and suspect tat. Place a bomber backup piece (or two), and then clip it to your rope, making sure that it is not weighted (the rap anchor should take 100% of the test). Then have the first rapper bounce a bit on the existing anchor. If it were to blow, he’d be saved by the backup. Once he’s off, the second rapper can remove the backup and rap on the now proven anchor.

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EXTENDO RAPPING

This is a method of making extended rappels with a single rope. In this example, I’ll show how to make a 40m rappel with a single 70m rope.

The basic idea is that, instead of rapping on both ends of your rope, fix one end with enough rope to reach the ground, and let the other end function as a pull cord. You can then extend the pull-end with anything handy: slings, cordalette, belts, quickdraws, cams, wires, even jackets, t-shirts, pants, whatever. Since the pull end is not load-bearing, anything at your disposal can function to extend your rappelling range.

I’m sure most of you are having no trouble picturing the setup, but for those that haven’t tried something like this before, here’s some steps:

In order to to determine the length of the rap, and even if you have to use the extendo-rap at all, have one member of the party (the leader) single-line rap first on the full length of the rope (70m). Once the leader’s on the ground (or to the next station), he can go off rap, but should hold on to the end of the rope. The second, still at the higher station (the second), should then pull up rope until it comes tight on the leader. Now the second knows that he has exactly enough rope to reach the leader.

Using the method pictured below, the second then fixes the rap line. As you can see in the photo, this method allows him to rap on the longer end, and use the shorter end as a pull-cord to retrieve the rope.

He then begins rapping down the longer line, making sure to hold on to the pull-end (you can clip it through a QD on the back of your harness). When he reaches the end of the pull-end, he begins to extend it with any available material (slings, pants, etc) until he reaches the ground. Once on the ground, pull the pants and you’ll retrieve the rope!

IMPORTANT CAVEAT! This is a slick maneuver, but not one that you’d want to rely on for multi-pitch rappels in adventurous settings. There is a huge potential problem: if you use the extendo-rap to reach a hanging belay, and then have a snag pulling (the knot gets caught) you could potentially find yourself in a situation where your entire rope is out of reach, and all you have is a few meters of slings (or pants!) with which to work. So, I would only recommend using the extendo-rappel when making the final rap to the ground, or if the terrain is super clean.

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