Rigging to Rappel: A Basic Guide

by June 17, 2013 06/17/13
Climbing Rope

Rigging to rappel is an often undervalued skill. It is certainly a necessary part of rappelling, but most people I know rig quickly and almost thoughtlessly so they can get to the fun stuff.

While I too would like to get rappelling as quickly as possible, there are some fast rigging setups that add huge value to your system and to your skill set as a technician in the vertical environment.

In my estimation, there are three types of rigging. Different scenarios present different options and obstacles and these three types cover all the bases.

These three types of rigging are:

  • Hasty
  • Retrievable
  • Contingency

I will discuss the first two types of rigging briefly and focus a bit more on contingency rigging.

Hasty Rigging

I call this first type of rigging hasty, for lack of a better term. This is quick and dirty rigging that gets you rappelling as quickly as possible. I usually see one of two options in the hasting rigging category.

The first option is simply to build a webbing anchor and attach the end of the rope to the anchor using a single-loop figure-8 and a locking carabiner.

On my Search and Rescue (SAR) team, we use this option for the first rescuer to arrive on scene because it allows them to get over the wall as quickly as possible, get to the subject and begin the rescue.

Hasty Rigging

(Left: Figure 8; Right: Toss-and-Go)

Another option that is used almost universally by climbers is called the “toss-and-go.”

This method consists of reeving the rope through bolts or rap ring at the top of a climb/rappel, feeding rope until you reach the middle of the rope and rappelling with both sides of the rope through the descending device.

Both of these options (and probably many others) get the job done quickly and efficiently and require minimal gear and effort. One major drawback to the first option however, is that you cannot retrieve the line once you get to the bottom of the rappel.

So if you need to perform multiple, different rappels with the same rope, you need to look to the “toss-and-go” or other options in the second category of rigging.

Retrievable Rigging

Retrievable rigging is just what it says: retrievable from the bottom of the rappel. The “toss-and-go” option also falls into this category which is why most climbers use it – it is quick and you get your gear back. Once you get to the bottom of the rappel you simply pull one side of the rope through the bolts or rap ring at the top. Retrievable rigging is also essential for canyoneering where you perform multiple rappels down wet or dry waterfalls to get through a slot canyon.

Retrievable Rigging - Knot BlockCanyoneers have put a lot of thought and time into this type of rigging and have developed additional options for retrievable rigging including the knot block.

With this method you reeve the rope through the bolt or rap ring, measure rope to the ground (no sense in stepping on rope at the bottom) and tie a knot like a single-loop figure 8 that will not pass through the rap ring.

There is some additional risk involved in this setup because you MUST rappel on the correct side of the rope. One side is meant for rappelling but the other side is meant to pull the rope at the bottom and will NOT work for rappelling.

There have been injuries and fatalities because people have rigged to the wrong side of the rope so it is essential that an experienced person rig and check these systems.

Another Way

The last point brings up something that most people don’t often consider: what can you rig to help the inexperienced rappellers as they are learning to rappel. What happens if a new rappeller gets stuck? How are you going to rescue them? Hopefully you know how to rescue yourself if something gets sucked into your descending device, but does your friend that is rappelling for the first time know how to fix it? Or what if they are using a prusik and it gets stuck because they forgot to tend it on the way down? Or what if they freak out and/or go unconscious and cannot unstick their prusik? How are you going to perform a rescue?

Their are a couple of options for the cool-guy carrying extra gear. You could setup an additional rope and perform a pick off. Once they are transferred to your line you can continue your rappel to the bottom. Or you could build a mechanical advantage (MA) system and haul their entire system back up to the top of the rappel. Both of these options are good, but they are time, personnel and equipment intensive. Great for SAR when you have tons of gear and trained people but not so ideal when it’s you and your other friends who have no clue what’s going on. Let me suggest another way: contingency rigging.

