Is Rappelling Dangerous Plus 16 Safety Tip


Those interested in rappelling or learning the technique to use it after a climb may wonder “is rappelling dangerous?” In short, rappelling can be extremely dangerous, if the correct precautions are not followed. There is likelihood of significant injury or death. In reality though, almost any sport or activity can be dangerous. There is always a likelihood of something bad happening. But at the same time you shouldn’t let extreme worries drive what you do and don’t do. Many of the greatest rappelling experiences will require you to venture into something that will challenge and exert yourself beyond your normal capabilities.

What I want to drive across though is that if you properly train, prepare, and plan you can avoid most dangers that take place. In reality, most rappelling incidents occur while rappelling due to simple human error. By knowing ‘how is rappelling dangerous?’ you can take precautionary steps to avoid most dangers. Here is a list of common rappelling accidents that may occur along with safety tips to follow.

When is Rappelling Dangerous

  • Anchor Fails – This can occur if you anchored into a dead tree, a small/loose boulder, or didn’t check the bolt anchor to see if it was secure. Bolt anchors can be rusted over, loose, or misused which would lead to potential failure.
    • Safety Tip – An anchor fail can be avoided by anchoring to at least 3 points. This provides multiple points of protection if one anchor gives way. Also, make sure to take the time to check that any anchor used is secure. Examples of typical secure anchors are large living trees, secure bolt anchors, an attached protruding rock, etc.
  • Brake Hand Let’s Go of Rope – One of the fundamentals in rappelling is to never let go of the rope with the brake hand. Yet this is a common mistake people do. If you happen to let go you will fall uncontrollably down to the base of the cliff. Even stopping the fall at this point of free fall could cause extreme damage to your hands by grasping onto a rope at this speed of descent.
    • Safety Tip – To avoid this simple mistake just follow the basic step of always holding onto the rope with your brake hand. As the rope glides through the brake hand you are able to maintain total control and determines how fast or slow the descent will be. The break hand can also stop the descent completely if necessary.
  • Rope Cuts or Breaks – The rope cuts or breaks during use. One cause can be if the rope is not retired after it has been used extensively, it is worn, shows signs of distress, fraying, etc. Another is if the anchored rope descends over a sharp edge. Descending something where the rope rubs and cuts against a surface is a definite no, no.
    • Safety Tip – Maintain a simple journal with facts about your rope. When did you buy it and times of use since its purchase? Were there any significant falls that impacted the rope or unusual obstructions that caused extreme wear on the rope? Spend time before and after your rappel to examine the ropes condition. The more familiar that you are with your rope and equipment the more blemishes or wear will stand out to you.
    • Safety Tip – Also, make sure that wherever you descend that the weight of the rope is not pressing against any edges or sharp surfaces. It is unwise to descend this type of surface. This is why your rope goes through carabiners where it can glide seamlessly through without being worn down on a rough surface or sharp edge.
    • Safety Tip – Do not be cheap with your rappelling rope. If it is worn and you have had it over its timetable then it should be time to retire the rope and getting a new one.
  • Falling Debris – This can occur if your rappel rope is gliding back and forth against the cliff wall, eventually knocking debris down. Also, natural wear and tear on a cliff surface or extreme weather conditions can lead to debris falling.
    • Safety Tip – To protect against significant harm anyone rappelling must wear a helmet. It may not protect from everything but a good rappel helmet is made to withstand significant impact from falling debris. This saves your head from potential injury. Read How to Choose a Rock Climbing and Rappelling Helmet for rappelling or rock climbing.
  • No Autoblock – No time was taken to add an autoblock, also known as the French Prusik. If control is lost with the brake hand, then there is nothing left to protect from falling.
    • Safety Tip – As added safety, take the time to tie the autoblock for your rappel which is added security in the event of a fall.
    • Safety Tip – Other advantages of this knot would be to stop midair to free up your hands to untangle ropes, knots, etc. This knot is especially useful during free rappels to assist in a slow rappel. It is also a last line of defense if debris does fall and strikes the individual in the head mid-rappel as it will stop descent completely, even if unconscious. Just this simple technique can assist when it is least expected. If you plan to do something, make sure you do it right. Learn to tie the Autoblock.
  • Incorrect or Unsecure Knots – This can occur if you do not use knots recommended for rappelling use or you incorrectly tie the knots needed for specific techniques while rappelling.
