Rappelling as a Key - A Contribution From Blood Uncle
Imagine you’re in the wilderness, you look out and see for miles, terrain features beyond scale. Casting a shadow on the speck of dust that you add to the landscape, the mountains roll out of the inception of millions of years of tectonic movement, creating towering formations. Foothills leading up to the highest peaks create hallways and corridors stacked above each other, but these hallways are not made of walls, but of locked doors. The keys to these doors are in your skillful handling of ropes and the terrain.
My name is Blood Uncle, I’m a mountaineer and rock-climbing instructor. In this article I will be sharing practices used by mountain leaders, the International Federation of Sport Climbers and the American Mountain Guide Association with insight from my experiences across several mountains and the application of these skills in a multitude of professional and recreational scenarios to help you understand the possibilities that can be unlocked with rope skills with specific focus on rappelling in this article.
Carabiners, Tubular Nylon, and Ropes.
Just like bolt cutters, breach pens, or lock picks, these tools allow access to the outdoors in a similar way. But in comparable applicability, they have to be practiced and should be carried when deliberate planning of the mission calls for it. Carrying 120 feet of static rope is heavy and cumbersome. Without a real plan to use it, you look like an airsofter with bolt cutters. Now, settle down my little Green Mountain Rangers, let’s break down how these tools can possibly benefit you in patrolling, recon, and expedient infill/exfil.
Let's first start by defining some terms for those unfamiliar with rappelling or climbing.
Rappelling: Descending a rope using friction to slow the decent.
Abseiling: See Rappelling. It’s the same thing but British.
Rappel: Safely descend a rope using friction.
Belay: Catch with a rope
Knots: A bend in a rope or webbing to fix something in place.
Hitches: A bend in a rope or webbing to create friction around a point.
Carabiners: Also known as snap links or connectors. Used to attach two things together.
Static Ropes: Used for rigging and rappelling without elastic elongation.
Dynamic Ropes: Used for climbing/ascending and allow for elastic elongation to prevent shock loading.
Anchor: A fixture that provides security, such as a tree or rock, or in alpine climbing a cam, nut, or bolt.
A System: The entire connection of webbing, ropes, carabiners, and anchors to bear a load.
For those who have heard of SMEAC (Situation, mission, execution, admin/logistics, command/signal) we will be using this to guide us on how we want to organize and execute these skills in a realistic scenario.
In this scenario, we will be needing to descend 5th class terrain using ropes to continue movement through the wilderness.
Situation: Troops need to move down a 30’ cliff face to continue a time sensitive movement.
Mission: Access the terrain and arrive at the bottom of the cliff safely to continue movement.
Execution: Use a rappel system to descend to a safe landing and go off rappel when safe.
Admin/Logistics: Rappelers will be subordinate to the Rope Master. At least one team member will need 100 feet of static rope. All members will need a basic rappelling kit.
Command/Signal: Rope master will give commands of On Rappel, Rappeler will give command of off Rappel when safely free of the system.
In this simple break down, we have established what we have in our way, what needs to be done, how we need to do it, who will be doing it with what, and how we can execute it with a sequence of signals.
We will use the example of rappelling a team down a 30’ cliff face to apply the skills I will be discussing.
Using SMEAC, we are going to first talk about the situation presented to us that would call for our rope skills. This is based on terrain and accessibility.
The terrain is classified into 5 different levels. The levels we want to apply most of these skills at are 3rd class up to 5th class. 3rd class terrain can be easily ascended with occasional use of hands for balance, rappelling can help safely expediate a decent but may not be time effective. 4th class terrain is difficult to ascend and requires hands and feet to maneuver safely. Falling can be catastrophic and injuries will likely result in the form of trauma and fractures, some falls may be fatal. Short-Roping for an ascent can be helpful and boulders or trees can be used as natural protection. 5th class terrain is proper rock climbing, where falling will have catastrophic or fatal consequences, and the leader should lighten their load as much as possible to exploit their ability on the rock. Climbing shoes may be necessary, ropes are required.
Terrain needs to be reconnoitered with maps, visual surveys, or drones, and the distance to safely descend through the 4th or 5th class terrain needs to be considered as well as the distance to the nearest anchor. A large boulder that cannot be shifted, or a live tree wider than a human leg with no movement at the roots when tested will serve as a strong anchor.
It’s hard to spot the difference between 3rd, 4th, and 5th class terrain on topo, but streams and creeks cut into the terrain and create these formations. Water and glaciers create the most dramatic cuts into the mountains and are responsible for the 3000’ walls of the Yosemite Valley, using these clues we can deduce the likely formation of high consequence terrain.
Below is an example of a creek running down the side of Mt. Adams, New Hampshire. Being there, I can tell you that the terrain is indeed 3rd class with segments of 4th class. That can also be determined from the contour lines being closer in interval in different parts. Descending down the creek bed in winter conditions is dangerous, and weather may require the risk management considerations of 4th class terrain be applied to 3rd class terrain.
