Mountain Project Logo

Rappelling with an ATC on a single rope

FrankPS · · Atascadero, CA · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 275

A fireman's belay is a good technique to know. When to use it is subjective, but it is a helpful technique.

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526

My point was you don't send a novice down on their first rappel with a fireman's belay as the only safety measure.

Live Perched · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2016 · Points: 11

Mark Hudon congrats on your free climb!

Bill Lawry · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,696

I put little faith in the fireman’s belay, though I do it once in a while when it seems wise (e.g., pendulum risk).

I think most do not understand the sustained focus required to unexpectedly need to react and stop someone before they deck or whatever.

B. Smith · · Denver, CO · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 45
Mark Hudon wrote: Okay, Beginners... you need to buck up and start using your brains and common sense. I’m seeing way to many of you out there not really knowing what you are doing.

Yesterday, we were getting ready to climb past two climbers who were climbing only the first pitch of a 10 pitch route. It was late in the day and we needed to practice climbing the entire route with headlamps. We told them that we were going to climb past them and that if they wanted to fix their line and rap off on a single rope, that we would drop their rope for them (they were going to drag a second rope and set up a two rope rap). The second replied that he didn’t know how to fix a rope. We replied that tying a knot to each bolt was all it took. He looked bewildered. They then both replied that they only had ATCs and that they couldn’t rap on a single rope. We mentioned that rapping on a single rope with an ATC was exactly like belaying and lowering a climber. Again, bewilderment, and the second added that he didn’t have a prussik so couldn’t do it. At this point we both realized that even this barest level of knowledge was above these two guys so we let them do their thing and just climbed past them.

So... rapping on a single rope with an ATC. Imagine that your leader is the anchor and instead of him moving up, you are moving down. Isn‘t it the same thing?
Fixing a rope. The leader leads a pitch that ends at two bolts. He takes two biners, clips them to the bolts, ties two knots and climbs them to to the biners. The rope is fixed. Isn‘t that just like setting up an anchor on a multi pitch route?
Rapping without a prusick. Sure, if you lose control, if a rock hits you in the head, if you suddenly pass out and lose consciousness you‘re going to plummet to your death. We do activities every day that our safety requires our concentration (driving a car?). I you concentrate for a bit, be aware, you can easily make it down from one rap to the ground and live to tell the tale.

Seems like an underwhelming story where you could have been a mentor, but instead took the the internet to belittle people who are learning.  Is this what Mt. Project is for?

patto · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 25

Ok.... Deep breath...  I'm about to go out on a limb and disagree with rgold.

rgold wrote: My point was you don't send a novice down on their first rappel with a fireman's belay as the only safety measure.

If you approach it correctly then you cetainly can do this safely.


rgold wrote:  which means they have to get started all by themselves with no one right there to help out.  
You pre-rig their system.  They are on belay the whole time held safe by your weight and their safety.  If they are fearful any you are worried they might have difficulty beginning the rappel then there are alternatives.

rgold wrote: The fireman's belay position is also a bad place to be if the rappeler gets stuck.
It is better than a common alternative of being above the rappeler.  Ascending from below to the stuck rappeler is pretty feasible.  Descending a taught line is much less feasible

rgold wrote: 
By the way, I've heard of incidents in which the "fireman" had a lot of trouble controlling the rappeller, typically, I think, when the rappeller is near the top and there is a lot of rope out.  My sense is that most people who deploy a fireman's belay haven't actually tested its effectiveness in any but an almost trivial situation.
Well that is a problem of application.  If you are in a secure position and have visual sight of the other party then providing a fireman's belay is fairly trivial.

rgold wrote: 
If you are going to take responsibility for someone's life, you don't deploy half-measures meant for emergency situations only. 
Who says that it is for emergencies only?

There are many advantages of a straight lower from above  however this may not be ideal in many circumstance such as multistage raps, poor communication.   It also does little to train in rapelling which is pretty important.
Bill Lawry · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,696
rgold wrote: By the way, I've heard of incidents in which the "fireman" had a lot of trouble controlling the rappeller, typically, I think, when the rappeller is near the top and there is a lot of rope out.  My sense is that most people who deploy a fireman's belay haven't actually tested its effectiveness in any but an almost trivial situation.

