A lot of people who want to get involved in local canyoning are coming from a climbing background, or have experience in dry canyons. This is a brief guide about how to set up rappels in flowing canyons, and how it differs from what climbers usually do, and what is done in dry canyons.
Folks coming from a climbing background are frequently reminded that the rappel at the end of a climb is probably the most hazardous part of the day. Since this is a primary activity in canyon descents, we put a lot of emphasis on doing it safely. Frequent practice helps, and you will become more comfortable with the techniques and equipment used.
We’ll start with how canyons are usually rigged in dry canyons, and move on to improvements for flowing canyons.
Keep in mind that these are techniques that enhance safety. Yes, it is definitely possible to descend these canyons using dynamic rope, and using double strand rappel (climbing-style) techniques. Many people do so. But you will have greater margins of safety by expanding your rappel portfolio to include these techniques!
A solid anchor
For starters, it’s important to have a secure anchor off of which to rappel. Many of the local canyons are now bolted, with most anchors consisting of two bolts, either joined by webbing or by an integral chain. Some canyons, and the occasional rappel in bolted canyons, are not equipped with bolts. These generally have adequate natural anchor material to rig with webbing.
I am going to leave the anchor discussion for another time, and concentrate here on how to rig a rappel rope off of a solid, secure anchor.
First off, when we are talking rappels in canyons, it’s important to note that these should be done on static ropes rather than dynamic climbing ropes. Dynamic rope have a lot of bounce in them, which can cause serious abrasion to the rope sheath when the rope passes over a sharp rock edge. A dynamic rope can be much more susceptible to getting a core shot from this damage.
We generally use canyon specific ropes, which have a combination of a relatively thin diameter (usually 8 to 9 mm) with a thick and/or extra tough sheath. For example, Imlay Canyon Gear’s Canyon Fire rope is an 8.3 mm rope, which has the core of an 8 mm rope, with extra sheathing added, taking it up to 8.3. Sterling Rope’s Canyon C-IV rope is a 9mm rope that is very light and has great handling qualities. It has a Technora sheath, which makes it highly resistant to abrasion. It is always important, however, to frequently inspect your ropes, looking for damaged areas, and never use a rope if the core is visible through the sheath.
Single rope advantages
Normally, climbers set up a rappel by threading their rope through the anchor ring to the halfway point, tying knots in both ends, and rapping off of both sides as a double strand rappel.
More frequently, in a canyon, with experienced canyoneers, you will see a single strand rappel performed. Here are some advantages to single strand rappels:
- A single strand rappel can be easily ascended. Because the rope is locked in place, it is simple to slap ascenders onto the rope, and head back up. Not needed often, but can be useful.
- A single strand rappel leaves extra rope available at the anchor. If the person rappeling has some sort of emergency, more rope is available at the top to assist. You should always have an extra rope with you, but what if it is currently deployed on the previous rappel? What if it got stuck on the pull earlier, and you’re down to one rope? This way, the “pull side” of the rope is still available for use.
- A single strand rappel can be converted to a lower. This is an important factor in flowing canyons, and we will go further into it shortly. When someone gets stuck on a rappel in a dry canyon (for example, something gets jammed into their rappel device) it’s not a big deal for them to wait while assistance is deployed. It can be completely different while being pummeled in a waterfall, however. It may be best to then lower the rappeler to safety.
Disadvantages of single rope rappels
There are a couple of possible safety disadvantages to single rope rappels. However, they can be mitigated by equipment and by safe techniques.
First of all, there is the simple fact that a single strand, and especially a skinny single strand, provides much less friction in a rappel device. Your basic ATC-type device may be too slippery to provide enough friction in this situation. For many smaller framed canyoneers, this may not be an issue. But for the larger folks, an ATC-XP (with the ridges) set to the high friction setting (ridges on the lower, brake side) is the bare minimum for rappeling safely – and may be inadequate on a long rappel.
There are a large number of rappel devices now available that are adjustable for friction settings, and many are actually adjustable on-the-fly – you can add friction as you descend, if required. These devices include: Bluu Gnome Sqwurel, Petzl Pirana, Sterling ATS, Canyon Werks Critr, and Rock Exotica Totem.
A safety disadvantage of the single rope rappel is that, using the block technique on its own, it is possible to get on the wrong (unblocked or “pull”) side of the rope and have the rope pull through as soon as it is weighted. This error has caused injuries and deaths in the past. We will get into this further on, but the ideal way of dealing with this is to always clip in the pull side of the rope to the anchor, until the last person is securely on rappel.
Rigging a single strand rappel
Single strand rappels are sometimes rigged using what is called a knot block, especially in Europe, but we will instead go over something called a carabiner block.
If necessary (depending upon the security of the stance at the anchor) clip and lock a personal safety line – such as a daisy chain, Clipster, or other lanyard – into the anchor.
Thread the rope through the anchor ring, and feed out enough for the full length of the rappel. When threading the rope through the ring, always thread from the back – from the wall, outwards. It isn’t so important on a webbing anchor that is hanging free, but can really simplify the pull on bolted anchors. When the block is completed, you want it to be on the side closest to the rock.
Toss the rope down, holding the rope tightly so that it doesn’t slip further through the anchor ring. This is the rappel strand. The other end of the rope, ideally still in the rope bag, is the pull strand.