Below is an Example of 5th class terrain on topo, with a gradual increase in the compression of the topo lines, the 5th class features are easy to miss. Seneca rocks is indeed a 200’ tall formation of vertical rock but the overall gain is not as great in value as that of Mt Adams.
It is also a training site used by the 10th mountain division in 1943 to prepare for operations in Europe, with 5th class terrain circling its peaks, and the south peak forming a 4th class landing when walking across the narrow feature. It is imperative to stay roped up throughout the entire movement.
In our situation, we will be descending 5th class terrain, with greater steepness than that which is pictured above. Steepness does not end at completely vertical in climbing, overhangs are common challenges that can be overcome with certain skillsets. But for troop movement, it is recommended to not exceed the steepness of a vertical rock face.
The mission is simple but it needs to be clearly defined. All members of the team need to understand the end goal, which is to descend safely to stable ground in a rappel. But if the terrain is a series of 5th class drops, the mission is to descend to a point where the terrain is no longer 4th class if available, preferably onto 1st or 2nd class terrain where solid footing can be found and a fall will not result in serious injury after going OFF-RAPPEL. If the mission calls for the descent at a specific location, all terrain factors encompassing the last safe area until the mission determined point need to be incorporated to the logistics and the execution of the operation. This may be limited by the available anchors and the distance of the decent as well as the rope length available. If rope is limited but anchors are in a surplus, the rope master can send rappelers down to the first safe landing, recreate the rappel, and repeat the process until safe. This is how climbers descend 3000’ walls, by descending one pitch (anchor point to anchor point) at a time.
Another factor is if the rope needs to be retrieved from the ground or if the team can return to the top anchor and retrieve the rope. In the latter, the entire rope length can be utilized for the rappel. In the former, that distance is halved.
In our current scenario, the team needs to descend 30’ but the anchors are 15’ away from the cliff. How are we going to execute this decent with 100’ of rope?
Doing the math, you’ll realize that 30’ decent with an anchor 15’ feet away doesn’t leave much excess rope. You are left with only 10’ if your calculations are right, and that’s not including any knots. This is because both strands need to touch the bottom of the cliff in order to retrieve the rope.
The Safe execution of a rappel needs to follow a procedure that once started, all rappelers subordinate to the rope master’s instructions to ensure a safe execution.
Rappelers will need to address the cliff face with an understanding of how to use a rappel device or hitches to descend. In our example, we will be using a Munter hitch to descend on a single strand.
The Rope Master will be setting up an equivocation hitch to ensure a quick retrieval of the rope when on the ground. In this hitch, a bight of the midsection of the rope is wrapped around the anchor and the two strands going to the cliff will be loaded like a daisy chain. This hitch works well on highly abrasive surfaces but the improper use of the hitch will surely lead to catastrophe.
The nature of this hitch gives rappelers a ‘rappel strand’ and a ‘pull strand.’ The rope master will tie this “pull strand” to themself using a figure eight knot to ensure nobody rappels down the ‘pull strand.’ The rope master can use this ‘pull strand’ as a tether by creating a using tubular nylon around an anchor, a locking carabiner, and a clove hitch.
The rope master will check each rappelers’ gloves, Swiss seats or harnesses, carabiners, and uniform for any possible obstructions. Rifles should be slung behind tightly and should not be loaded to condition 1 if the mission allows it. Rucks should be removed and lowered down before descending.
After the rope master ensures gear is in good working order, they will put the rappeler ON-RAPPEL with a Munter hitch and execute a “squeeze check” to ensure all carabiners are locked.
Rappelers will load up closest to the anchor and the last to load up will be the first to descend. The rope master is free of the ‘rappel strand.’
The rope master will order the first rappeler to hold the brake at a 6 o’clock position and back up to the cliff, put feet on the edge, form an L-Shape seat, bend at the waist and begin walking down the cliff with the brake at the 3 o’clock position to allow the rope to work through the hitch. It's important for the rappeler to get the rope close to the edge before stepping down. This may be done by leaning back while simultaneously stepping down the cliff to keep tension on the rope and pressure on the feet.
Once the first rappeler descends to a safe position, they will immediately go OFF-RAPPEL, move away from the rope toward the perimeter, and the rope master will pull on the rappel strand to feel the rope is free and ready for the next rappeler.
This is done in series until the last rappeler is safely OFF-RAPPEL and the rope master can then go ON-RAPPEL.
Once the rope master has descended, they can retrieve the rope by pulling the ‘pull strand’ and releasing the hitch.
Let's get into billets, aka roles of leadership. When ascending you have a leader, a belayer, and followers, when descending you have rappelers, and a rope master.
The leader is the riskiest billet, your ability on the rock is your life line and the protection you can add is reliant on how much you can carry with you. In a long-range sustainment scenario, that is not a lot.
A belayer’s job is to manage slack in the system to catch the leader if they fall. The leader can also become a belayer when arriving at the anchor to catch the followers.
The rappeler's job is to listen to the rope master when preparing for a decent.
A rope master’s job is to check the rappeler’s kit and ensure the safety and executing of the rappel in a time efficient manner.
