Backup That Rappel or Else!

Picture this: It’s the end of a long day of cragging. You’ve been pushing it hard all day, and with the light fading you’re anxious to get back to the car and some ice cold PBR’s. You rig the last rappel, a full 30m off the ground, and cast off. Soon after leaving the anchor somewhere above you a bowling ball sized rock comes crashing down into your chest.  Stunned by the pain, you take your brake hand off the rope for a split second, but soon you’re plummeting towards the ground before you even know what  is happening. Hopefully you’ll land in a bush or something and survive the ordeal, but maybe not. Too bad, cause this was an easily preventable outcome if you’d just backed up your rappel.

Yesterday I came across this interesting article about using an autoblock for a rappel backup, and thought it was worth sharing. The basic premise of the post is that not using a backup while rappelling is tantamount to free soloing. I’ve never really thought about it like this, but it does make sense. In free soloing, the only thing keeping you off the deck is how well you can hold on to the rock. In rappelling, the only thing keeping you from certain doom is your hands on the rope. Now I’ll admit, for years I didn’t give much thought to backing up a rappel, unless I was in an alpine setting where one falling rock or chunk of ice could spell doom. Then I started hanging out with this cute blonde chick, who I soon nick-named Captain Saftey because of her commitment to being as safe as possible while climbing (which might have had something to do with the two ground falls she had witnessed, one of which resulted in a fatality, and both of which were easily preventable.) One thing lead to another and soon I was maried to this incredible woman, who helped instill in me a better sense of being smart while out climbing. As a result, over the last couple of years I’ve made it a habit to use a prussik (or at least get a fireman’s belay if possible) whenever I have to rappel.

The author also points out that a quick perusal of Accidents in North American Mountaineering shows a high number of incidents that occured while folks are rappelling, so why not stack the odds in your favor? Now a lot of people probably think it’s just not worth the hassle, nothing has ever happened to them, what’s the big deal? But the point is all it takes is one mistake while rappelling and it’s lights out. Here’s an easy way my friend Mike showed me to keep a small cord on my harness for use as a prussik. It’s low key and stays out of the way, but when you go to rappel you just unravel it and you’re good to go. Plus you’ve always got a prussik on you which can be handy for self rescue situations.


Bottom line, I agree with what the author is saying, and I think if more people thought of rappelling without a backup as free soloing, they’d probably think twice about not backing up the system. Be safe out there.

15 Responses to Backup That Rappel or Else!

  1. Nice post, I honestly don’t see a lot of people adding a backup to their rappel rig. The AMGA has been teaching this for years. I took a class in the mid-nineties that first taught me about extending my belay device off the loop (for better control) and employing a backup. I’m sure captain safety would also approve.

    Yuani February 25, 2009 at 7:35 pm
  2. I like this write-up a lot, thanks! It does seem like most accidents in climbing revolve around rapping. It’s a non-redundant system that we take entirely for granted. I carry a biner on the back of my harness with a knife, cord for a prussik and a tibloc. It’s a very light-weight self-rescue rig that could be the difference between a helicopter rescue off the top of Sundance buttress or getting home safe and happy. But I had a random guy, whom I had never met, pass us on the bookmark last summer and go off on my safety biner! “Why are you carrying all of this stuff? Do you really think you’re going to have to do a self rescue? What, are you going to cut the rope and save yourself??” He thought he was hi-larious. Jack-tard.

    Kate C February 25, 2009 at 11:26 pm
  3. Good backup is just have someone hold the end of the ropes, if you go out of control because of a bee sting, they just pull and the tension they make slows you down or stops you. Basic guide’s technique…

    Lou February 25, 2009 at 11:31 pm
  4. I agree Lou, that’s usually the simplest solution, though it wont work for the first person down.

    @Kate C Crazy that he was so irked by what you were carrying. Some people!

    BJ Sbarra February 25, 2009 at 11:47 pm
  5. Great advice. Rappelling is one of those things that you can do a million times and never have a problem with but it takes just one mistake to have a bad accident. There are too many examples of knowledgeable and qualified climbers losing their lives or getting hurt from a freak mistake. I have used the method BJ describes here since I took my first AMGA course. It’s small, lightweight and stays out of the way and it’s super easy to pull it out in a jiffy when you’re cleaning a pitch, swinging into an overhanging rappel station or whatever potentially sketchy manuever you might be involved in. My wife likes to use hers when rapping on skinny cords because it can provide a little extra security.

    Mike February 26, 2009 at 8:26 pm
  6. Cool. If you don’t have a prusik, you can use a sling. The old GRB (guides rappel backup). Tie it around the rope below your rap device with a prusik knot and clip or tie it the leg loop on your harness. You do have to hold onto the prusik while rapping or it will bind up in the rap device, which is bad!

    Craig February 27, 2009 at 7:02 am
  7. The set-up pictured in the referenced account is potentially dangerous; the back-up knot is too close to the rappel device. For more info, see

    It is worth at least mentioning that there are other ways of making rappelling more secure that don’t have the drawbacks of a backup knot (such as rigging it so that it may not work). The fireman’s belay from below is a better alternative, so the only person who needs some other type of backup is the first person down. But the first person down can easily rap on a single strand while being belayed with the other strand. The main drawback of this is that it isn’t macho enough for most folks.

    rgold March 9, 2009 at 5:00 am
  8. The method described on is not quite the same as the one described here. When the method described here is used properly the concern mentioned on won’t happen. As with anything, if you don’t rig it properly, it has the potential for failure. Hence, to try to write off this method of backing up a rappel because of the reasoning provided is pretty ridiculous. The method BJ describes here entail leaving the prusik girth hitched into the leg loop of the harness, thereby significantly shortening the length of the prusik so if you apply the proper number of wraps, with an appropriate length of prusik, then it won’t interfere or obstruct the rappel device. If you’re worried about it, then you can extend the rappel device with a sling. A fireman’s belay, while good to know, is not a feasible option for every rappel backup. Part of the idea behind the backup described by BJ is that it gives you a readily accessible rappel backup that takes a few seconds to apply because how many times have you seen people say, “I should probably back this up but I don’t feel like getting out a sling.” It is a method thoroughly espoused by the AMGA and if you take an AMGA course, chances are you’ll add one to your harness too after seeing its usefulness.