I’ve stopped someone with a fireman’s belay when they pendulum’d and then cartwheeled upside down over a low-profile rib.  It was a beginner who did not appreciate the pendulum risk he took by trying to follow “high ground” that worsened an already angling rap. On that one, I had some visual warning over time that the need for the fireman’s was going to happen.

On the other hand, I once tried to control someone’s otherwise normal rap for them (planned) with a fireman’s.  Stopping them was fine. But releasing them was surprisingly hard to control without dropping them a few feet to a hard stop (whew!). The fireman’s belayer lacks the positive feedback from the rope slipping through his/her grip as in a normal rap at that point when the static kink in the rope from being locked off finally  slips through.

Add what I said upstream about the need for sustained focus to stop the unexpected at a moments notice, leads to my agreement that the fireman’s belay is a half measure for hopeful thinking about dealing with an emergency and not a good idea for an early beginner (even if there is confidence in their threading the device correctly).

Better the person rappelling has a normal backup belay from above until they decide they are ready without it.

I am still intrigued about normally belaying from above during multi-raps where first person to rap does it on a single strand.  I suspect two people with a shared plan for it can be only slightly less efficient than the normal two-stranded rap for the first ... back on topic!  ;)
rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526

Patto, I perhaps I didn't make it clear that I was contrasting the fireman's "belay" to an actual belay from above,  which doesn't suffer from any of your objections.  And when teaching someone for the first time, I try to find a situation where I can rig the rappel line with a munter mule, so that if the learner totally freezes or get hair/clothing caught, they can be lowered to the ground from above (so only half a rope length...)

And meanwhile Bill has mentioned some minor difficulties.  The reality, as far as I know, is that people only actually apply the fireman's rarely, which means that experience in how much control is available in various situations is minimal.  I've read about problems with control when the rappeller is a long ways up and take those concerns seriously, for lack of appropriate personal experience.  (Other than testing the method out very occasionally, I've never once had to use it in a real case.)

 One thing I do so improve the chances of control in the fireman's belay is that I leave the rope in my rap device, so that I can jump-take if I need to apply more load than just pulling with both arms. (This also allows for a more gradual and controlled release of tension.)

But getting back to teaching someone to rappel, honestly, I think that taking someone up a climb with absolutely no rappelling experience and them having them rappel for the very first time with a fireman;'s belay is pretty negligent.

Oh and PS:  I have actually rescued a stuck rappeller from above (they were a lot less experienced than I realized or I would never have let them go first), and it was challenging, as you suggest.

Dave K · · San Diego · Joined Jul 2019 · Points: 0
rgold wrote: 
But getting back to teaching someone to rappel, honestly, I think that taking someone up a climb with absolutely no rappelling experience and them having them rappel for the very first time with a fireman;'s belay is pretty negligent.

The army teaches thousands of basic trainees every year to rappel with no other belay than a fireman's...given by another trainee that just learned how to belay.

Etha Williams · · Somerville, MA · Joined May 2018 · Points: 314

I’m curious to understand better the issues releasing the fireman’s that Bill and rgold are describing. The couple times I’ve provided one we had no issue with this—the rappeller communicated that they were ready to resume descending, I communicated “back on you,” and they carried on without incident. These were both experienced climbers, though, so perhaps that was part of it? Is the issue that people are trying to start moving immediately upon the fireman’s being released, or that they aren’t aware of the braking position/force necessary to remain stationary after the fireman’s is released?

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526
Dave K wrote:

The army teaches thousands of basic trainees every year to rappel with no other belay than a fireman's...given by another trainee that just learned how to belay.

Obviously my standards are rather different.  But I suspect the circumstances are far more controlled than taking someone up a climb and then having then rappel for the first time.

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526
Etha Williams wrote: I’m curious to understand better the issues releasing the fireman’s that Bill and rgold are describing. The couple times I’ve provided one we had no issue with this—the rappeller communicated that they were ready to resume descending, I communicated “back on you,” and they carried on without incident. These were both experienced climbers, though, so perhaps that was part of it? Is the issue that people are trying to start moving immediately upon the fireman’s being released, or that they aren’t aware of the braking position/force necessary to remain stationary after the fireman’s is released?

Part of the problem is that I haven't had any issues personally when I've tested fireman's belaying, I've just read about some problems over the years.  As I said, the issues seem to be related to how far above the bottom the rappeller is.  Other variables are of course rope diameter, suitablility of the device, and any rope friction that might impede the effectiveness of tension from below.