Contingency Rigging

Contingency rigging provides you the ability to lower the entire system in the event of a problem or emergency. Instead of needing another rope for a pick off or MA system, you lower their system. And instead of waiting 5 or 10 minutes to build the pick off or MA system, you can lower within seconds. In my rappelling class we have performed rescues on students literally within seconds of an incident. Consider this: if you get your hair or glove stuck in your descending device, would you rather wait minutes or seconds to get rescued?

There are many different contingency rigs out there, but today I am going to discuss the two most minimalistic, quick and versatile of the systems that I know. There are two additional systems that require more gear that I can cover another time. One important thing to note from the start: like the retrievable rigging systems, it is essential that the rope being used to rappel is twice as long as the drop for the rappel. It is possible that a person could get stuck right at the top of the rappel and you would need to lower them the entire distance of the rappel.

Tensionless

This first option is fast, requires nothing more than a rope and is just plain cool. This rig is also used on my SAR team for the first rescuer on scene whenever there is a good tree that can be used for an anchor. In fact, that is the only drawback to this system I can think of – it is only well suited for a tree or a pole, not for rocks or any artificial protection. However, a major bonus to this system is that there are no loaded knots in the system. Because knots inherently weaken the rope, with the tensionless you get the full strength of the rope in the system.

The tensionless is basically what you see in old cowboy westerns where the cowboy gets to the hitching post and simply wraps his reins around the post a couple of times. Believe it or not, that’s not just cowboys being lazy – it actually holds. To build the tensionless, you simply measure the rope to the ground and wrap the rope around a tree or pole a handful of times. You don’t need any webbing or carabiners or other anchor building materials. The number of wraps is dependent on the slickness of your rope and your tree or pole. On a normal, big tree I will usually do 4 wraps. If I were to use this on a 3″ diameter polished steel pole I might end up using more than 10.

Tensionless

At this point the rigging is still considered an open system. Though I submit that a tensionless with an appropriate number of wraps for the pole will PROBABLY never slip, you can close the system by tying a knot on the standing end of the rope and clipping to the loaded side of the rigging. However, if the system is properly rigged, that knot should never be loaded. In order to perform a rescue lower, untie the knot and feed rope through the system. You will have to create slack in the first couple of wraps in order to get the system to lower.

One last note on the tensionless: if you are performing a lower on a tree, you will undoubtedly damage the bark of the tree and may risk killing the tree. Plus, moving over rough bark isn’t exactly great for the sheath of your rope. The tensionless shouldn’t be a replacement lower system – just use it in case of emergency and conserve the trees at your favorite rappelling area whenever possible. If you expect to do multiple rescues, you might consider placing a tarp under your wraps.

There is another very minimalistic contingency rigging system that you can use when you don’t have a nice healthy tree available for rigging that I’ll cover next.

Munter Mule

Munter MuleThe munter mule rigging is taught (so I’ve been told) by the Boy Scouts of America rappelling and climbing instructors for use at BSA events.

Though not as uber-minimalist as the tensionless, all you need is anchor building materials and an additional carabiner. You may already know the munter hitch as a good backup for when you drop your descending device down the cliff – it provides enough friction to be rappelled with or perform a lower.

The mule knot ties off the munter hitch so that it will not slip and can be used for static rigging. The munter mule is perfect for contingency rigging because the mule knot can be easily untied under load so that you can lower the entire system using the munter hitch.

To use the munter mule rigging, you must first build or place an anchor. This can be webbing slung around a rock, bolts or rap ring, or a piece of artificial rock (or ice) protection.

Once you have measured your rope, clip a locking carabiner onto the anchor and tie the munter mule on the locking carabiner.

If you don’t consider an overhand or half-hitch backup a part of the munter mule knot itself (as some do), I recommend you tie a backup knot. Last, you can close the system by clipping a carabiner (even a non-locking carabiner) from the bight leftover from the backup knot to the line to be used for rappelling.

To lower with this system, unclip the carabiner, untie the backup knot and pull the standing end to untie the mule portion of the knot. At this point you can lower the entire system and subject to the ground.

