Articles - Staying Safe Part 1: Abseil Smart
David Lawrance making the intimidatiing abseil into Black Zawn, Swanage, Dorset.
Plenty of climbers have an inbuilt fear and loathing of abseiling, some go as far as to avoid abseiling at all costs. This is hardly surprising given the lengthening list of top climbers who have been killed abseiling. Indeed you can climb for many years all around this country without ever needing to abseil, which is fine but if this is the case you’ll be missing out on some of the most exciting venues on offer. On the other hand being blasé about swinging around over steep drops is far from ideal. A certain amount of abseil paranoia is healthy as it leads to a methodical and thorough checking process, which leaves nothing to chance. This is what keeps you alive in dangerous situations. In this first part of a new Staying Safe mini-series we’ll consider all aspects of abseiling and how to make it as safe as it possibly can be whether you’re accessing a sea-cliff climb or retreating off a big crag.
Regularly used abseil points are equipped with the gear needed to attach your ropes and go. These ‘in-situ’ abseil points are sometimes found at the top of a popular pitch on a multi-pitch climb, which deteriorates higher up, or more commonly at the top of a crag where the climbs can only be accessed by abseil. It’s worth noting that there’s no one person or organisation responsible for equipping these abseil points and the quality of what you find varies wildly depending on how long it’s been there, how frequently it’s been used, the quality of the surrounding rock or earth and how well it was set up in the first place. N.B. Don’t assume that just because everyone else uses it or someone used it recently that it’s still OK. Make your own judgement on the reliability of the set-up each and every time you use it.
• Check the anchors (look, feel, push-pull, twist etc).
• Check all parts of the system that link the anchors.
• Make your decision. You may be happy to use them as they are or you may need to improve or back-up what’s already there.
• Back-up the anchors you’re going to abseil from by placing a separate bomber piece that’s linked to the abseil rope. This back-up should not be taking any of the load, when your weight comes on the ab rope, so you can check the in situ anchor is reliable. If you’re not returning to the same spot the last person down can remove the back-up if all looks good with the original anchors.
• Don’t cut corners and don’t rush your decision-making.
Rigging your own abseil
If there’s no in situ abseil point or you need to abseil from half-way up a climb you’ll need to start from scratch. • Select big solid anchors. Spikes and threads are ideal, as you’ll only need to leave a sling and possibly a karabiner behind. On long routes it’s worth carrying some older slings and karabiners you won’t mind leaving and a length of if you need to leave gear choose bomber pieces and link them with slings or a length of tat. How you do this will depend on whether you are returning later to retrieve the gear or not. You can minimise the number of karabiners abandoned by attaching the slings directly to the pieces of gear. Don’t ab off just a single piece of gear unless there is absolutely no alternative – don’t die for the sake of a few quid spent on replacing gear.
This is the best option if you’re looking after someone who’s never or hardly ever abseiled before. Use a separate rope and belay the person from above as they abseil just as you would if they were climbing or if you know how to do it using a direct belay like an Italian Hitch straight off the anchors.
Self-locking back-up (auto-bloc)
The most popular method is to use a French Prusik tied on the abseil rope below the abseil device and clipped to the leg loop of your harness. This acts like a ‘dead man’s handle’ so if you let go it tightens around the rope and holds the device locked off. It’s not 100% foolproof so treat it with caution. If the prusik gets too close to the abseil device it may get nudged open and not grip. If you have too few wraps it may not grip, if you have too many you’ll find it virtually impossible to make progress. Experiment with the number of wraps on different diameter ropes somewhere friendly!
A French Prusik is tied by making four or five wraps around the rope below the abseil device. Both ends of the French Prusik loop are clipped to a screwgate on the harness leg loop.
