When I rappelled for the first time there was one thing running through my head and will probably run through yours. Unless you are stone cold… Which I am not. The thought was, “can I actually stop while rappelling or will I fall 50ft to my utter death?”
So can you stop while rappelling? The short answer is YES, you can stop while
- Receive professional training on using your brake hand.
- Tie Stopper knots at the end of the rope.
- Tie an Autoblock to stop you midair, also frees up your hands if needed.
- Have a rappel partner at the base of the cliff performing the ‘Fireman Belay.’
- Use the old school leg wrap method only when all else fails.
Using Your Brake Hand to Stop While Rappelling
As a beginner in rappelling, one of the first lessons a trained professional will instruct will be on how to use the brake hand. This is a manual method where you will control the speed of your descent. You can go from a quick descent to a complete stop by braking with your hand.
To perform this you will need to first grab the loose rope leading to the ground with your right hand. This will be the break and is supported by the ATC. Once your right hand is firmly holding the rope never EVER let go of it. There are other techniques that will allow you to free up your hands when absolutely necessary but as a rule of thumb, always hold onto the rope.
To break as you descend, lower the right hand below the waist while holding the rope. This will stop the rope completely from running through the ATC. As the right hand is raised slightly up, the rope will begin to run freely allowing you to descend. Never raise the right hand straight up in the air as the rope will begin to run freely and place you in grave danger of free falling. Maintain control by keeping the right hand close to the hip with slight movements up and down to control the speed of the descent based off the level of your personal experience and training.
The left hand will be the guide hand and will be slightly raised above your head. The grip will loosely hold on the rope anchored at the top and running through your harness. Don’t grip too tightly with this hand as the rope needs to run smoothly throughout the descent.
Using the brake hand correctly in a descent will be one of the greatest safeguards to a great rappel. Be sure to practice this on smaller rappels under professional supervision and gradually increase the height and difficulty of the rappel based of your abilities.
Stop While Rappelling with Stopper Knots
If you are ever in a free fall while rappelling, and I pray you never are, a stopper knot could be the difference between life and death. This is a simple knot tied to the end of your rope but elevated slightly above the ground to truly STOP YOU while rappelling if the worst case scenario happens. This safety will protect your body with direct impact to the ground.
You may not be free falling either but if you are descending a significantly high cliff or vertical terrain, the stopper knot will let you know if you have reached the end of the rope itself and you still have more to cover in the descent. You don’t want to be rappelling and not paying any attention to the length of the rope left when all of a sudden you run out of rope and fall helplessly down.
A stopper knot can truly protect you in the worst of cases from extreme injury or death. It even provides additional protection from simple mistakes. Add this to your checklist prior to rappelling. To learn more about how to tie this knot at the end of a rope, please select the following link how to tie the Stopper Knot.
Tie an Autoblock to Stop While Rappelling
The Autoblock is another backup that should be used to stop the rappel. The Autoblock is a friction hitch tied with a thin length of cord around the rappel rope several times. Make sure the cord used is a soft, pliable cord. None of the really shiny cord because you want the cord to create friction. When used it will be wrapped somewhat loose around the rappel allowing the rope to move through it freely during the descent.
The Autoblock will be looped into a carabiner attached to the harness. Your brake hand or guide hand will hold the Autoblock when rappelling, loosely. If the brake hand is used your guide hand should resume it’s normal position above the device. If the guide hand is used the brake hand will slightly hold the loose rappel rope below.
To rappel with the autoblock you will slide it up the rope with your hand. This will allow you to rappel at your own speed. To engage the autoblock let go of the knot. Easy enough right? You should now be free to move your hands as needed.
In my experience, I recommend that an autoblock always be tied no matter your experience or the difficulty of the rappel.The minimal amount of time spent tying an autoblock is well worth it for one’s safety. World class guides and climbers take the time to tie this knot, what makes your life any different than theirs?
To learn how to tie the autoblock select the following link how to tie the Autoblock Hitch.
Use the Fireman Belay to Stop While Rappelling
One of the best backups to stop while rappelling for a beginner or on a difficult rappel is the Fireman Belay. An experienced partner will take their position at the base of the cliff and will have the ability to stop your descent. This is more precautionary in the event of an uncontrolled descent, the rappeller freezing up, etc..
To perform the Fireman Belay the partner will lightly hold the end of the rappel rope. The rope will be held slightly elevated in front of their face. The partner will not grip the rappel rope tightly but let the rope dangle loosely between their hands. The hands should be kept in a a cupping shape with the open portion of their hands facing them.
The partner can choose to stand directly below the rappel or they can stand back a bit. I recommend standing slightly back to have a clear view when the rappel is taking place and to avoid any potential falling debris. ON that note make sure the partner is wearing their helmet. They are their to support you, the climber. You don’t want to end up having to perform first aid on them because they were not adequately protected.
If an incident occurs during the rappel the partner needs to engage the Fireman belay to stop the descent. The partner will grip the rope tightly and pull down with both their hands. Lower hands to the waist or lower. Make sure that you are in a semi-squat to provide additional stability. Do not bend over because this may cause you to fall and possibly lose your grip.
This motion is causing the rope to pull down on the ATC or belay device, stopping the descent. When in the fireman belay the rappeller is no longer able to control their descent. At this point the partner can loosen their grip slightly to safely lower the rappeller or wait for direction that the rappeller has regained total control.
Stop While Rappelling with the Leg Wrap
The last method, the Leg Wrap, can be used to stop while rappelling. This is a fairly basic technique to be used if you have no other method to stop midair. Take your guide hand and wrap the loose rappel rope around your leg several times. The leg should be placed on a vertical surface to fully engage once wrapped. When engaged both hands can be freed up.
This should only be used as a temporary stop and if there is no other choice. But for my peace of mind just make sure that you use the Autoblock. That way you are already prepared if you need to stop to adjust the rope, untangle it, or re-evaluate the descent.
Now you know several methods to stop while rappelling. Take time to practice these methods and seek professional training to feel fully confident in your abilities. These are simple steps to learn but many times there is over site in implementing life saving techniques. Don’t simple skim over the top and feel confident that by doing the bare minimum while rappelling everything will go as planned.
There will always be times when the rappel will not go as planned. Knowing how to stop and putting in the right safeguards will drastically improve safety while rappelling. Using these safeguards or knowing how to use these safeguards can truly put a mind at ease while rappelling.