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How do I "self-belay" my rappels?

All novice rappels should be belayed from above an icy steep snow slope or crumbing scree or by top rope from the bottom of the cliff.
There are many reasons why a novice person rappelling can lose control. Read the 63 Annual Reports of Accidents in North American Mountaineering to find them. In my COCC Basic Mountaineering classes, we discussed ten possible rappelling problems and there are more.

Use of an "upper belay" rope is traditional when a local peak is bagged by a novice climbing club group. The weight and carry of the second rope is not a problem in this group situation.

A "fireman's belay" from the bottom is a possible alternative. A companion, standing below, adds friction by pulling down on the ends of the rappel rope. However, watch out for rocks being knocked off by the person rappelling. A local Cascades Mountaineers Club Member, not wearing a helmet, received a severe and bloody bonk on the head from a small rock dislodged by a nervous rappeller. He was using the fireman's belay at the bottom of the traditional rappel off Oregon's Mt. Washington, to the north side saddle.

Experienced traditional mountaineers will normally use the simple "self-belay" on long rappels with scary skinny alpine climbing ropes.

Just attach a correct prussic loop in thickness (depends on the rappel rope thickness, 5 to 6 mm?) and length (depends on the size of the climber - it must be long enough to clear the device but not out of reach when weighted) above the rappel device and link it to harness tie-in point with a second light locking carabiner. I personally prefer this original method with the prussic ABOVE the belay device. See the Mike Clelland illustration below from Climbing Ice, by Duane Raleigh, 1995 and from more recent Climbing Magazine Tech Tips.

Slide the prussic knot down the rope with the lower edge of your feeling hand on the rappel rope, being careful to not let the knot tighten up. See below.

Do NOT hold any prussic knot in your hand - in panic, you will prevent it from tightening as you slide burning out of control down the rope!
Slide the prussic knot down the rappel rope with the edge of your hand

The prussic friction knot must be within reach of the climber if the knot becomes jammed and you find yourself hanging in mid air, from the knot!

Rappel, self belayed with a prussic loop   


In the Leader qualification tests I took in Southern California 35 years ago, we had to dulphersitz rappel, jamb the prussic and then show that we could climb up, re-establish the rappel and release the prussic. If we were given an overhanging rappel, you had to take a second longer prussic, girthed to a 48" sewn runner, attach it above the jammed self belay prussic, step up into the loop, take the weight off the jammed prussic knot, loosen the prussic knot and tighten up the rappel slack around your thigh, remove the step prussic and return it to your pocket and continue to the predetermined end of your rappel. Try this at the crags, protected by a secure upper belay and an interested, trusted belayer.

If you are doing a dulfersitz rappel, you can self belay with a swami runner wrapped two or three times around your waste and tied each time or a 48 inch figure eight sewn diaper runner and a locking biner to attach your long prussic just below your upper "feeling hand". Have your second prussic and your second 48 inch runner in your pocket to climb back up the rappel rope or to loosen a jammed self belay prussic knot. The total weight of this traditional gear is about 6 oz vs.16 oz. or a bit more for your BD Alpine Bod harness and light rappel device.

The dulfersitz rappel
Illustration by Mike Clelland
From Climbing Ice, Duane Raleigh, 1995

Everyone did not own a harness or a belay device. Read More here:

This technique for climbing the rope sounds complicated but these are the skills you can use to climb back up the rope out of a crevasse or to climb back up the rappel rope to a better belay station, using a second prussic loop attached to the rope above the foot loop prussic and to your harness. I will write page on Climbing the Rappel Rope soon.


Here is the rest of the story!

Now, a newer technique has been recommended! I first read about this European method in the Petzl Catalog for 2005.

First, attach the rappel device locking carabiner to a 24" sewn runner by a slipknot and attach the other end of the runner by a girth hitch to the swami belt and leg loop of your harness. This technique extends the rappel device 12 inches up and away from bulky clothing, long hair, etc. where it can be seen and adjusted easily.

This technique makes possible using a prussic loop fixed on the tail of the rappel rope, linked to the leg loop of the harness by a light locking carabiner.

Stated again: With the belay device extended, attach a prussic loop to the tail of the rappel rope and then to your harness leg loop with a locking carabiner.

Also, there is a better alturnative than the pesky prussic loop! Use a 24" runner, tied in a Franz Bachman friction knot, on the extended tail of the rappel rope and secure it to the large leg loop of your harness with a large light locking carabiner.

On May 4, 2005, Jim Ratz (52) fell to his death while rappelling from a route near his home in Lander, Wyoming. Jim was a NOLS Director, AMGA Director and Environmental Leader. Read more about Jim Ratz, here:

Jim's friends did a detailed reconstruction of his accident. It is published in an eight page Report in the 59th Annual analysis of Accidents in North American Mountaineering - 2006. The Report found that failure of Jim's self belay system contributed to his death. His prussic self belay knot likely became caught in his belay device as he sought to stop at an intermediate belay ledge and he slid off the end of the doubled rappel rope high above the ground. Jed Williamson, long time Editor of ANAM, noted the following to me in an email comment on this page: "We also think the ropes weren't even. So he was on a single rope near the end of his slide, and because the autoblock was BELOW his device, it came right off. I personally still use the autoblock ABOVE the brake device. It won't ever come off."

Mike Clelland drew the illustration below which was included in the ANAM Report. Franz Bachman has sent me from Europe, this illustration of his Bachman Friction Knot! See the new self belay method and the latest Bachman friction knot below:




Traditional Mountaineering Rappelling Seminar at Meadow Crags near Bend

Use a 24 inch runner to put the device out about twelve inches. Girth hitch to your harness (swami belt and belay loop) and tie in the rappel locker with a simple slip knot so it stays in place.
Note that his Trango B-52 is reversed! details, details! --Robert Speik


"Traditional Mountaineering is about the mitigation of inherent risk with training, technical gear and knowledge gained from the experiences of others who have gone before." -Robert Speik
Read Chapter Eleven on Rappelling in Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills, 8th edition. 

Copyright© 2000-2011 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.




Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated



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six pdf pages

  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
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  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities
  The Ten Essentials
Our Mission


Read about rappelling in this book!