I use a fireman's belay all the time with experienced partners, and have said over and over again that it is actually preferable to having people rappel with a friction knot backup, so I'm hardly anti-fireman's.  I just think it is a poor way to teach a complete beginner how to rappel, and that's no matter what the US Army thinks.
Jim Titt · · Germany · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 490

There's a rather eye-opening test out there on the internet (related to grip strength) about the effectiveness of the firemans belay from a guy doing bridge rappels, I'll see if I can track it down.

Dylan B. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Mar 2006 · Points: 521

I learned how to rappel in 1988, with a forged eight. My climbing over the years has been intermittent, but I’ve got thousands of hours and pitches in my harness.

I’ve never done a single-rope rappel. Sure, I could figure it out if I had to. But it’s just never been a technique I’ve chosen to deploy.

I think Mr. Hudon has forgotten what the learning curve was like when he started. It surprises me not at all that a couple of guys with a season-and-a-half of climbing experience haven’t done a single-rope rappel. 

Bill Lawry · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,696
Etha Williams wrote: I’m curious to understand better the issues releasing the fireman’s that Bill and rgold are describing.

I was not very clear.

The sudden drop I mentioned was when the fireman’s belayer tried to lower the person after having first stopped them (e.g., person rappelling somehow becomes incapacitated, fell, was caught be the fireman’s belayer who then tried to control their descent the rest of the way).
Bill Lawry · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,696
rgold wrote:One thing I do so improve the chances of control in the fireman's belay is that I leave the rope in my rap device, so that I can jump-take if I need to apply more load than just pulling with both arms. (This also allows for a more gradual and controlled release of tension.)

Makes sense ... though I would advocate standing up as part of releasing some tension ... so you can drop once again to re-take if needed.

Bill Lawry · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,696
Jim Titt wrote: There's a rather eye-opening test out there on the internet (related to grip strength) about the effectiveness of the firemans belay from a guy doing bridge rappels, I'll see if I can track it down.

This may be it:

THE EFFECTIVENESS OF A BOTTOM BELAY ON LONG DROPS

In summary this testing suggests some points to consider for an out of control rappeller.
  1. The length of the drop matters. The further the rappeller is from the bottom belayer, the less likely the bottom belayer is to notice an out of control rappeller.
  2. The greater the rope length between the bottom belayer and the rappeller, the less effective the belay effort may be.
  3. The slower the reaction time of the bottom belayer, the less likely he or she is to be successful in his or her belay effort.
  4. The gripping ability of the belayer may be more important than the overall strength of the belayer.
  5. The size of the belayer may be misleading.
Dave K · · San Diego · Joined Jul 2019 · Points: 0

Unless there are some unusual circumstances like a very heavy climber, a thin rope, an overhang, or an 800 foot rappel, I just don't see an issue with a fireman's belay for a first time or beginner rappel. Most first time climbs aren't very steep (often slab where I climb), so often there is so much friction in the system already that just about any tension from the fireman's belay will provide plenty of braking power. Wrap the rope around your waist if grip strength is a concern.

No solution is perfect. Friction brakes could get stuck mid descent, etc. If there is something that can go wrong with a fireman's belay, I'd need to hear more specifics before I'd change my approach. 

Bill Lawry · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 1,696
Dave K wrote: If there is something that can go wrong with a fireman's belay, I'd need to hear more specifics before I'd change my approach. 

Things can go wrong.  Some are in the summary from the bridge testing.

It's just not something in which I put a lot of faith.  Others have more faith.
Pavel Burov · · Russia · Joined May 2013 · Points: 50
Bill Lawry wrote:

I am still intrigued about normally belaying from above during multi-raps where first person to rap does it on a single strand.  I suspect two people with a shared plan for it can be only slightly less efficient than the normal two-stranded rap for the first ... back on topic!  ;)

Basically the trade off is not that much. Clip a HMS binner and that's it. When rappeling in alpine environment I almost always coil a rope I'm about to rap on and attach it to my harness. I have a strong preference of having my rap rope on me versus dropping it somewhere it almost sure will stuck.

Although when yer rap route is clean (e.g. next to vertical solid granite wall, ref. Double Rappel Royal Arches Rappel Route Hell) there is no need in neither top rope belay nor coiling a rap rope. Just drop both strands down and "Banzai!!!"

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Beginning Climbers
Post a Reply to "Rappelling with an ATC on a single rope"

Log In to Reply