You've completed your climb and you're several pitches above the valley floor.Time to abseil. Mike Margeson provides some valuable tips on how to get down in one piece, and recalls a couple of near misses.
Seared into my memory are the two occasions when, if not for the vigilance of my climbing partners, I’d have become just another abseiling fatality statistic, statistics which include some very talented and experienced climbers. So, just what can you do to stay safe when heading down?
Stay switched on
Human error is a major contributory factor in many abseil accidents. On the arrival at the top of a climb many emotions will be at play: satisfaction, relief, enjoyment. But the game is not over – this is the time to stay focused and really use your skills, experience and judgment; you’re not safe until you’re back at the foot of the route. Work as a team: checking and working together to efficiently manage your descent, not allowing yourself to be distracted from the vital safety checks that need to be made at each stage. You need to stay focussed, especially when other pressures – such as bad weather or darkness – come into play.
Check the anchors
Each anchor should be critically inspected – whether a gleaming abseil station or a mountain-crag thread – since all your eggs are about to be in one basket. However well-travelled a sport route looks, check every chain ring (and especially whether any maillon rapides are fully screwed up). On sling belays take time to inspect the set up: how long has that cord or sling been there; what colour was it originally; how much UV has it seen in its life; is it actually threaded? If you are not completely happy about an abseil anchor then leave behind an additional piece of gear, or replace the in-situ tat. Carry a few metres of 5 or 6 millimetre cord and a small, sharp knife to equalise anchors or replace threads. Before choosing not to leave behind an extra wire think: how much is your life worth?
Manage your ropes
The length of your rope is obviously critical, but diameter is ever more significant with the many ‘skinny’ ropes about these days. Think about your choice of abseil device and your rope diameter before you have to use the combination in anger; a smaller diameter rope will travel more quickly (sometimes very quickly!) through your friction device. When joining two ropes to abseil my preferred method is the neat and compact overhand knot – less prone to jamming on retrieval, but don’t forget to leave reasonable tails of about 50cm. How you manage your ropes will be slightly different at each abseil station but being organised, efficient and avoiding a complete ‘birds nest’ is crucial. And, when you’re pulling through your ropes, make sure that you attach one end to the anchor beforehand – avoiding the schoolboy error of your rope flying off down the cliff leaving you stranded.
Tying knots in the end of your rope: pros and cons
Many choose to tie knots in the end of their rope, as shown in the UIAA Alpine Skills book, to prevent the danger of abseiling off the end of your rope. However, many also don't choose this method of backup as, when pulling the ropes after a successful abseil, the bulky stopper knots can sometimes jam the ropes on their way down, leading to a tricky situation of how to unjam and retrieve the ropes.
Here are some pros and cons from Mountain Safety Consultant Steve Long:
No knot in ends of rope
PRO: Less prone to catching on spikes or in cracks.
CON: More prone to dying due to abseiling off the end.
Both ends tied together
PRO: Can't forget to undo one end when pulling the ropes after abseiling.
CON: Very prone to catching on spikes.
Steve suggests that tying knots in the end of ropes is a 'reasonable compromise' but that, at the end of the day, some people will disagree and there is no set rule.
WATCH: Winter Skills 3.4: How to belay on winter climbs on BMC TV
Remember basic skills
Some form of cowstail to attach yourself to anchors will be required – perhaps the easiest is to larks foot a sling to your central belay loop; a number of knots can be tied to provide different lengths. Use some form of back up device – the most commonly used is a French prusik, but don’t assume it won’t slip. When intentionally stopping don’t just let go of the control rope, leaving it held on the prusik alone, but twist the rope around your back and opposite leg first. Before you leave each set of abseil anchors, get your partner to double check you. When you arrive at the next anchor you can hold the rope from below to further protect them. Remember the further you are down the rope the less weight of rope below you and the less friction you will have. Often, if doing multiple abseils, I use a pair of thin leather gloves. Be careful when abseiling with a sack, as it can make you top heavy and vulnerable to tipping upside down.
Know your route
Descent routes are fairly obvious on sports climbs, but on bigger mountain routes the line of descent might be less obvious. Sometimes it’s beneficial to lower the first person down to search out the route. If it’s really windy this is also a good way of getting your ropes to the correct place, rather than wrapped round some spike of rock. The steeper the route down, the less edge and friction problems there will be in retrieval. Before descent, check exactly which rope you are going to pull on to retrieve (having different coloured ropes will help). The first person down should check that the ropes are going to pull OK before the next person heads down.
So, back to my two near misses. The first was in the south of France, on the descent of a big wall. Three abseils down, I swung into a ledge to join my partner, unclipped my belay device and prusik and promptly leant out to check the ropes before pulling them down, only to be grabbed firmly by my central belay loop. I’d forgotten to clip my cowstail in on arrival, and wasn’t attached to anything. I can tell you my heart rate was racing for a few minutes! The second was descending the Old Man of Hoy. I’d fiddled our ropes through a huge mass of slings but had actually only threaded through one side of the anchors. Again my climbing partner’s vigilance stopped me before I set off. So, learn from my mistakes; stay focussed and work as a team, checking each other until you are both safely on the deck.
Mike Margeson (BA, MIC, IML) runs his own business, Mountain Recreation (firstname.lastname@example.org). He is also Professional Officer for AMI and Vice Chairman of Mountain Rescue England and Wales.
Our abseiling expert is Jon Garside. Jon is the BMC/MTE Training Officer. He’s been climbing for over twenty years and has had more abseils than hot dinners. Contact him at email@example.com with any tricky questions.
Q. Can I abseil with my belay device?
A. The issue is not whether a belay device can be used for abseiling, but if the device you have is appropriate for the rope you’re using. Whilst rope diameter is likely to be the greatest factor affecting the amount of friction created in a belay device, a rope’s flexibility and coatings also come into play. As a basic rule, do not blindly assume that any one belay device is appropriate for all ropes, and read the manufacturer’s advice on the minimum and maximum rope diameters to be used with your device.
Q. What length and diameter of rope should a prusik loop be?
A. For abseiling, 1.5m of 5mm climbing cord is sufficient. It should be tied in a loop using a ‘double fisherman’s bend’ knot
Q. How should I use a French prusik?
A. With your abseil device attached to you central loop, it’s common practice to attach the prusik loop to the leg loop of your harness on your dominant side. This will help to keep the prusik knot away from the belay device, where it could jam. When abseiling, place your hand over the prusik loop to prevent it from grabbing the rope.
Q. What is ‘abseil’ rope? Should I use that?
A. You can buy low stretch semi-static rope in climbing shops, but this is only used for abseiling (e.g. for outdoor groups, filming etc.). You can’t climb on it, so best stick with your normal climbing ropes.
Q. Can I abseil on my Petzl GriGri?
A. Yes, you can. If you have only one rope, tie into an end and then lower yourself, just as you would lower someone from a climbing wall. You can only use this method if lowering off a karabiner (or other smooth metal fixing such as a maillon) and ensure a knot is tied in the other end of the rope. If you have two ropes, thread the one you intend to abseil on through the anchor, tie a figure-of-eight on the bight in the end, and attach that back to the rope below the anchor with a karabiner. The other rope is also attached to the figure-of-eight on the bight and hangs free. With a knot in the end of the abseil rope, descend it, and when at the bottom, pull on the other rope to retrieve both ropes. Practice this before using.
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