I haven’t had much need to use a rappel rack for the types of rappels I have performed. That being said there are unique situations where a rappel rack is a must to create added friction and a more controlled descent, This can make a significant difference when descending from a considerable height such as rappelling from a bridge, down a cave, high cliff wall, etc..
The rappel rack itself is simple to use when either increasing or decreasing friction. It has bars where the rappel rope is threaded and these bars can be easily removed or added based off need. The more bars that are in the rack, the more friction that will be created. The less bars there are in the rack, the less friction there will be as the rope runs through it. The idea is that the rappel rack can be prepared to match the needs of the descent while allowing greater control on the actual speed of the descent. When one masters how to use a rappel rack it will prepare them for amazing rappel descents.
Why Use a Rappel Rack
I have seen and heard references of when to use a rappel rack and if it really is necessary for rappelling. If you plan on completing any long rappels (particularly while free hanging), cave rappelling, or anything else in between a rappel rack may be an essential tool to add to the rest of your gear. Smaller rappels would typically not require a rappel rack.
Now why is it needed for these longer rappels? For one, it creates additional friction as the rope is threaded through multiple bars create multiple friction points. Each of these points help to keep the rappel rack cool which in turn means your rope won’t be damaged or burn. There have been accidents where a significantly high rappel, whether caving or elsewhere, was completed with everyday rappel equipment. One of many problems is the fact that the device used (ATC, GriGri, etc.) will heat up and potentially melt the rope.
Because typical rappel devices have fewer friction points, in addition to the descent being made while free hanging, the equipment will heat up quicker. If rappel devices are too hot it can damage or burn ropes. It is more difficult to control speed in these types of rappels as well which can also lead to potential problems.
If you thought the lack of friction and devices overheating were big enough problems there is even more. While rappelling caves or anywhere where mud and water can be a factor the rappel rack is definitely needed. Other devices have many mechanisms that can be affected by mud or extreme conditions. These mechanisms can be jabbed or clogged while exposed to adverse conditions over a period of time. This is one of the last things that you will want while free-hanging.
When these conditions are expected it is highly recommended to use a rappel rack. The rappel rack is a simple, yet sturdy device that can provide consistent control even when the rope may get extremely dirty, muddy, or wet. There are no moving parts so little worry of mud clogging the device. It’s additional friction points will still continue to support a slow and controlled descent throughout muddy or adverse conditions.
If you lack knowledge or experience about whether or not to use a rappel rack seek professional guidance for help and training. Many rappel routes can also be researched before hand to see what gear is recommended to safely complete the rappel.
How to Use a Rappel Rack
Now that we know the why, I will share how to use a rappel rack. The rappel rack device will be attached to your harness with a locking carabiner. With the rappel rack attached rope can be fed through the device at a pace that you are comfortable with while maintaining the control needed in the descent.
Before rappelling with a rack, the level of difficulty is significant due to the length of the rappel or conditions. Be sure to double check everything, which I always recommend to do. Tie stopper knots at the end of the rope and anchor in at three points. Every measure should be taken to make sure this rappel is safe in every way possible. By attempting more challenging rappels, abilities and rappelling experience is being tested to the max. Even with professional support and guidance every precaution is needed.
Hopefully I haven’t scared you away. My intent is to make sure the rappel is safe and that you have received proper training and have professionals present while completing your first few rappels of this magnitude.
That being said, here are the following steps to setup a 5 bar rappel rack:
- With a locking carabiner attached to your harness, attach the tear drop at the bottom of the rappel rack to the carabiner. Lock the carabiner and make sure the gate of the carabiner is facing your body.
- With the rappel rack secured, open all the adjustable bars on the rappel rack so they are facing out and not in their locking position.
- Run the rappel rope over the 1st bar at the top of the rappel rack.
- Take the 2nd bar and slide it up while running the rappel rope underneath it. Lock the 2nd bar. Continue to follow this pattern with the rope running over the top of the 3rd bar and locking it, underneath the 4th bar and locking it, and finally over the 5th bar and locking it.
- Once these steps are complete pull the rope with the brake hand to tighten the rope and quickly check all the bars that they are locked. If everything is locked and setup correctly you are ready to descend.
Practice rigging and knowing how to use a rappel rack. If it is rigged backwards your rope will slip and you will fall. I recommend to always test the rope itself prior to descending to make sure the rope won’t slip out and that the device is rigged correctly.
When descending, the bars have been fashioned so that they can be removed during the descent manual to decrease friction and increase the speed of the descent. Only make changes to the bars based off personal abilities and experience. To remove a bar simply pull the rope in the brake hand up on the rappel device. This will stop the descent and allow the movement of the furthest bar on the bottom. This loose bar will hang down by the tear drop at the end of the rappel rack.
At any time the bar can be added, following the same breaking method, if the rappel rope becomes wet or added friction is needed.
Now on to the descent:
- To descend the brake hand will pull the rope back while the guide hand holds the bottom bar on the rappel rack.
- The guide hand can slide the bottom bar up or down creating more or less friction and allowing further descent.
- While using a descender it is recommended to wear gloves because the length of the descent can potential speed can burn or rub hands raw. You don’t want that, I promise.
That is a brief overview on how you use a rappel rack.
Recommended Locations to Use a Rappel Rack
There are several recommended rappel sites on 50 Best Rappelling Places in the USA which includes cave rappels that will most likely require rappel racks. Some world class rappels where a rappel rock would be a necessity are as follows:
- Sotano De Las Golondrinas – Known as the cave of the swallows and located in Mexico. The depth of this cave is over 1200ft (370 meters) deep. This is a true destination for any thrill seeker.
- El Capitan – This is a monster to climb and to rappel by can be found the bucket lists of many avid rappellers and rock climbers. The descent on this would be about 2650ft (810 meters). That is half a mile folks! Bring a ton of rappel rope and a crew for support.
- Table Mountain – Located in Cape Town, South Africa. You will take a cable car to the top of the 3558ft high Table Mountain. From there you can rappel down 367ft (112 meters). This rappel will give you the best seat in the house to view where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet.
- The Lost World – The Waitomo cave is located in New Zealand and is also known as Mount Mordor where the Hobbits destroyed the ring of power. Okay the last part is not true but it is still an amazing cave to visit if you ever go to New Zealand. It is about 328ft (100 meters) to the bottom of the cave.
- Son Doong – This has been identified as the world’s largest cave and is located in Vietnam. You will need to bring your hiking boots and more as it takes 36 hours to travel by foot to Son Doong cave. Once at the cave, a rappel will be made down 260ft (80 meters) into this massive beauty. Not only is the magnitude incredible but it has an ecosystem unlike anything you could imagine. A river runs through it and there is a mini forest along with spellbinding views of geological features.
If you really want to experience heart pounding adventure, take your time to seek professional training and practice descending with a rappel rack. If looking for a good starter rappel rack I would recommend the following Petzl Rack Descender. To learn more about the Petzl Rack Descender or other descenders that can be used on your descents please read our recommendations at Best Rappelling Descenders.
The places you can go and the sites that can be seen with a rappel rack are absolutely breathtaking. Whether its entering a cave that few have ever been to or dropping down a long descent on a cliff side and admiring the view of mother nature all around you. By learning how to use a rappel rack, doors will open for ventures that previously could never be imagined. Enjoy the descent!