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Downward bound -- avoiding climbing's bum raps
By Nathan Welton
Climbing Magazine
February 20

Last September, my partner and I woke at 5 a.m. and huffed it to the South Face of Yosemite's Washingon Column to attempt a personal speed record. We racked up and freed the three pitches to Dinner Ledge in a little less than an hour, but found ourselves completely stuck for the rest of the day behind a remarkably slow party. We sat on the ledge from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. throwing pebbles at each other and telling stupid jokes. Around dusk, a violent argument erupted from above, and within minutes, two ropes materialized and a pair of climbers stood next to us screaming at each other. They obviously weren't in the mood to finish the wall together, and gathered their stuff and bailed in tense silence.

Five minutes later, we heard their shouts and cries echoing off Glacier Point Apron. We ran over to their rap station and peered over the edge to see what was happening. Apparently they had attempted to simul-rappel, with no backups, with their haulbags full of water on their shoulders. Both of them inverted and went screaming down their lines headfirst and backwards. Luckily, they managed to gain control of their ropes, grunted their way upright, and ever-so-cautiously descended the rest of the route. If they didn't have hernias by the time they reached the ground, they at least received the world's most harrowing abdominal workout.

Moral of the story: When you rappel with haulbags, a few simple tricks can save you a lot of grief, and even your life.

Dump your water, or give it to other parties. Water weighs over two pounds per liter, and rappelling with makes it more difficult to manage the bags. Since my buddy and I sat on the Dinner Ledge all day, our water rations were meager by the time we touched the ground the next afternoon. We would have gladly unburdened the duo of their extra water.

Don't wear the haulbags. Wearing a haulbag makes you top heavy and prone to inverting, as witnessed by our heroes on the South Face. Instead, hang the bag on a sling beneath you. To do so, attach a locking carabiner to the belay/rappel loop on your harness. Clip a shoulder-length runner to the locker, then, using another locker or two non-locking carabiners with gates opposed and reversed, clip the haulbag to the runner. Now you can rappel and have the haulbag dangle between your legs, with the weight of the haulbag on your rappel device rather than on you (figure 1)

Rappel with a back-up. There are numerous methods for backing up a rappel, but the best is to tie an autoblock knot below your rappel device. An autoblock is easy to release after it's been weighted; attaching it to the rope below your rappel device lets you loosely hold the knot in your brake hand. If your brake hand accidentally lets go, the knot tightens and stops your rappel. To rig an autoblock back-up, clip a locking carabiner to the leg-loop on the same side of your harness as your brake hand. Clipping the carabiner to your leg loop rather than belay/rappel loop will keep it out of the way and make the autoblock less likely to jam in the rappel device.

Next, clip a one- to two-foot loop of 5- or 6mm perlon cord or 1/2- to 9/16-inch webbing to the locking carabiner, and wrap the loop around both rappel ropes below your rappel device. Clip the loop's remaining free end to the locking carabiner (figure 2). Adjust the length of the loop so you can wrap it two or three times around both ropes. Be careful not to get the loop too long, or it might get sucked into your rappel device.

Wear leather gloves. With a heavy pig dangling from your harness, gravity is working overtime. Gloves help you keep your rappel under control.

Tie safety knots in the ends of your ropes. A simple overhand or figure-8 knot tied in each end of your rappel ropes will prevent you from rappelling off the ends of your ropes, which is more common than you would expect, especially in the dark.

Finally, don't simul-rappel. Simul-rappelling doubles the load on the anchors. The two jokers on the Column had a death-wish. Use your noggin and play it safe.

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