    Mike March 11, 2009 at 7:55 pm
  9. I was rapping an easy sport route the other day and was lowering over a roof. I aimed my right foot for a particular hold right below the roof, and missed. So I fell off balance. I’ll be damned if I didn’t find my brake hand off the ropes! In the blink of an eye (or in less time) I’d instinctively reached out to brace myself. This, despite years of training myself to never let go, to lower over roofs slowly and carefully to maintain balance, and years of rapping experience. Damn! Fortunately my ATC XP on the teeth side held me…at least that is what I believe kept me from plummeting. This experience was so shocking that now, even on short raps on sport crags, I put an auto-block loop and a locker on my leg loop. It is a hassle rapping with that extra tension on the rope. But I don’t want to test my luck a second time. It can happen to anyone, in the most common of circumstances!

    EJ June 9, 2010 at 4:31 am
  10. I use the autobloc about half the time, but now I’m convinced to use it all the time. Here’s a tip from my experience. These autoblocks will fail if not used properly. How well they work depends on a few things: the thickness of sling/cord used, the diameter of rappel ropes, and the number of wraps you use in your autobloc. Thick prussic cord/sling, 3 or less wraps, and/or skinny ~8mm rap ropes may lead to failure. Be sure to test your autoblock with these various combos while close to the ground. I have found on long rappels (~200ft), the autoblock works well in the beginning while the weight of the rope is helping, but near the end of the rappel the autobloc doesn’t engage quite so well. Usually my problem was too few wraps (3-4) or too fat of a sling (~15mm).

    Chris July 27, 2010 at 4:27 am
  11. Hmm, just stopped by more than a year later to find,

    “…to try to write off this method of backing up a rappel because of the reasoning provided is pretty ridiculous.”

    Well. First of all, the method is described by providing a link to pictures of the faulty method, and no comment, other than mine, is made about the dangers of that particular set-up. And worse than that, all that has happened since is a defensive retort which can only help to desensitize readers to the danger of rigging this wrong.

    Second, the extra comment about wrapping the prussic around the leg loop is,

    “Here’s an easy way my friend Mike showed me to keep a small cord on my harness for use as a prussik. It’s low key and stays out of the way, but when you go to rappel you just unravel it and you’re good to go.”

    This comment only describes a way to STORE the prussik loop and says nothing about how to USE it. A person reading that comment and unaware of the possible interference between device and back-up cord could easily unwrap the prussik loop from the harness and rig it exactly as shown in the site-promoted link with a biner on the leg loop. In fact, if they were going to use either a prussik knot or a kleimheist, they would HAVE to undo the girth hitch and use a biner. The girth hitch can stay on the harness only if a autoblock is used.

    None of this is mentioned, no cautions are provided, and all that is really offered is “if you don’t rig it properly, then it has the potential for failure.” You bet, and one year later you still have a link to just such a situation as the primary description of what to do.

    Look, it isn’t as if it is all that difficult to correct. First, get rid of the stupid link and post your own pictures of the right way to do it. Second, don’t rely on mental telepathy to convey what might be dangerous and what the solutions are. It has nothing intrinsically to do with girth-hitching a loop of cord to your harness.

    Tell folks to test their set-up in a safe place to make sure that, REGARDLESS of leg motions, the back-up cord can never come into contact with the rappel device. That’s what they need to know.

    rgold July 31, 2010 at 12:33 am
  12. There are too many casualties in “Accidents in North American Mountaineering” to even debate the use of some kind of rap backup. Nonetheless, I observe it being used less than 10% of the time. You never know about a rock, bird strike, wasp cloud, or whatever, and the ability to go “no hands” without risk is so important. IMO, at least.

    danimal7777 August 17, 2010 at 12:43 am
  13. PS, a Petzl Shunt is another airtight method for backup, at the expense of several ounces weight and a couple of twenty dollar bills.

    danimal7777 August 17, 2010 at 12:45 am
  14. Unless I scanned too quickly, I didn’t see anyone mention a backup via munter hitch. It’s super easy to rig, and the rappeller doesn’t have to worry about an autoblock or any similar friction knot because his/her buddy is in control of the munter. There are drawbacks however. If the route is overhung, the top belayer cannot see what’s going on, and screaming info to your belay at the top is a pain in the ass. Second, the munter hitch has been known to put kinks in a rope, and it’s also not great for the sheath. By no means would I use this method as a standard backup. It is helpful however to have as many options in your repertoire as possible. You never know when you might need it.

    Jake January 7, 2011 at 10:03 pm
  15. Read this post and got advice about it from an experienced friend. Extending the belay off of my harness with a PAS and using the prussik off my belay loop with a locking carabiner has made me much more comfortable rappelling knowing that I have a simple, efficient way to go hands free. Back up your rappels!

    IanJ March 23, 2011 at 9:12 pm
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