Tech Tips - Abseiling - Outdoors Magic

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Tech Tips – Abseiling

If you’re into mountain rock, sea cliff or alpine climbing you tend to do a fair bit of abseiling. Some crags require an abseil descent to get off e.g. Napes Needle and the Old Man of Hoy. On others like Gimmer Crag in the Lake District, abseiling can be a quicker and more attractive alternative to a difficult walk down. Bad weather, route-finding problems or unexpectedly difficult climbing might cause you to retreat from the route itself. A popular venue for epic abseil retreats is Pillar Rock in the winter where I’m sure I’ve descended just as much rock as I’ve climbed. Finally, abseiling’s often the only way into sea cliffs and anyone who’s seen the famous Leo Dickinson photo of Dream of White Horses at Gogarth, will want, at some stage, to get on some sea cliffs.

The fundamentals of anchor selection, rigging the rope, abseil technique and backing up abseils are best learnt practically from an experienced friend or an instructor. However, assuming that you’re happy with the basics, it might be worth having a think about some of this…

Make yourself a cowstail device before you start abseiling

Larks-foot a 120cm sling to the belay loop on your harness and tie an overhand knot around 10 cm from the harness. Clip your belay device into the loop formed between the overhand knot and the larksfoot. A screwgate krab (green in photo) is clipped into the end of the sling. This krab can be used to clip into the anchor providing security whilst threading the rope into the abseil device and arranging the prussik. Once the abseil device is threaded and prussik is on it’s a good idea to do a short (few cms) test abseil to make sure everything is working properly before removing the cowstail from the anchor. The cowstail krab (green in photo) can be stowed out of the way on a gear loop whilst you’re abseiling.

This sort of arrangement is very handy when you’re doing multiple abseils as you’ve got a permanent cowstail that can be used to clip into anchors.


Throwing the ropes into the wind

If it’s windy, throwing your ropes down the crag may not be an option. One of the worst places for this is Western Gully on Dinas Mot; the standard descent after doing routes on the Nose. Often you’re throwing your ropes directly into a howling westerly and you’re doing well if they go ten feet before diving between the rope-eating rocks in the bottom of the gully.

There are a few options in this situation. If you’ve got a rucksack you might decide to stuff the rope into that (starting with the knotted ends). Attach a short sling to the rucksack and hang it from the belay loop on your harness. As you abseil the rope just feeds out of the bag. If the angle is very gentle you might be better attaching the rucksack to the side of your harness with a karabiner as it tends to drag on the ground and get stuck.

Another method to try is coiling the rope around your body (see pic) and flicking the coils off as you abseil. Set up the abseil as normal and take coils across your body starting from the end of the rope. This is important. If you start with the end closest to the anchor they won’t run off. As you abseil you stop, flick off a few coils and abseil a bit more before stopping and flicking off more coils.

Finally, you might decide to lower the first person down and then everyone else abseils after them.

Good abseiling technique

When abseiling you can minimise the load on the anchors by abseiling smoothly. This is a very good thing. Cavers and rope access types have found that a jerky abseil technique where the abseiler is rhythmically bouncing on the rope can double the force on the anchors. Ascending a rope using a bouncy technique generates even more force on the anchors. The logical conclusion of this is that the worst-case scenario is a heavy person ascending a short rope (less rope to absorb the forces) with a bouncy technique.

It’s very important to protect your rope from sharp edges when abseiling. A bouncy abseiling technique, particularly on dynamic climbing rope can cause the rope to saw over an edge. At best the rope may be damaged. At worst it may be cut.

Don’t abseil off the end of the rope

If you can’t see that the ropes reach the ground then always tie knots in the ends to prevent you abseiling off the end. A figure-of-eight pulled fairly snug is a good option. Always leave at least a forearms length of tail below the knot to prevent it from shaking off the end of the rope.

Add friction when abseiling

It’s sometimes useful to be able to add friction to your system when abseiling. You might want to do this if you’re wearing a rucksack, your ropes are wet, icy or muddy or you’re using a particularly slick belay device. There are a number of different methods but one of the best is to use two belay karabiners rather than one.

This is the second of a new series of fortnightly OM tech tips by
Jules Barrett, a member of the Association of Mountaineering
Instructors who runs Orion Mountaineering. You can contact Jules by
e-mail at
[email protected]

Tech Tip Man

Jules Barrett is a member of the Association of
Mountaineering Instructors and runs Orion Mountaineering, a
UK-based mountain instruction and guiding company. When not
working he enjoys climbing, caving, cave diving and other
stuff that insurance companies don’t approve of.

For more information on rock climbing, scrambling,
navigation and caving courses throughout the UK visit
Orion Mountaineering.


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