Rappelling (known by the German word “abseil” in much of the world) is often boring — though it’s one of the most important things you will do as a climber. The majority of climbing accidents occur during the rappel, so make sure you do it right.
The standard method of rappel — using a climbing harness and friction device, like an ATC or Reverso, to descend the rope — can only take you so far. Certain situations require different types of rappel techniques. Some of these techniques could save your life one day. Others, like the Australian rappel, are too dangerous to be useful, but are interesting nonetheless.
Say you drop your friction device during a long climb. How do you rappel then?
Without a friction device, the most common and safest rappel technique is to use a Munter hitch on a locking carabiner (you can also use it to belay). It’s named after Werner Munter, the Swiss alpine guide and author who created the knot. In the non-English speaking world, it’s known as “Halbmastwurf” — German for “half clove hitch”.
It’s easy to tie:
The Munter Hitch won’t give you as smooth of a rappel as a friction device will, and it tends to put kinks in the rope, but in certain situations there are no alternatives. Every climber should have this useful knot wired.
An unlikely scenario: You drop your friction device, as well as all your carabiners. Or you’ve left your climbing harness at home. What do you do then?
Simply use a dulfersitz, a.k.a. a classical rappel, which uses your body as a friction device. Before the invention of climbing harnesses, people belayed and rappelled by threading the rope around their bodies in various configurations. The friction of the rope sliding over your shoulders and through your crotch will slow down your descent.
There are numerous methods, the most common being:
1. Straddle the rope, with your back toward the direction you will rappel.
2. Bring the rope around your right hip and across your chest.
3. Wrap the rope over your left shoulder and across your back.
4. Hold the top end of the rope with your left hand, the bottom end with your right.
Note: With the dulfersitz, there’s a serious danger of falling out of your makeshift rope harness. Only use it in an emergency. Plus it hurts like nobody’s business. You don’t want to use your crotch as a friction device, trust me.
South African Rappel
A variation of the old school rappel, the South African rappel was developed by Andrew Friedemann, a South African mountain guide who wanted to create a safer and more comfortable alternative to the dulfersitz.
The South African rappel improves on the dulfersitz by separating both strands of the rope:
1. Face the anchor and place one strand of rope under each shoulder.
2. Cross the strands behind your back.
3. Bring both strands in front of your body and wrap them around your hips and under your crotch.
4. Both strands should be going through your legs, facing the direction that you will rappel.
5. Keep one hand on the strands of rope behind you to control the speed of your descent.
With this technique, you’ll be less likely to fall out of the rope harness. And the South African rappel requires only one hand to control it, unlike the dulfersitz.
Simul-rapping — the process whereby two climbers simultaneously descend on different strands of the same rope — is controversial in the climbing community. Some climbers say it’s a safe and quick way to descend a route, while others say that it adds unnecessary risk to the rappel and doesn’t save much time. There are several risk factors with a simul-rappel:
1. With two climbers on a rope at one time, it loads the anchor with twice as much force. Make sure your anchor is bomb-proof before you attempt.
2. The varying weights and speeds of descent of the two climbers can be problematic. Make sure you communicate with your rappel partner before you attempt, otherwise one person might reach the bottom before the other, sending him plummeting to the ground without a counterweight on the other end of the rope.
All in all, simul-rappelling probably isn’t worth the risk. Regardless, in certain cases it can’t be avoided. On top of certain rock structures, like desert towers, there aren’t places to build an anchor. In these cases, climbers drape the rope over both sides of the tower, and descend both sides at the same time.
Rappel like a commando. Originally developed by the SAS, the special forces branch of the Australian military, the so-called Australian Rappel is where you rappel with your body directed toward the ground, rather than toward the sky on a normal rappel. This allows the rappeller to shoot any bad guys at the base of the wall from which he’s descending.
It’s also know as “rap jumping”, or a “Geneva abseil”.
The process by which you perform an Aussie Rappel can be complicated — usually it involves rigging a carabiner and figure eight friction device to the back of your harness.
The situations under where an Australian rappel might be useful are slim – most of the times, I leave my semi automatic assault weapons at home while climbing. It simply adds an unnecessary risk to the already risky activity of rappelling. Only attempt it with proper training and supervision.