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.