Climb skills: how to abseil

Posted by Jon Garside on 14/03/2016
Abseiling off The Old Man of Hoy. Photo: Jon Garside

A look at the essential skill of abseiling. What do you need to know to get down in one piece?

Abseiling is an essential skill. And, despite it sometimes being presented as a glamorous activity, abseiling has caused more fatalities than any other mountaineering activity.

When to abseil
Abseiling involves descending rope(s) using a friction device (e.g. belay device) attached to your harness. It’s used to tackle terrain that would be too dangerous or time-consuming to descend on foot. For example; escaping a route beyond your ability, descending from a pinnacle, or approaching the base of a sea cliff.

Practice
If you have never abseiled before start at ground level down a shallow slope, before doing it for real. Then move on to a small cliff (not down a popular route on a sunny day!) Look over the edge to check no one is below, and with one rope end attached, stack the rest into a neat pile, then holding the last few metres in coils throw them out and down. Be careful, shout ‘Rope below!’ loudly to warn anyone, then check that the ropes reach the ground.

Attach the belay device to the central loop of your harness with the rope running through it, just as when belaying. With both hands locking off the control rope adopt the same body position as when lowered off a route: lean back and legs apart. In this position you will gracefully abseil down the cliff as you let the rope slide through your hands. Or you may judder nervously if it’s your first time.

The take-off is often the hardest part of abseiling as you are leaving the horizontal cliff top for the vertical cliff face. If you find it awkward consider sitting on the edge and slowly sliding off. This lowers your centre of gravity making you more stable.

Making it safer
When abseiling you can easily slip and let go of the rope with drastic consequences, so it’s a very good idea to use an autobloc as a back up to hold the control rope if you let go.

The most common autobloc is a French prusik, made using a prusik loop. It’s so effective and simple to tie that there’s no need to travel without it.

To make a French prusik wrap the prusik loop around the control rope four or five times. Clip both ends with a karabiner and attach that to the leg loop of your dominant hand. If you have too many turns it can be very hard to release it, so get to know how many you need. When held in your hand the knot is loose allowing the rope to slide freely, but if released it grips the rope and prevents further progress.

Remember that the prusik is not fail-safe, it could rub against something and release, so always try to keep hold of the control rope.

Multi-pitch
If retreating from a longer climb more than one rope length above the ground, then abseiling on doubled ropes will be necessary. This allows one end to be carefully pulled once everyone is down, and the cliff is descended in stages.

Try to pull the rope slowly and treat spikes directly below the anchor with suspicion - they are likely to snag the rope. Almost all commonly used belay devices have two holes to allow you to belay or abseil using double ropes.

One advantage of climbing with double ropes is that when making a multi-pitched descent off a cliff face you can tie your two ropes together and so abseil a full rope length at a time. It is common to tie them together with an overhand knot, as this is less likely to jam in cracks .

If at all unsure whether your ropes will reach the ground, tie a knot in the ends of them to prevent going off the end of the rope.

Anchors
You are absolutely reliant on sound anchors. An inadequate anchor negates the entire system, and if anything becomes detached the consequences are often fatal. Bouncing should be minimised, since shock loading a belay unnecessarily strains the system, so your descent should be steady, avoiding sudden drops.

If an existing abseil point is used, all equipment should be carefully inspected for secure anchors, signs of serious corrosion, and damage to slings.

Retrieving a rope after abseiling can drastically weaken slings by melting them, sometimes after only a single abseil. Not a problem if you’re leaving your own gear behind, but you may be using someone else’s already damaged sling. It is preferable to link the abseil rope to the anchor arrangement with a reliable metal link such as a krab.

If at all unsure, do not hesitate in leaving climbing gear behind; losing any amount of equipment is preferable to losing a life.

WATCH: Abseiling "Gogarth style" in T Rex the movie on BMC TV

WATCH: How to abseil on BMC TV

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