This system is about as minimalistic as you can get if you have to build your own anchor. In fact, this requires the exact same amount of equipment as the figure-8 hasty rigging option. And once you’ve learned to tie it, it’s pretty quick to setup. There are other contingency rigs out there that require more equipment and provide additional benefits, but these are by far the most simple, minimalistic and efficient systems.

Munter Mule Step by Step

Use of Contingency Rigging

I want to finish by talking about the use of these systems and things to consider when rigging any rappel. First of all, you must remember that if you are rigging for contingency you have to have enough rope to perform a lower of the entire rappel distance. This means your rope must be a little bit more than twice as long as the rappel is tall. However, if you are performing a long rappel and have two ropes that are long enough for the rappel, you can make it work. You can do this by attaching the two ropes and placing the knot between the rigging and the rappeller. This way, if the system must be lowered, you don’t have to bother with passing the knot through your rigging.

Second, remember to protect the rope from any edge while performing your rappel. It will do you no good to break your rope because your lowered the rope over an abrasive edge without any form of protection. Even if the loweree survives, your operation is over. You should always be protecting your rope from the edge but it becomes even more essential if you are performing a lower. If you are not able to protect your edge you can also use contingency rigging to change the abrasion point between rappels.

Last, it’s not necessary that everyone in your group rappel with contingency rigging. I know canyoneers that use this rigging in canyons for everyone but the last person in the group. The last man at risk or LMAR (pronounced Lamar) should be a good enough rappeller that they can rappel on a retrievable system so you can get your rope and continue to the next rappel. It does take some effort to change a contingency rig over to a retrievable rig but if you are rappelling with inexperienced people, it’s probably worth it.

Conclusion

Though contingency rigging is probably not necessary in every circumstance, it’s a great tool for your toolkit. You should know how to rescue someone using mechanical advantage or a pickoff if you consider yourself proficient in the vertical environment. But if you’re anything like me, you will prefer this ounce of prevention whenever you can get it to the pounds of cure when it can be avoided.

Rappelling is inherently dangerous. The author, nor ITS Tactical, assumes any responsibility or liability for injury incurred by the reader. The information presented here is for educational purposes only. Always seek the instruction of a certified climbing or mountaineering guide.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please welcome Nick Sealy  as a contributor to ITS Tactical.  Nick is a member of the Park County Search and Rescue Team as a Wilderness EMT and member of the Technical Rescue Team. His background includes alpine mountaineering in Colorado and Alaska, canyoneering, backpacking and mountain guiding. Nick currently instructs in technical rope work, firearms and wilderness medicine.


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USMC MWTC
USMC MWTC

Another option for lowering is a Radium Release Hitch. Though more comment used to de-tension high-tension systems, with a long enough line you could theoretically lowere someone to the ground. Look at Rigging For Rescues report on release devices.

USMC MWTC
USMC MWTC

Another option for lowering is a Radium Release Hitch. Though more commonly used to de-tension high-tension systems, with a long enough line you could theoretically lower someone to the ground. Look at Rigging For Rescues report on release devices.

Jonbobshinigin
Jonbobshinigin

@Nicholas Sealy  With a figure 8 a "stopper knot" will serve no purpose other than to keep the extra rope/tail out of the way. If you take a sharpie and mark the beginning of a tail and load the rope until failure, the whole rope will coil like a snake and snap...but that sharpie mark will NOT pull through. All sorts of configurations were tried. This has been a recent finding though from what I understand.

james
james

I agree with the redundancy, except in emergency cases. I was taught to use at least 2 anchors spaced as far apart as possible/practical and a 2 line rappel will always give you a lot more control. We tie a double figure 8 with a bowline on the standing end and the 2 linked with a locking 'biner.

Garrett
Garrett

This is a great beginners article on rappelling, definitely a skill and a fear that people need to get over.

Requiem
Requiem

I too think it'd be a good idea to have follow-ups on anchor building and backing up a rappel, e.g. using a prussik/autoblock, tying off the ends, etc. Most of the rappel accidents featured in ANAM are due to anchor failure, rappelling off the ends of the rope, or inadequate backups.

