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What’s an extended rappel
An extended rappel is a method of separating your rappel device from your body by a short distance to gain some significant benefits in functionality and safety while on rappel.
Why would you use an extended rappel
An extended rappel makes sense in most situations, but as with all canyoneering and climbing techniques, extended rappels may or may not be appropriate for your specific application. Judgment and decision-making skills will need to be applied each time you rig a rappel to decide if extending is the right technique.
- Better braking: The position of the belay device allows the brake strand to be positioned at an ideal angle for maximum friction on the brake strand.
- Reduced risk of snags: Having the rappel device extended may give a larger margin of error for getting hair, clothing, fingers, or other objects stuck on the rappel device.
- Easier autoblocking: With more room on the brake strand to apply a prusik or autoblock third hand, it’s easier to get the autoblock correct providing better safety.
- Increased stability on rappel: With the connection point raised higher relative to your body’s center of gravity, you’re less likely to flip upsidedown when you’re on rappel if things get spicy or if you have a heavy pack on.
- Faster for groups (sometimes): Particularly for multi-pitch climbing descents, this speeds up the rappel by allowing multiple people to rig their rappel device at the same time.
- Ascending: Allows for quick conversion to ascending mode with certain belay devices.
- More difficult to begin hard start rappels: When starting rappels with low anchors and sharp edges, the rappel device can get stuck on the edge more easily.
- Added complexity: with more connections and components, the extended rappel can introduce more risk if not rigged, inspected, and used properly.
- Additional gear: The extended rappel will always require additional gear – more or less depending on how you rig it.
- Slower to rig: Rigging an extension adds a bit of time to an individual rappel (although in some scenarios it can speed up a group).
How do you rig a rappel extension
Various methods exist for extending a rappel and each has its advantages and disadvantages. The most important part is that you learn to use your preferred method(s) properly and safely. Many strong opinions exist as to the nuances of each method but as long as your method is used safely and wisely, it doesn’t matter which method you use.
The general principle is to extend the position of the rappel device by several inches to several feet from your belay loop. This gives you more room to work with the brake strand. You can hold it directly in front of you rather than having to move it down behind you or by your hip. You also have more room to attach an autoblock as a rappel backup device. We’ll discuss several of the more common and simple ways to rig an extended rappel in detail.
Sometimes I see extensions that are too long and put the rope above the belay device out of reach. This can be a huge problem if you need to ascend or unweight the belay device for whatever reason. Always rig the extension short enough so you can reach the rope above the belay device while sitting in your harness.
The locking quickdraw method is my favorite and perhaps the simplest method. It requires no knots but does require a locking quickdraw.
The quickdraw can be made from a dogbone from a standard draw but the carabiners should be one HMS locking biner and another lightweight locking biner. You can get standalone dogbones in varying lengths to get your rappel extension dialed.
How to rig it
- While clipped into a safety tether, rig your rope for the rappel with the rope ends tied off or the ends visibly touching the ground.
- Attach an autoblock to the rope leaving enough room to also attach your rappel device.
- Connect the lightweight carabiner of the locking draw to your harness belay loop and lock the draw.
- Connect your belay device to the HMS carabiner.
- Rig the rope through your belay device/HMS carabiner per manufacturer’s instructions.
- Fast to set up and break down
- Easy to inspect
- Requires a separate personal tether
- limitations on length of extension
A double-length nylon or Dyneema sling can be used to rig an extension in various setups. We’ll go over each one.
Redundant basket hitch: This method uses a 120 cm sling basket hitched through your harness hardpoints. Tie a figure 8 or overhand knot in the end of the sling to form a masterpoint. This is where you’ll clip the rappel device. Because you’re using both ends of the sling, the system is redundant.
The main advantages to this method are redundancy and simplicity. Since you’re using a basket hitch here, you can more safely use Dyneema or other material besides nylon, just be sure not to shock load it. Also, use a figure-eight for a bit of an easier time untying it. The extension will only be about half the length of the sling, so if you need more length, this can be a disadvantage.
Basket hitch with offset legs: With a double-length (120 cm) sling basket hitched through the hardpoints of your harness, you’ll have two lengths of sling to use. You can tie them off at the end with a figure 8 or overhand as shown above … or… you can make one of them a bit longer than the other and tie a figure 8 or overhand closer to your harness and end up with two non-redundant legs to work with.
This method clearly offers no redundancy, but for most applications, I haven’t found this to be an issue. Again, the basket hitch allows for non-nylon UHMWPE materials if you’re careful and tie a figure 8. The advantages are that you have an offset leg to use as a built-in tether for multi-pitch descents or other needs, but the length of the tether is limited to what you tied into it.
Single length sling: This is a simple rigging method with nothing more than a single (60 cm) nylon sling to extend from. Rig it with a girth hitch through your hardpoints. It’s fast and simple but doesn’t provide a personal tether.
Girth hitch with midpoint: This method is rigged using a double-length nylon (only use nylon when girth hitching, read more about why here) sling girth hitched through the hardpoints on your harness. Find the midpoint of the sling and tie a figure 8 or overhand knot in it. Clip a standard locking carabiner to the second loop and an HMS carabiner to the first loop. The first loop will be where you connect your belay device and the second can be used as a tether when at the anchor and clipped back to your belay loop for additional redundancy while on rappel.
Each of these rigging methods can be the right choice given your situation and material available. None of them will be a one-sized fits all solution.
Many additional methods for extending a rappel can be used, but this is a summary list of some of the more common ones in my area. Leave a comment below if you use a different method.
How to rig an autoblock
One of the primary advantages of the extended rappel is to allow easier and safer use of an autoblock or third hand. I like to use a prusik hitch for my autoblock, in fact, prusik is almost synonymous with autoblock and sometimes you’ll hear someone use the term prusik to simply mean friction hitch although a prusik is just one example of many friction hitches.
To rig a prusik cord you need a loop of accessory cord tied with a double fisherman’s knot. Usually, a 5-7 mm accessory cord is the right diameter, but it largely depends on the rope you’re using with it. Thinner ropes need thinner prusik loops. Prusik loops should be about 18-20″ in length for autoblock purposes.
With the prusik loop made, clip the loop to a carabiner attached to your belay loop. Wrap the prusik loop around the brake strand of the rope several times being careful to neatly stack the loops on top of each other so they all come in full contact with the brake strand. Clip the free end of the loop back to the same carabiner on your belay loop and lock the carabiner.
I sometimes see people attaching the prusik to the leg loop on their harness. Don’t do this. This can be dangerous as the leg loop can move in relation to the belay device and you may end up with the prusik pushed up against the belay device even if it looked okay when you were standing upright.
Also, don’t rig the prusik above the belay device as your autoblock. This has many disadvantages including that you’re relying on the weighted strand to stop you and that requires much more force than after the rope goes through the friction of the belay device.
Every time you rig an autoblock you should test it to ensure it grips properly. It should lock onto the brake strand and stop your progress down the rope and not be at risk of coming in contact with the belay device. If it doesn’t lock, add another wrap. If it locks too tight and you can’t descend, remove a wrap. Sometimes you end up in the middle where you’re either too loose or too tight. If this happens, you’ll need to adjust the size of your prusik loop a bit until you find the sweet spot.
I like to get all this dialed in before I’m actually standing at a rappel station. I test out my prusik loop on the rope I’ll be using either at home or at camp and determine how many wraps I’ll need. This saves time when you’re out on the rock and prevents rushing through with suboptimal setups.
If you use other methods I didn’t already list to rig your extended belay, share in the comments below.