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Belaying a Rappel


Original Post
Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0

Sometimes, you want to add a belay to someone's rappel. For example, you have a novice climber who's doing their first rappel. Or, you're teaching someone some new techniques (such as leg wraps, new rappel devices, changing over to ascending, etc). What's the best way to belay the rappel?

I've seen AMGA guides use a top belay (usually a Munter), and instruct from the top of the pitch. I've also heard a lot of suggestions to do a fireman's belay for novice climbers. I do know that in canyoneering, there are also a lot of ways to rig a rappel anchor so that in a contingency, they can become lowering systems as well. What are other people's thoughts?

I'm partial to a top belay, as it gives me the most flexibility in teaching - I can teach the setup, have the student rig their rappel device and backup with me watching, and still have control of the entire system if they screw up. But, a top belay requires a second rope, and turns a smaller anchor into a clusterf*ck. I also realize that I don't have an easy way of lowering the climber if their rig jams up (from hair, clothes, fingers, etc.), but then I also wonder how much of an issue that is.

John Wilder · · Las Vegas, NV · Joined Feb 2004 · Points: 1,530

Outside of an instructional course, I wouldn't do anything other than a fireman's. If I was concerned that a fireman's wasn't sufficient, I'd lower the person and then rappel on my own.

Wilson On The Drums · · Woodbury, MN · Joined Dec 2010 · Points: 940

It's easy and possible to put everyone in party on rappel at once (granted stances and anchor access). Let's say there's three of you, two novice (A and B), one experienced (C). While all are secure to the anchor (using something other than the line to be rapped on), load A's belay device onto the rappel device and situate A close to anchor. Then pull up some slack and load B's device onto rappel (in series..). Finally, C goes onto rappel, with a backup, and rappels down. In this case C, while rappelling, essential acts as a fireman to B. Once C is down, secure, and off rappel at the next station, ground, etc., B rappels with C doing a fireman's backup. Once B is down, secure, and off, A rappels with again a backup fireman.

As always, practice on the ground. Rappelling is no joke. If "yer gonna die" climbing it's likely to be while rappelling.

ViperScale · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2013 · Points: 235

Doing multi pitch reppel with new climbers I always put them on rappel than go down below them first and use a fireman. Unless they were to take the rappel off after I went down there is pretty much no way they can get hurt that way.

Jay Eggleston · · Denver · Joined Feb 2003 · Points: 17,795

You don't need two ropes. Anchor the rope in the middle and have them rappell on one strand while you belay on the other.

Greg D · · Here · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 871
ViperScale wrote:Doing multi pitch reppel with new climbers I always put them on rappel than go down below them first and use a fireman. Unless they were to take the rappel off after I went down there is pretty much no way they can get hurt that way.
This is sort of good.

Except I would always make my novice partners put themselves on rappel while I watch and inspect that they do it correct. Doing it for them is not teaching (more like guiding), imo.
Greg D · · Here · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 871
Jay Eggleston wrote:You don't need two ropes. Anchor the rope in the middle and have them rappell on one strand while you belay on the other.
This sounds good in a way and would work. But.....!!!!!!!

Are they rapping to the ground?

Are there knots in the rope?

Do they know where the are going?

Etc...

I would hesitate to have a beginner go first on most rappels!!!!
Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0
Greg D wrote: This sounds good in a way and would work. But.....!!!!!!! Are they rapping to the ground? Are there knots in the rope? Do they know where the are going? Etc... I would hesitate to have a beginner go first on most rappels!!!!
I am personally opposed to teaching rappels in a multipitch environment. I would much rather have someone be really comfortable with single pitch rappels before they get into doing multipitch rappels, that way when they are going to the next anchor, they have their system down tight.

Jay Eggleston wrote:You don't need two ropes. Anchor the rope in the middle and have them rappell on one strand while you belay on the other.
I don't really like to teach rappels on single strand if I know most of what the novice will be doing is double strand techniques. Rappelling single strand feels different, and the backups you'd use also differ. Also, I've found that doing this puts kinks right in the middle of the ropes, because every twist that you didn't get out milks itself towards the anchor, increasing the already messy clusterf*ck that is at the anchor.
Gunkiemike · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 2,745
Jay Eggleston wrote:You don't need two ropes. Anchor the rope in the middle and have them rappell on one strand while you belay on the other.
And anchor the middle of the rope with a knot that is releasable under load e.g. Munter mule. That way you can release it if the rapper gets his clothing/hair/nipplering caught in the device. If this were to happen while you're at the bottom giving a fireman's, there's little you can do to help.
Gunkiemike · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 2,745
Greg D wrote: This sounds good in a way and would work. But.....!!!!!!! Are they rapping to the ground? Are there knots in the rope? Do they know where the are going? Etc... I would hesitate to have a beginner go first on most rappels!!!!
It is rather important that the newbie knows where they are going and what to do when they get there. Although it's possible to keep them on belay while you rap down to them, if you don't trust them to get anchored properly.
Bill Lawry · · New Mexico · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,523
ntlhui wrote:I don't really like to teach rappels on single strand if I know most of what the novice will be doing is double strand techniques. Rappelling single strand feels different, and the backups you'd use also differ.
You make some good points there.

A decent backup on double strand may not work so well on single strand. And, personally, I don't put much emphasis on a rap backup for exactly that variability issue. So, concerns about backups do not factor into my thinking about a novice rapping on single versus a double strand.

Rappelling single strand does feel different. My main concern about teaching solely on double strands is the possible "surprise" out in the wild on the first occasion that rapping single strand is optimal. Maybe teach on both? That way, a novice gets some experience in a controlled environment about how variable the amount of friction can be and so is more likely to be aware that a given situation might warrant compensating by changing their normal rig for rap.

ntlhui wrote:Also, I've found that doing this puts kinks right in the middle of the ropes, because every twist that you didn't get out milks itself towards the anchor, increasing the already messy clusterf*ck that is at the anchor.
I think you are referring to the technique of fixing the rope in the middle and using one strand to backup up the novice's single-strand rap with belay from above - yes?
r m · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 0

I recall a caving text that warned against belaying rappels. The reason being if the rappeler spins the rappel line and belay line may twist and bind together.
Some food for thought if there are any overhangs involved.

Having said that I've done top belays with munters with newer folks on single pitch stuff. If it did somehow happen a single pitch environment is a forgiving place to work out such difficulties.

Michael C · · New Jersey · Joined Jun 2011 · Points: 340

I've been trained in and have used the Instructor Belayed Rappel. I would stress practicing it in a controlled environment a few times first just to get the hang of it and be familiar with how it works before jumping right into to it. If you are going to use this method, you should be very particular about the terrain. Features like a flat cliff top area and the ability to have a raised master point are really helpful.

I think ground school is probably the best way to learn. For example, find a big tree on a hill and have them rap a few feet off of that. Get them familiar with the Autoblock/Prussick and provide a fireman's backup.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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