BC
BC

...nobody's going to mention the complete lack of redundancy in any of the examples posted?

Phil Cunningham
Phil Cunningham

Having experienced a sight unseen, too-short rapelling rope, I echo the requirement for a knot (or a loop and carabiner, as I use) at the end of the rope. Additionally, what saved me, was my habit of always carrying two loops that I tied on to the rapelling rope using prussik knots, enabling me to climb back up.

Common Sense
Common Sense

I will also mention that tubular devices are generally quicker to hook up, don't twist the rope, and allow a much more easily controlled descent (about 5kg for a full brake). Fig 8s also have a smaller range of rope sizes per model then most modern tubular devices.

If you're used to it then continue, but for those just learning, start off with a Reverso 4 or an ATC guide.

Common Sense
Common Sense

I will also mention that tubular devices are generally quicker to hook up, don't twist the rope, and allow a much more easily controlled descent (about 5kg for a full brake). Fig 8s also have a smaller range of rope sizes per model then most modern tubular devices. If you're used to it then continue, but for those just learning, start off with a Reverso 4 or an ATC guide.

Common Sense
Common Sense

I will add to "Adam"'s post and amplify- you should ALWAYS PUT A STOPPER KNOT IN THE END OF THE ROPE!!!

One of, if not the most, common causes of death in

mountaineering are people rapping of the end of the rope.

Even if you are certain the rope will hit the ground put in a knot, then if you guessed wrong you won't die.

I also think it's time to move on form the figure 8. They hold no advantage over a tubular device (reverso, ATC, etc) and perform only one function. Tubular devices (especially "guide" models) have many uses, including belaying, rescue system auto blocks, and rope ascension, plus if you are using a single rope you can swap sides if one becomes worn due to long rappels, can't do that with an 8.

Common Sense
Common Sense

I will add to "Adam"'s post and amplify- you should ALWAYS PUT A STOPPER KNOT IN THE END OF THE ROPE!!! One of, if not the most, common causes of death in mountaineering are people rapping of the end of the rope. Even if you are certain the rope will hit the ground put in a knot, then if you guessed wrong you won't die. I also think it's time to move on form the figure 8. They hold no advantage over a tubular device (reverso, ATC, etc) and perform only one function. Tubular devices (especially "guide" models) have many uses, including belaying, rescue system auto blocks, and rope ascension, plus if you are using a single rope you can swap sides if one becomes worn due to long rappels, can't do that with an 8.

Michael W. Perry
Michael W. Perry

Thanks for a most comprehensive list. But you fail to mention the best option of all--use an elvish rope that comes tumbling down when you wish for it. That's what happened after Frodo and Sam climbed down the cliff in The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, I just checked on Amazon and no elvish rope is listed. We're stuck with these inferior and distinctly unmagical methods.

Modern cameo clothing doesn't work as well as their elvish cloaks either.

Michael W. Perry
Michael W. Perry

Thanks for a most comprehensive list. But you fail to mention the best option of all--use an elvish rope that comes tumbling down when you wish for it. That's what happened after Frodo and Sam climbed down the cliff in The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, I just checked on Amazon and no elvish rope is listed. We're stuck with these inferior and distinctly unmagical methods. Modern cameo clothing doesn't work as well as their elvish cloaks either.

Adam
Adam

As some one with considerate experience in rescue and recreational climbing and rappelling I think this is a well written into with two omissions on one component of any lowering system.

