How to Rappel with an ATC Ultimate Guide

Whether you finished a climb up a beautiful cliff wall or the journey started at the top, one of the most exhilarating ways down is with a rappel.

Rappelling with the right gear, training, and experience will create a safer and more controlled environment in the descent. One piece of equipment that comes in handy to maintain greater control when performing a belay (in climbing) or a rappel is an ATC (also known as the air traffic controller).

Anyone can rappel with an ATC when properly trained and practiced. But to successfully rappel with an ATC it is important to know what an ATC is and how to use the right techniques to lower oneself in a controlled manner.

The Black Diamond ATC – Guide Belay Device (see on Amazon) provides optimal support and control in a descent. It is a practical, sleek device and easy to set up.

Even though the ease of setup for a rappel is simple it must be done correctly to avoid any gear malfunction or potential injury. When controlling the speed of descent the Black Diamond ATC provides excellent control allowing the user to increase or decrease speed. Descent can also be completely stopped when the right technique is applied with the brake hand. The brake hand will provide manual control of descent and is responsible for using the rappel rope and ATC correctly.

When the correct technical skills are applied and used to rappel with an ATC, they will create a safer descent. This means more relaxation and enjoyment while rappelling for you!

What is an ATC

An ATC is used to feed rappel or climbing rope through in a controlled manner. It can be dually used for belaying a rock climbing partner down or used to rappel solo. The ATC empowers the user to control the speed of descent from slow to fast with ease, and can be used to completely stop the descent in either a rappel or climb.

The Black Diamond ATC Guide Belay Device (see on Amazon) is recommended for most rappelling. Not only is it affordable but it has been crafted to withstand significant amounts of stress while supporting the load during a rappel. Here are many of it’s standout features that make this a must have ATC:

  • “Multiple friction modes for belay and rappel
  • Machined windows through device for weight savings
  • Guide mode works with one or two climbers ascending or descending
  • Auto-block release hole enlarged to accept a small carabiner
  • Durable cable holds its shape and resists getting caught between ropes”

Each of these features were engineered with the purpose of creating improved control during the rappel. Another plus is the fact that the Black Diamond ATC is a simplistic piece of equipment that has no moving parts like other recommended descenders. This means less room for gear failure due to something getting caught or any type of corruption to moving mechanisms. It weighs a meager 4.8 ounces keeping the packing weight of gear to a minimum.

The Black Diamond ATC is a durable, tried and tested product that will improve the likelihood of a safer rappel when used correctly.

Rappel with an ATC

To rappel safely with an ATC the same steps need to be followed as instructed in other rappels. These steps are important to both the setup of the rappel and then the descent. Do not cut corners and seek expert training and advice when learning how to rappel.

ATC Setup for a Rappel

With the rappel rope anchored in at the top, grasp the rope and make a small loop. Slide the loop into the top of the Black Diamond ATC Guide Belay Device (see on Amazon) along one side of the middle divide on the device. The top of the ATC device will have the friction modes and the bottom will have the ATC loop facing down. The ATC loop and the rope loop should be sitting side-by-side, they should not be crossing over one another. Take a locking carabiner and clip it into both loops. Now clip the locking carabiner into the belay loop on your harness (click here to learn how to pick the right harness).

At this point one strand of rope should go up to the anchor. The other strand of the rope should be over the friction mode on the ATC and lead down. The brake hand will hold on the rope leading down and use this to control the descent of the rappel. Now how to use this the ATC in a rappel setting.

Rappel Setup

  • Make sure there are at least two anchors (bolt hangers), preferably three. The third may be another anchor that you would set using a spider sling, etc.
  • Connect two quickdraws, one to each bolt hanger. Both quickdraws must face opposite directions to provide optimal safety when the rope is added.
  • Now place the rope through the opposite end of the bolt hangers on the quickdraws. Prior to adding the rope it is highly recommended to look over the rope and check for any abrasions, strings, knots etc. If no blemishes or signs or distress are visible, proceed to add the rope.
  • Run the rope all the way through the quickdraws until you get to the middle mark of the rope.
  • Now tie a Stopper Knot to each end of the rope. This makes sure that you STOP and don’t rappel off the rope ends. Always take precautionary steps when rappelling.
  • Now shout “ROPE!” and toss the ends of the rope down the cliff face. Yelling “Rope!” warns rappelling partners, climbers, or other bystanders in the area aware that a rappel rope is coming over the edge and to move accordingly. This is very similar to the golf term “FORE!” when you hit a ball close to other golfers. No one wants to get hurt and you don’t want to cause the injury.
  • Attach a locking carabiner to your belay loop and clip in the Black Diamond ATC, if you haven’t done so already.
  • Grab both strands of the rope and double it over. Slide it through the ATC and clip the loop that you slid through the ATC with your locking carabiner.
  • Secure the locking the carabiner.
  • DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING. Check your locking carabiner, the knots, and hitches to make sure that everything is secure prior to the descent. It is recommended to have a partner check everything as well. It is amazing what a second pair of eyes can see.
  • Now examine that the rope is not running over any sharp or obtrusive edges that may cut into the rope as you rappel.
  • Check that both ends of the rope are on the ground and that stopper knots are tied at the end of each rope.
  • It is highly recommended to have a spotter as your rappel buddy on the ground. This spotter can guide you down and around any unforeseen obstacles.

Setup Complete – Rappel with an ATC

  • With your right hand, grab the loose rope leading to the ground. This will be the break and is supported by the ATC. Never ever let go of the rope with the break hand.
  • To break as you descend lower the right hand below the waist while holding the rope, it will stop the rope from running through the ATC. If 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 entirely 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 personal experience.
  • Your left hand will be the guide hand and will hold on the other end of the rope that has been secured to the anchors.
  • As you descend shout “On Rappel!” This advises everyone that a rappel will begin.
  • Start to rappel, use the brake hand to feed the rope through the ATC.
  • While lowering yourself, keep your legs perpendicular to the wall you are descending. This will allow you to use your feet to slowly walk or hop down the wall.
  • Go at the speed that is most comfortable with your level of experience.  Turn your head downward to check for any upcoming obstacles to overcome in the descent.
  • Once feet reach the ground pull the rappel rope out of the ATC. As a formality tell your spotter “Off Rappel.” A rappel has now officially been completed.

At this point, if you want to continue rappelling or practicing techniques go back to the top of the cliff face and repeat the process. Like the well-known phrase ‘Practice makes perfect’ continue to stretch deep and find the strength to overcome great feats and build on skills already learned. Remember that when going at your own pace may feel robotic and tense at first, but the more you rappel the easier it will become. The important thing is to maintain a controlled, steady pace that you are comfortable with during the descent.

Once completed with the rappel the final step will be to untie the stopper knots on the rope. Pull on one end of the rappel rope until the other end passes all the way through the quickdraws at the top and falls down to the base of the cliff.

Conclusion

An ATC rappel is a preferred method to descend most terrains while maintaining greater control. Take the necessary time to be trained and prepared professionally prior to attempting to go out on your own. The Black Diamond ATC Guide Belay Device (see on Amazon) was made to provide the greatest support in most rappels and help you to maintain significant control.

At the end of the day knowing how to rappel with an ATC will lead to grander rappel adventures, descending heights and reaching destinations that previously were inaccessible. Commit to learning how to rappel with an ATC and enjoy the thrill of the rappel.

Jacob

I love the great outdoors. I've tried to write the go-to info for all the Rappelling enthusiasts out there. Whether you finished your climb or hiked and rappelled down you will find tips, tutorials, and additional resources to help you. I live in Idaho with my wife and three kids and the great outdoors is our playground.

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