On the pull strand side of the anchor ring, tie a clove hitch onto a locking HMS-type (large pear shaped) carabiner. You want the carabiner to be large enough that, no matter which way it twists or turns, it is physically impossible to pass through the anchor ring.
Now, take a bight of rope on the pull side, below the clove-hitched carabiner, and tie an overhand knot. Using another locking carabiner, clip this to the anchor. Lock it up! This is the step that can save a life if someone tries to rap off the wrong strand.
This is the basic carabiner block rappel rigging. The balance of the rope (the pull side) should still be in a rope bag, at the top of the rappel. This also decreases the likelihood of someone attempting to rappel off of the wrong strand of rope.
When the last person is left at the top of the rappel, she should first attach her rappel device to the rappel strand, and be ready to rappel. Then, the overhand knot is unclipped from the anchor, and untied. The rope bag can then be either thrown down, or clipped to the rappeler’s harness. Finally, the rappeler unclips here safety line (if used) and rappels down.
The preceding shows how a basic single strand rappel can be easily set up at any anchor. However, there are situations where it is best to set up what is called a “contingency anchor”. This is one that is already set up and ready to be used as a lowering system.
There are a number of scenarios where it is necessary to lower the rope:
- As previously mentioned, in a flowing canyon, you may need to lower someone on a rappel with very little notice – if, for example, something gets jammed in their rappel device while in a waterfall.
- If you are not able to see the bottom of the rappel, the thrown rope may not have reached all the way down. If necessary, the first rappeler can use whistle signals (or yell, if it isn’t too noisy) to indicate that more rope is required.
- Sometimes it is important to not have too much excess rope at the bottom of the rappel. Normally, we want a rope to just reach the bottom of the rappel, so that the rappeler can slide off the rope without having to pull too much through, or to have to undo their rap device. When a rappel ends in a pool, or especially in a pool with hydraulics, it is far more important – critical – to not have extra rope swirling around where it can ensnare the rappeler. In these situations, we want to deliberately set the rope too short, then lower the first rappeler until the rope is just the right length.
- Sometimes we want to deliberately set a rope too short – to permit sliding off the rope above a pool, for a dramatic drop. An example of this is in the tube, or keyhole, rappel in Monmouth canyon. You want to rappel past an alcove, where the rock cuts out and forms a ledge, but as soon as you are past that, you can slide the rest of the rappel. After threading the rope through the anchor, using a lower system, the first rappeler gets on the rope right near the end, and uses a releasable knot, such as a munter/mule combination. The rappeler is then lowered until he is past the obstacle, then blows the “Stop” signal. With a little fine tuning (perhaps lowering a little bit more, if required) he then releases and drops off the rope. The “lower” system can then be locked at this length.
- If the rope runs over a sharp rock edge along the rappel, it is best to do what is called “creeping” the rope during a rappel. Set up the rope as a lower right from the beginning – just the first part of the contingency set sup – and slowly, continuously, let out a little bit of rope as each person rappels. The final rappeler can then block the rope before descending, and rappel gently to prevent rope damage.
There are a number of ways to set up contingency anchors for rappels, but one of the simplest is the following, using a figure-8 device. It functions just the way that a carabiner block does, on one side of the anchor ring, and can be locked off the same way. When required, it takes less than a minute to convert to a lower.
First, thread the rope and throw it down, as with a carabiner block.
Next, take a figure-8 device, and place it on the pull side of the rope like this:
Grab a bight of rope from further down the pull side,
and pass it back through the hole in the figure-8.
Give the bight of rope a twist,
and pass the bight over the head of the figure-8.
Tighten up and tidy all the ropes,
then clip a canyon quickdraw (a quickdraw with two locking carabiners) into the head of the figure-8. Clip the other end into the anchor, and lock it up!
To convert to a lower, simply remove the backup quickdraw, and gently push the pull side of the rope through the hole in the figure-8 until you can remove the bight from over the head of the 8.
As you do so, hold tightly to the rope, preparing to support the weight of the rappeler. You are now left with a simple belay device blocking the rope at the anchor ring. Carefully lower as required.
If you are going to be doing a lot of lowering, or creeping of the rope, it might be best to take the brake strand from the figure 8, and run it through the device on your harness, just as an extra backup for the safety of the rappeler.
Again, when using a contingency, the last rappeler needs to ensure that the backup is removed prior to beginning the rappel, or the rope will not pull.
There are, in fact, times when a double strand rappel is a good idea. If there is a concern that the carabiner block, or contingency could snag or jam on something on the pull, it can be best to convert to a double strand for the final rappeler. If doing so, be absolutely certain that both ends of the rope reach the bottom!
One example where I do this frequently is the final rappel in Cypress Creek, just below the viewpoint. The logs that are in the rappel are notorious for catching carabiners on their way by. I normally convert to a double strand, when last, using a 200 foot (60 m) rope, knowing that the total length is a little over 90 feet (about 27.5 m). This allows the pull to go much more smoothly.
Practice, practice, practice
We would strongly recommend that you practice these techniques in a safe location prior to using them in the field. Become comfortable with rigging a contingency, and converting it to a lower. Even if you are at a rappel that you’ve done a dozen times before, don’t become complacent; rig a contingency so that not only are you ready for any eventuality, but you’re always getting the practice and staying sharp.
I’m always open to new ideas and feedback! Let me (and everyone else!) know in the comments if you have any other suggestions, or send me a note with your thoughts…