Please consider a paragraph on self arrest with photos. The use of a prussic on the descent ropes has a time and place for some users and systems and a block at the bottom of the rope for those times when you may not be able to see the bottom of the rope or if it is a multi-pitch decent.. Neither are needed on every repel, but they are both important. [ITS, should you update the article, feel free to drop my comment]

Adam
Adam

As some one with considerate experience in rescue and recreational climbing and rappelling I think this is a well written into with two omissions on one component of any lowering system. Please consider a paragraph on self arrest with photos. The use of a prussic on the descent ropes has a time and place for some users and systems and a block at the bottom of the rope for those times when you may not be able to see the bottom of the rope or if it is a multi-pitch decent.. Neither are needed on every repel, but they are both important. [ITS, should you update the article, feel free to drop my comment]

stilljames
stilljames

AJ3 The distance  between the anchors has very little to do with the angles. they are simply nearer or further from the edge/tie off  or use longer anchor lines with the whole rigging further away to reduce the angles,I should have clarified this.Widely spaced anchors can cause problems with lateral swing and abrade rope should one fail, above and beyond the problems in the link.

Nicholas Sealy
Nicholas Sealy

BC- I have some similar questions: what part are you referring to? Single rope? Single carabiner? Single anchor point?

If I am rappelling on a BFR/BFT that's all I use. If I am rappelling on pieces of artificial protection that I have placed I will usually build an EARNEST multi-point anchor and certainly have redundancy (multiple anchor points) in my system. But at the end of the day I'm pretty much always only on one rope and therefore no matter how many anchors, carabiners, etc. I use, I am vulnerable to a single point failure at the rope.

One last point - these systems are rigged for individual rappel. If I am doing a technical rescue (MA or Lower) I will definitely have lots and lots of redundancy built in: multiple anchors, tandem prusik belay, and lots of people to check the system and help.

Nicholas Sealy
Nicholas Sealy

BC- I have some similar questions: what part are you referring to? Single rope? Single carabiner? Single anchor point? If I am rappelling on a BFR/BFT that's all I use. If I am rappelling on pieces of artificial protection that I have placed I will usually build an EARNEST multi-point anchor and certainly have redundancy (multiple anchor points) in my system. But at the end of the day I'm pretty much always only on one rope and therefore no matter how many anchors, carabiners, etc. I use, I am vulnerable to a single point failure at the rope. One last point - these systems are rigged for individual rappel. If I am doing a technical rescue (MA or Lower) I will definitely have lots and lots of redundancy built in: multiple anchors, tandem prusik belay, and lots of people to check the system and help.

Requiem
Requiem

A thick, well-rooted tree (BFT) or giant boulder (BFR) is generally considered a safe exception to the redundancy requirement. The "wrap 3, pull 2" arrangement is also good for 35-40 KN. AMGA has moved to a 2-locking/3-non-locking standard for carabiners at the power point, but using a single locker isn't hideously dangerous, particularly for a rappel. (Of course, if you have two bomber anchor points right next to each other, why not use them both?)

Regarding single ropes and the "why have a redundant anchor" question: short of being weighted over a sharp edge, or having a falling boulder sever it, your rope is extremely unlikely to break. However, that small tree you've picked for the anchor might have a dead root system, the guy who placed the anchor bolts might have decided to do it on the cheap, or a convenient horn of rock might decide today is a good day to break off.

Requiem
Requiem

A thick, well-rooted tree (BFT) or giant boulder (BFR) is generally considered a safe exception to the redundancy requirement. The "wrap 3, pull 2" arrangement is also good for 35-40 KN. AMGA has moved to a 2-locking/3-non-locking standard for carabiners at the power point, but using a single locker isn't hideously dangerous, particularly for a rappel. (Of course, if you have two bomber anchor points right next to each other, why not use them both?) Regarding single ropes and the "why have a redundant anchor" question: short of being weighted over a sharp edge, or having a falling boulder sever it, your rope is extremely unlikely to break. However, that small tree you've picked for the anchor might have a dead root system, the guy who placed the anchor bolts might have decided to do it on the cheap, or a convenient horn of rock might decide today is a good day to break off.

Common Sense
Common Sense

Do you mean the fact that he's rappelling with single strand? Or are you talking about the anchors?

If you are rappelling single strand then why have a redundant anchor? The SINGLE rope isn't redundant! Single strand rappels are common and relatively safe.

