Technical Skills: Personal Abseiling
“I’ve always done it it like this and never had a problem”
Our instructors hear this a lot, most often about abseiling.
On one occasion, a recreational climber took it upon himself to share this view with novices at a crag as justification for why the safety information we were teaching was a waste of time!
However, we feel a more accurate statement would be...
“I have never been in a situation where doing it differently would have been beneficial”
and there are very few people out there who can say...
“If I had done it differently I wouldn't have had an accident whilst abseiling”
Unfortunately, abseiling accidents usually have serious, and often fatal, outcomes.
Nobody plans to; be hit with falling rock, invert and tip upside down, slip and bang their head, be attacked by aggressive birds, be swarmed by bees, wasps or hornets, abseil off the end of the end of the rope, find catastrophic damage to their rope on the way down or suffer a heart attack, stroke or seizure whilst abseiling - yet all of these can and have happened!
We show people all of these techniques so that they can understand the strengths and weaknesses of each system.
Of course, the "gold standard" system may not be necessary for every abseil. Regardless, we encourage its use each and every time. It may make all the difference on the one abseil that goes wrong.
This is exactly what we do every time we lower a climber at the climbing wall. 90% of the time this could be good enough, but the moment you lose control of the rope you will hit the floor.
Prusik on Leg Loop
At first this appears to be an ideal system and it will be very familiar to many climbers. With a good understanding of its limitations it can be used to great effect.
However, the prusik must be managed to prevent it from touching the belay device and releasing unintentionally.
In some scenarios this can be out of the control of the abseiler, so this system may lull the user into a false sense of security - believing that they are safer than they really are.
Prusik Above Device
This is an effective method for using a prusik to hold the abseiler’s weight when they need to let go of the rope.
People often half-engage the prusik and slide down the rope on it (rather than holding it disengaged and loading their device) - this misuse causes wear to ropes and prusik loops very quickly.
This technique is essential in some scenarios - such as abseiling past a knot.
Prusik on Belay Loop, Device Extended
This is the gold standard for personal abseiling - we really struggle to find a justifiable reason for not doing this all the time.
It may seem a little more complex initially, but once you're used to the system it doesn’t take any longer to set up, and for multiple descents or improvised rescue it is the best set up to be using without a doubt.
Some Basic Abseiling Rules
Make sure your harness is fitted and secured correctly.
Put a knot in the end of each rope.
Ensure you are abseiling from a suitably robust anchor.
Know how to use your system and what to do at the end of the abseil.
Double check that you have a knot at the end of each rope.
Make sure you belay device is installed correctly on the rope and attached to the correct part of your harness.
Test your set up before disconnecting from the anchor every time.
Make sure your ropes reach the ground (or the next stance).
Triple check that there is a knot at the end of each rope!
This may seem simplistic but failure to adhere to one or several of these rules in the most common cause of accidents.
Especially when you're tired, afraid, hungry or pushed for time you need to pay specific, conscious attention to all these steps.
If possible, we recommend always completing a buddy check with your partner before you abseil.
Assisted Breaking Devices
There are several assisted breaking devices that work with two ropes. These are useful pieces of kit and some manufacturers market them with a locking abseiling function - however, in practice, we've found several can creep (move), even in the “locked” mode.
We would recommend testing your device with a variety of rope diameters and in wet conditions before using it 'for real'.
Climbing and abseiling are activities with an inherent level of risk - this article is written to help you, but nothing can replace quality instruction and effective supervision whilst you practice and gain experience.
We haven’t looked at devices or systems that only work on a single strand of rope as for recreational climbing we usually use a retrievable abseil (where you descend via both strands, then pull on one of them to recover your ropes).
We do not recommend ever relying entirely on a prusik loop as the sole means of keeping you secure. They are a useful tool and may well function on their own in an emergency scenario. However, if you intend to let go of the rope completely, consider tying a back-up knot below your device, in case the prusik slips.
We have not discussed anchor building or edge-protection in this article.
You need a thorough understanding of how to rig an anchor and protect your rope before you consider the techniques described above.
All of these systems have been used for years, generally without incident - our recommended system (prusik on belay loop with the device extended) is the one we consider the “safest”. Even so this is not a “completely safe” option.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution - it's always up to each individual climber to assess the hazards and risks of each abseil and choose the appropriate technique for them.