The Pre-rigged Rappel: What is it and Why Should You Use it?

The Pre-rigged Rappel: What is it and Why Should You Use it?

June 13, 2022 fmg-adminFundamentals Fridays Guides' Tech Tips Guiding

Most people know what rappelling is, but are you familiar with the pre-rigged rappel, what it is, and why you should use it? Essentially “pre-rigged rappel” means that everyone who will be rappelling from the top of a climb sets up their rappel device before anyone leaves the rappel station. For example, if you are in a party of three at the top of multi-pitch climb, all three of you would set up your rappel devices on the rope before the first person rappels. Why would you want to do this? We’ll explore that below and also discuss how to set it up.

Rappelling Fundamentals

When I’m teaching newer climbers, one of the first questions I ask is, “what is our primary level of security when climbing a route?” Most times, people will answer “the rope.” Though the rope is certainly an integral part of climbing, it is only a backup to our movement. Our ability to climb is our first level of security, and then the fall protection system (rope, bolts, gear, belay, etc…) is in place to arrest a fall. While climbing up, the rope is just a component of the backup system we have in place. This totally changes however when it is time to descend: when we rappel, we are now fully trusting the rope as our primary security, along with some form of anchor.

For most climbers rappelling is a fundamental skill, and there are several ways we can go about it. When I first started climbing, I rappelled with a tube style device like the ATC clipped directly to my belay loop. I didn’t have any back-ups in place or knots in the ends of my rope. As I gained more experience and starting going through AMGA programs, I learned that backing up the rappel was critical. Remember, the rope is just our backup on the way up, but on the way down it is our primary, so it needs to be backed up. I also learned that keeping the system “closed” by tying stopper knots in the ends of the rope was essential to prevent you from rappelling off the end of your rope, which could happen if the rope ends weren’t even or you rappelled to the ends without paying attention.

Backing up Your Rappel

Before we go into the pre-rigged rappel setup, let’s first talk about how to back up our rappel as well as how and why we should extend our rappel. There are a couple ways to back up the rappel. The primary method is to attach a friction hitch to the rope strands below the rappel device. This back-up is also called a “third hand.”

The auto-block is probably the most commonly used hitch for a rappel backup. While its one of the weaker friction hitches, it’s certainly sufficient for a rappel backup and has the advantage of being very easy to tie. When positioned below the device, its primary function is to keep the rope strands down in the brake position, so it doesn’t need the holding power of a stronger hitch such as the prusik. Because it will serve as our back-up, it should be attached to a strength-rated loop, i.e. the belay loop, rather than to a leg loop.

Extending Your Rappel

Since the third hand is connected to our belay loop, we need to extend our rappel device, essentially creating another belay loop further away from our harness so that the the third hand backup doesn’t interfere with the rappel device. There are several effective ways to extend a rappel. Here is link to various options. This extension can also conveniently serve as a tether when making multiple rappels. (see my blog post on tethering for more information on this topic). 

Setting up the Pre-rigged Rappel

Now that we have discussed the importance of backing up our rappel, closing the system, and extending the rappel device, let’s dive into the pre-rigged rappel. Once we have arrived at the top of the climb it is time to transition from climbing to descending. There are several ways to go about this transition, and the simplest will be safer and more efficient. Since we’re tied into the rope ends, we need to be able to free up these ends in order to feed them through the rappel rings.

I start by rigging my rappel extension/tether while my partner does the same. Then I clip the tether to the masterpoint of my anchor and untie the rope from my harness. Now I can feed the rope into the rappel rings, either tying it to another rope or feed it to the center mark. (I prefer bi-pattern ropes because the center mark is easily identifiable.) I make sure to tie a stopper knot in the ends of the rope before tossing the them down the cliff.

After the rope is in the rappel rings and ready to go, I attach my third hand backup, load my rappel device, and then my partner’s device onto the ropes above me. Now we are pre-rigged, and we can check each other’s devices to make sure they’re loaded properly before committing to the rappel.

When I first started multi-pitch climbing, I rigged my rappel, rappelled to the ground or the next rappel station and then yelled “off rappel.” Afterwards, I waited for my partner to rig their rappel device hoping that they rigged everything correctly. Climbing is already a risky endeavor so why go with this “faith-based” approach? Instead of hoping that my partner is rigged appropriately, I would rather know beyond a reasonable doubt. 

With the pre-rigged rappel, we can increase the security of our team while also making the descent more efficient. When I rappel down and yell “off rappel,” my partner can begin rappelling while I give them a firefighter backup. I can also begin feeding the ropes for the next rappel. Again, climbing is inherently risky, so why take unnecessary risks? If I can increase the security of the team while also being more efficient, why would I do anything else? These are the questions you should be asking yourself the next time you’re out climbing. By building good habits, we can continue to do this fun sport for a long time. So, let’s make it a habit to pre-rig our rappels, back them up, and close the system.  

Forrest Stavish
AMGA Apprentice Rock Guide, Certified Ice Instructor, W-EMT

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