    • Safety Tip – Take time to train under the tutelage of a trained climbing and rappelling professional. Learn all the knots you need to know and then practice, practice, practice. Like everything in rappelling, each step you learn and apply will support you in a safe rappel. Knowing how to tie and using rappelling knots could be the difference in a safe descent. The following link is a list of Recommended Rappelling Knots.
  • No Stopper Knot – This occurs if the ends of your rappel rope have no stopper knots tied. If there is an accident and you are free falling down your ropes there is nothing to stop you from hitting the ground.
    • Safety Tip – A stopper knot is once again one of those need to know rappel knots. You simply tie the knot at the end of each end on the rope prior to tossing the loose ends over the edge. The intent is to stop any fall that takes place unexpectedly, potentially protecting from significant injury or death. The Following link instructs on how to tie the Stopper Knot.
  • Solo Rappelling – By rappelling solo your life is put into jeopardy. You lose the 2nd pair of eyes that can look over your equipment, someone to guide you during the descent, and possibly someone that can seek medical attention if worst comes to worst. Watch the movie 127 hours and that may change your mind about solo adventuring. Even if you are experienced anything can happen. Never, ever rappel solo.
    • Safety Tip – A buddy for rappelling could make all the difference. An added pair of eyes can make sure that everything is tied down correctly, all equipment is in good working order, review the anchors and lead you down through verbal guidance in the descent.
    • Safety Tip – A buddy can also act to assist in case of an emergency. Whether giving first aid, contacting emergency help, or giving additional aid so their partner can descend in safety.
  • Loose Clothing or Hair – This occurs if you have long hair that is not tied back or you wear any loose clothing. This may seem small but anything that is loose can get caught in the equipment being used. My wife had an experience where she went to an all-girls camp where they climbed an outdoor climbing wall. A girl in her group suddenly fell and her hair got tangled up and caught. Needless to say the only way down for this particular girl was by cutting her hair. Even in a controlled environment such as this anything can happen.
    • Safety Tip – To protect this similarly happening to you make sure to tie up any long hair and wear clothing this is tight fitting.
  • Rappelling Rope Stuck – In a descent the rappel rope could get stuck, whether from twisting, getting wedged in-between something, or any number of things
    • Safety Tip – To protect yourself tie an autoblock, hands can be freed up to untie or untangle anything. Taking a buddy could also assist in this situation by guiding you through to get down or the buddy can seek emergency assistance if needed.
  • Rope/Gear Overuse – This occurs if standard guidelines are not followed to retire rappelling equipment if signs of distress are visible. This can lead to faulty functionality or equipment breaking while in use.
    • Safety Tip – Always examine and know the limits of your equipment. Do not press your luck or be cheap. Retire anything that should be based off use and visible wear. Purchase new equipment to replace the old and provide a safe rappel.
  • Exhaustion – After climbing, hiking to the top, or a long day of rappels you are physically exhausted. Exhaustion can be both mental and physical and can be detrimental in a safe rappel. If exhausted there may be less control in the descent, especially in a free rappel. Mental exhaustion can be equally harmful as simple steps to prepare and perform the rappel could be missed such as completing knots correctly.
    • Safety Tip – To avoid any harm from exhaustion be aware of personal limits. Don’t push more than needed. Take a break if needed. Constantly hydrate before, during and after. Take time to relax and prepare mentally prior to rappelling, this allows time to assess the needs of your body and to properly prepare for a safe rappel.

Conclusion

Rappelling can be extremely dangerous but based off these common incidents listed above most of the danger can be avoided. Take time to properly train, prepare, and plan. Seek the support and guidance of trained professionals to assist with your learning so the techniques needed to safely rappel can be applied. These incidents are not groundbreaking by any means, they are simple mistakes.

One of the basic but most important steps is to always double check everything. This should be prior to arriving to your rappelling destination. Check and double check that you have all the gear needed and that it is all in good working order. At the rappel site check and double check everything once the rappel is set up, including the anchors and knots.

If you know what to expect, you will have a better idea how to avoid the issue. Is rappelling dangerous? YES; however, the bulk of danger can truly be avoided. Assess that this is the right sport for you. Practice at local climbing gyms or find a professional trainer to assist you. As you become comfortable with this extreme sport ask questions that can help you decide. Rappelling is a blast when done correctly.

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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