Ropes often get stuck as you try to pull them down, either because there’s too much friction so the ropes won’t budge or because they snag on the way down. Too much friction. The first person down can do a test pull and the person at the top can rearrange them if necessary. Using anchors close to the edge will help. Moving the knot down over the edge. The knot often catches right at the start, especially if the anchors are a little way back. The last person down can shuffle the knot with them until it’s past obvious places it may snag. Pulling from optimum position. Reluctant ropes can often be freed simply by pulling from a different angle, out from the cliff or off to one side. Freeing jammed ropes. Make sure the ropes are untwisted before you pull. Sometimes pulling harder can do the trick, clip to the rope and use body-weight. Try loading the wrong side of the rope then the right one. Flick the rope to jump it off the rock and out of cracks. If all that fails you’ll need to get back up to the jam. If both ends are still down you can prusik on both ropes, rearrange the ropes and abseil back down. The worst case is when they jam once you’ve started to pull and lost the other end. Never prusik back up a rope jammed in this way – it might free itself! Lead back up on the remaining end of rope or chop the rope and carry on in shorter stages
The first person takes the gear and clips into or arranges the next abseil before the second person descends. A sling cow’s tail (long sling lark’s-footed to the harness) can be used to clip quickly to the anchor. Before pulling the ropes thread the new anchor with the end of the rope you’ll be pulling so it’s ready to go. One person pulls the ropes and one feeds them through the anchor. Clip an end so you can’t drop the ropes.
There are many combinations that work but this variation of an Ordinary prusik on top clipped direct to your harness and a French lower prusik with a sling attached for a foot loop is simple and effective.
Grab the climbing rope and stand up in the foot loop. Hold yourself upright while you slide the top prusik as far as it’ll go then slump back on it for a rest as you move the lower prusik up to just below the top one.
For a back-up use a clove hitch to your harness that you move up the rope from time to time.
Don’t die abseiling
Abseiling accidents do happen and sadly they are invariably avoidable. The following are notorious mishaps, keep them in mind every time you abseil so you don’t make the same mistake.
- Abseil off end of rope.
- Anchors fail.
- Clipped into loose end of knot.
- Clipped into wrong end of rope.
- Not clipped into device/ab rope.
- Ropes cut on sharp edge.
- Dislodging loose rock above you.
- Ends of ab rope blow around corner and jam.
- Jamming abseil device. Drop abseil device.
Remember: avoid distractions when you are setting up the abseil. Check, check and check again: anchor, rope through anchor, knot, rope in device, device attached to harness, krab screwgate done up, harness done up. . .
Abseiling at a glance (a mini-glossary)
FIXED and RETRIEVABLE abseil ropes. Fixed abseils require an extra separate ‘ab’ rope, the end of which is tied to the anchors. An old climbing rope is often used for this but it must be a ‘Single’ designated rope, the thicker the better (10mm minimum). A semi-static rope is a great choice as you don’t get that alarming stretchy bounce and therefore less potentially lethal edge abrasion. Retrievable abseils use your climbing rope or ropes, which are pulled down after you. A single rope is folded in the middle making your maximum length of abseil half the length of your rope. Double ropes are tied together so you can go the full length. In situations where you are returning to the ab point after climbing a fixed abseil is preferable as there’s less wear and tear on your climbing ropes, no risk them getting snagged as you pull them and you have a lifeline back up the cliff in case of problems.
JOINING TWO ROPES. The favourite method is a tightly pulled overhand knot with 60cm tails. This jams in cracks less readily than the traditional reef knot and double fisherman’s system.
IN SITU ANCHORS are already in place. They are normally found at popular abseil points. The most common are stakes, pegs, threads, spikes, trees and sometimes bolts.
PRUSIK LOOP. You can make one of these with 1.2m of 5mm cord tied with a double fisherman’s knot. Make two and carry them tied up and clipped to an old karabiner (one you don’t mind abandoning) on the back of your harness.
PRUSIK KNOTS. When this thin prusik cord is wrapped round a thicker climbing rope it grips effectively when loaded. Different types of prusik knot grip in different ways. The ORDINARY prusik grips tightly but is harder to release once loaded (an advantage at times) whilst the FRENCH prusik grips sufficiently yet can also be released whist under tension. This is used to advantage as an ‘autobloc’ or clutch for abseiling and rope systems.
ABSEIL TAT is a length of chopped climbing rope, tape or prusik cord (not less than 6mm) that allows you to attach your abseil rope to the anchor.
Libby Peter has been climbing for 20 years, is a qualified Mountaineering Instructor and IFMGA Guide and author of Rock Climbing – Essential Skills and Techniques published by MLTUK. Her base is North Wales from where she runs the guiding outfit Llanberis Guides email@example.com
Staying Safe Part 3: Escaping the system