1700 feet above the glacier on the East face of Mt Dickey we had finally admitted to ourselves that it just wasn’t our day. It was time to go down. We were exhausted, moving slowly, and bad weather was closing in. We barely spoke as we re-racked and did our best to stomach the disappointment that admitting defeat often brings. But the day was far from over and the seriousness of where we were brought the task at hand back into focus. Hundreds of vertical feet of uncharted territory lay between us and the security and comfort of base camp. I slotted the #11 Stopper deep in the crack, sacrificed a single non-locker to clip in the rap ropes, backed it all up loosely with the belay anchor and made my way down the face, scouting a place to build the next rap anchor.
While not every bailing scenario is as intense as this, rappelling in less traveled areas is a necessary and fundamental skill to develop as a climber. Having the option to not only go up, but also descend from almost anywhere gives us much more flexibility in making decisions. In turn, this allows for a higher margin of safety while in the mountains or even at your local crag. Feeling committed to completing a route or pitch before descending can often put us in dangerous situations.
The principle for safely rappelling from untested or questionable anchors is simple. Start by building a (or use an existing) primary anchor that is simple, but bomber, and back it up loosely with a secondary anchor. Have the heaviest person descend first carrying the biggest pack to test the anchor. The first person should put the anchor through the wringer, bouncing hard on the anchor while close to it in order to test the system with as much force as possible. Once the first person has descended, the second climber removes the back-up anchor and descends solely on the primary anchor.
Existing Anchors: Inspect, confirm, and back it up!
If you’re using an existing anchor, be certain of what you are looking at. Is that really a double fisherman’s knot? Is the material continuous and free of nicks and cuts? Is that wrapped horn actually part of the cliff or just a detached block? What is the original strength of the material used and how old does it look? Is that a Fixe rapid link or a rolled (hollow) rap ring? Are the tree roots exposed? We often “see” things as we expect them to be, so be diligent in your inspection of the details!
Since not every rap anchor out there is made of stainless steel chain attached to a pair of shiny 3/8” bolts you should take an extra 2 minutes to back-up that rainbow of ancient webbing with a good piece (or two) of gear while the first person raps.
Building Rappel Anchors: When to conserve and when to go big.
Two bomber nuts, a sling, and a couple of carabiners can often be adequate for rappelling if you’re in a pinch. Get creative in how you configure the master point (where you’ll hang the rope). Two nuts equalized with a “Magic X’d” 24 inch sling is an efficient way to create a bomber and redundant (in anchor points) rap anchor. For redundancy in material you’ll have to incorporate a knot or two. By using 1 or 2 piece artificial anchors or natural anchors (threads, pinches, chockstones, and trees) you’ll be able to make more anchors, getting you closer to the ground, then 3 or 4 piece anchors. That being said, it’s also important to keep in mind the bigger picture of where you are. On an alpine face in Pakistan you can likely justify leaving minimal anchors to get your butt down. However, if you’re climbing in a popular area, such as the Gunk’s, you should consider that many others will likely use your anchor after you. In high traffic areas a cordellette or webbing with no rap rings or rapid link will wear out quickly and unpredictably as people repeatedly pull ropes through the masterpoint. Use new materials and a rapid link or ring(s) to create anchor that others will be psyched to use. The more likely your anchor is to get used repeatedly, the more sustainable the construction should be.
Regardless of where and what you choose to climb, knowing how to safely descend from almost anywhere is a great skill to have in your bag of tricks as a climber.