Redundancy in anchors are generally for large rappel installations or bridging and certainly for deliberate rescues.

Unless the rock is quite sharp or you have several anchor points that aren't particularly bomber I don't see the need for redundancy.

Other opinions?

Common Sense
Common Sense

Do you mean the fact that he's rappelling with single strand? Or are you talking about the anchors? If you are rappelling single strand then why have a redundant anchor? The SINGLE rope isn't redundant! Single strand rappels are common and relatively safe. Redundancy in anchors are generally for large rappel installations or bridging and certainly for deliberate rescues. Unless the rock is quite sharp or you have several anchor points that aren't particularly bomber I don't see the need for redundancy. Other opinions?

Nicholas Sealy
Nicholas Sealy

CS- I definitely agree about the use of the stopper knot. Though there is one scenario I can think of where it is undesired (when rappelling into a pool of water and when you can see the rope touch the water), it is a good rule to follow. Like I said to Adam, this post was dealing with rigging at the anchor but I agree that point should be stressed. There is plenty more to be covered in the areas of anchor building, rappel setup and rappel technique and we will make sure to make that point very clear in another article.

As for the figure 8, you're not the first person I've heard that doesn't like them - I know most teams in technical rescue are moving away from them as well. I like them, but the real reason they are in all the pictures is because that is all I had on hand when I was taking pictures. I personally use either a reverso or a device called a Totem.

Nicholas Sealy
Nicholas Sealy

CS- I definitely agree about the use of the stopper knot. Though there is one scenario I can think of where it is undesired (when rappelling into a pool of water and when you can see the rope touch the water), it is a good rule to follow. Like I said to Adam, this post was dealing with rigging at the anchor but I agree that point should be stressed. There is plenty more to be covered in the areas of anchor building, rappel setup and rappel technique and we will make sure to make that point very clear in another article. As for the figure 8, you're not the first person I've heard that doesn't like them - I know most teams in technical rescue are moving away from them as well. I like them, but the real reason they are in all the pictures is because that is all I had on hand when I was taking pictures. I personally use either a reverso or a device called a Totem.

Nicholas Sealy
Nicholas Sealy

Adam- Thanks for your comment. You make a good point - but in my defense this is mostly an article about rigging at the anchor, not rappelling technique itself. When we cover rappelling technique, belay methods will certainly be covered in detail.

AJ3
AJ3

stilljames AJ3Yes... I'm glad you get it. That extra bit of info makes all the difference.  For clarity to any confused readers: The angle from the power point to the anchors can add or decrease force/shock to those anchors. Smaller angles are better if possible. In general avoid angles of greater that 60° or so. James' original post was not referring to angles but only the distance between anchors. Do note, the greater the distance between anchors, the greater the length of rope/webbing you need to cover said distance.  Stay safe and Stay frosty.

stilljames
stilljames

@AJ3 The distance  between the anchors has very little to do with the angles. they simply are nearer or further from the edge/tie off  or use longer anchor lines with the whole rigging further away to reduce the angles,I should have clarified this.Widely spaced anchors can cause problems with lateral swing and abrade rope should one fail, above and beyond the problems in the link.

Jonbobshinigin
Jonbobshinigin

@Nicholas Sealy  With a figure 8 a "stopper knot" will serve no purpose other than to keep the extra rope/tail out of the way. If you take a sharpie and mark the beginning of a tail and load the rope until failure, the whole rope will coil like a snake and snap...but that sharpie mark will NOT pull through. All sorts of configurations were tried. This has been a recent finding though from what I understand.

AJ3
AJ3

@stilljames @AJ3Yes... I'm glad you get it. That extra bit of info makes all the difference. 


For clarity to any confused readers: The angle from the power point to the anchors can add or decrease force/shock to those anchors. Smaller angles are better if possible. In general avoid angles of greater than 60° or so. James' original post was not referring to angles but only the distance between anchors. Do note, the greater the distance between anchors, the greater the length of rope/webbing you will need to cover said distance. 
Stay safe and Stay frosty.

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