Do you free solo? – Why Rappelling Back Up Is Important

Do you free solo?  Most people would say no way, not ever.  But wait a minute, what exactly is free soloing?

Free soloing is climbing with no safety net.  It’s a place where your life literally is in your hands and accidents are verboten.  While free soloing you only have one means of connection to the rock and if that fails you splat, end of story.

Now with that definition of free soloing I’d beg to differ with those people who think they never free solo.  Let’s think about what happens when you rappel.  You run your rope through a hopefully bomber anchor, toss it over the edge, attach your device and then you’re on your way down.  But while you’re rappelling you only have one method of connection to the rock and that is your brake hand on the rope.  In essence you’re free soloing because there is no safety net, there is no back up and the only thing between you and the infinite nap is your brake hand.

Now that may sound like a bit of a stretch but if you have ever read Accidents in North American Mountaineering you know that it seems like there are more rappelling accidents than any other type.  Now that is absurd to me because in a lot of cases those accidents are preventable by simply backing up your rappel.

I propose that next time you rappel you back it up just to see how easy it is.  The key to making it quick and easy is to use a very short cordolette as an autoblock attached to your leg loop with a locker.  You have to keep it short to prevent it from jamming your device should you have a gnarly accident.  This is crucially important so I’ll repeat it, the autoblock will not work if it jams your device so make sure it is short enough when everything is fully weighted and when you lift the leg that your autoblock is attached to.  I have an especially short cordolette that I have marked that I use to back up all of my rappels.

(Update 2012: I have started extending my belay device.  I started doing this because extending the device as shown in the diagram adds redundancy to the system.  This method allows me to remove a single point of failure and doesn’t use any gear that I don’t already have on my harness.  This method also has the benefit of keeping my autoblock even further from my device.  The picture is from “Self-Rescue” the book, which is highly recommended.)

A word on cordolettes.  Not all cordolettes work as friction knots.  Anything that is dyneema or dynex will not only slip but it will also melt and weaken to the point of failure.  This is the job for some good old fashioned 6mm accessory cord with a double fisherman’s knot.

Give this a try next time you’re out.  You’ll find that it takes almost no time and it makes life tremendously easier.  Just the other day I was rappelling down a slightly overhanging face and found the rope was tangled up into a big ball of nastiness.  I guess I could have done the “wrap the rope around your leg three times” trick but instead I engaged the autoblock, worked on the tangle and then finished the rappel. Piece of cake.

So next time you’re out, try backing up your rappel.  It takes 30 seconds and it makes climbing just a bit safer which will make your Mom happy.

If you want more great info on rappelling check out this article by Climbing Life Five Rappelling Techniques You Should Know

11 thoughts on “Do you free solo? – Why Rappelling Back Up Is Important

  1. Pingback: Backup That Rappel or Else! | Splitter Choss

  2. Jon

    Great article and demonstration. However, one thing that was pointed out to me recently was to make sure that you’re locking biner is slid ABOVE your leg harness buckle on your leg loop. Some buckles with the quick adjustment design will loosen when pulled upward as in your last photo. Just something to look out for.

  3. Jon

    Good point. I’ve never used a quick buckle system but I can see how if things get torqued wrong it could fail. Thanks for the heads up.

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  6. Zach

    I should elaborate. The autobloc, is ideally on the rope below your brake hand, being shoved down the rope by the edge of your fist as you rappel. You shouldn’t be gripping the knot. To do this, you typically need to extend the belay loop. I use a short sling, tied off into two legs for redundancy.

  7. Jon Post author

    Thanks Zach for the comment. I have carefully measured and tested by cordollete to be a safe length no matter what position I get spun into. I use the exact same cordollete and the exact same ‘biner. It is a real concern though. I’m not sure why I shouldn’t be gripping the knot. Instead of sliding the autobloc with my pinky as you suggest, I slide it down it my index finger so the autobloc is in my fist. This allows me to add extra friction when I am rappelling with a pack.

  8. Mark Tilburgs

    I always use a D-link biner and a very short prusik so the lot doesn’t get in contact with the rappelling device. Also never forget to put knots in the end of your rappelling rope or you’ll have a nasty surprise 😀

  9. Sandeep Kumar

    Thanks for the article. I never thought it in this way – rappelling without backup is free soloing!

    About not holding the know in your fist: I read somewhere that holding the knot in your fist can prevent the knot from tightening and thus not preventing your fall at all, and you will also burn your hand.

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