Everything in the climbing, mountaineering, or canyoneering world is rated with Kilo Newton (KN) since a lot of this stuff comes from Italian or French alpinists. Arborists typically use English measurements, so we’ll have to do a quick math lesson before getting started.
1 KN =1 Kg 1 m/s2
Mass times acceleration is what we call force, this can also be converted to pounds, also a unit of force.
1 KN ≅ 224.8 lb
Using a climbing carabiner, we can see that the max load rated on the spine is 24 KN, or 5395.41 lb.
Next is measuring Tubular Nylon (aka Webbing) and ropes. All climbing ropes are measured in length with meters and in diameter with millimeters. Most of these ropes will be dynamic but some climbing/mountaineering companies sell static ropes.
1 M≅3.2 ft
When going to an arborist or tactical rope outfitter, most measure length in feet, and diameter in inches. But no ropes are going to be over an inch, so they well be found as fractions. A common one is 7/16 in, or 11 mm. This is the maximum girth you would use, and this diameter is commonly referred to as assault line when sold in 200-meter spools.
716in ≅ 11.1 mm
Now that we have force, length, and diameter understood, let's get into what a rope master needs, and what a rappeler needs.
A rappeler will need 15’ of 1” tubular nylon, commonly rated for 4000 lb or 17.8 KN, for a Swiss seat, as well as a load rated locking carabiner to complete the Swiss seat. They will need another to act as the rappel device, and lastly rope gloves to prevent burns.
A rope master will need all of this plus an additional sling and carabiner to provide an anchor point to observe from. An additional nylon loop or prusik loop made from an 8’ segment of 5mm can help in the assessment of the cliff line by creating a Kleim heist friction hitch.
Here’s some recommended products:
Note: Static line has no stretch, and should never be used for climbing.
100’-150’ of Sterling 7/16” (11.1 mm) Assault line
150’ - 300’ Sterling Canyon Tech
150’ of 3/8” (9.5 mm) Tactical rope
NOTE: Climbing has many technical nuances that exceed rappelling. Ensure you use adequate protection in the form of cams, nuts, bolts, and draws, and a prefabricated harness for climbing to ensure maximum safety.
Mammut 60m Crag Classic Dry Treated 9.8mm Dynamic rope
Sterling 70m Velocity 9.8mm Xeros Rope
Remember, you can always cut rope and splice two together for rappelling, but you can only use one rope length to climb.
15’ of Sterling Mil Spec 1” Tubular Nylon (Get the 30’ spool and cut it in half with a team mate)
Petzl Cordex Gloves
OR Granite Gloves
HMS Locking Carabiners:
Black Diamond Rocklock
Edelrid Bulletproof HMS
The team will need to have 100’ of rope for this specific scenario, and a ruck to carry it in. Its best to use static line here as it works well in all weather, and is cheaper. If using dynamic, the sheath and core need to be dry treated to ensure that any elongation while wet will not damage it.
Knowledge is a logistic consideration as well, and rappelling as many technical nuances to execute it flawlessly. Practice knots and hitches before going into the scenario, and understand the principles that make each work.
Knots for Rappelling:
Figure 8 on a Bight
Retrace Figure 8
Flat Overhand (European Death Knot)
Equivocation Hitch (Daisy Chain of Death)
Kleim Heist Hitch
Overhand on a Bight
Barrel Knot (Stopper Knot)
COMMAND AND SIGNAL
Focusing on Signal, the rope master will use several signals in the execution of the rappel. The first is the command “ON-RAPPEL” coming from rope master to the rappeler. From here the rappeler has been checked and is ready to execute the rappel, but will wait until ordered to the cliff line.
Once the rope master sends the first rappeler down, the rope master will pull up on the rappel strand and wait for it to feel loose, signaling the rappeler is on the ground. While anchored, the rope master can also observe over the cliff line to ensure that the rappeler is safe.
In a situation where there can be verbal communication, the rappeler on the ground can call out “OFF RAPPEL!” to indicate they are indeed off rappel. It is important that the rappeler is completely free of the system and no gear, such as the carabiner, is left on the rappel strand so the next rappeler can descend without a fireman belay. If performing a fireman belay to assist a rappeler, ensure that the belay is well trained.
The art of using ropes effectively in the wilderness will be a key to many avenues of approach and movement throughout the wild. Rope skills do not only cover the descent, but can be applied to the ascent, and the crossing of streams and water ways. But it is important to pack ropes only when deliberately planning to use them. Constant exposure to UV light, moisture, and abrasions will age materials faster and they will lose their life saving strength. It’s important to protect these materials and care for them like you would any other lifesaving item. After 5 years, it is best to replace them.
For now, keep going out, first reconnoitering the terrain, assessing the topo, and determining if these skills are necessary. Even if you don’t think they are necessary, then can be a strong team building exercise that can create the pressure that a team needs to build cohesion and character. Practice these skills in a safe environment and continue to challenge the information being given to you and seeking out more. For more detailed breakdowns on materials, techniques, knots or hitches, follow me on Instagram @Blood.uncle