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Backpacker Magazine – June 2008

Next Level: Survive an Emergency Rappel

Learn the Dülfersitz rappel and safely lower yourself off of a steep pitch with only a rope.

by: Drew Pogge

Photo by Rob Saunders
Photo by Rob Saunders

A 30-foot drop-off lies between you and the route onward. You packed a coil of rope, but no climbing gear. To continue safely, you need to know the Dülfersitz rappel, an early 20th-century technique that enables you to descend steep pitches with only a rope. Here's how to go over the edge.

Choose a Rope
Select a static rope at least 30 meters long and 8mm in diameter. Dynamic, or elastic, rope isn't needed for rappelling. A coil of Beal Rando's Dry Twin Rope (8mm x 30m) weighs only 2.5 pounds ($60, bdel.com). Thicker rope is easier to handle and more comfortable for rappelling, but heavier than 8mm varieties.

Shed Your Gear
Ditch bulky clothing and gear to do this rappel safely and correctly. To lower your pack, thread the rope through both shoulder straps until it's centered. Holding both ends, lower the pack over the cliff until it touches bottom. Retrieve the rope by pulling on one end.

Set an Anchor
Trees should be healthy, deeply rooted, and at least six inches in diameter. For rock horns and large boulders, make sure they're solid and the rope can't slip under or over them. In hard snow or ice, dig a bollard (a teardrop-shaped trench). To set the rope, loop the middle around the anchor. Then coil both ends and toss them over the cliff, making sure they reach the bottom without tangling.

Wrap the Rope
Stand facing uphill and straddle the two rope lengths coming around the anchor. Hold both ropes together, and pull them through your legs, around your hip, over your nondominant shoulder, around the back of your neck, and down your dominant arm. Hold the rope firmly with your dominant hand. The friction of the rope against your body will brake your descent.

Start Your Descent
Walk backward off the edge; you should be in an athletic stance with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees bent. Grip the rope firmly–your dominant hand on the downhill side of the rope, and your free hand on the uphill side for balance–and let gravity pull you down. Wear gloves for protection. Slowly feed rope as you go. Control your rate of descent by regulating how quickly the rope passes through your dominant hand. If you let go, you will fall. When you're down, retrieve the rope by pulling on one end.



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star
Ken
Nov 13, 2013

This is how we learned to abseil as boy scouts about 40 years ago, but I don't know if I'd do it again...

oldsponger
Aug 23, 2009

I have used this technique several times. Once to drop about 70 degree wall 45 feet into a canyon. It is very easy to control descent. Slow is the way to go. Safety over speed!

Fred Samuel
Nov 07, 2008

Novice comment: Rappel safety seems = 9+, IF there is an additional belay for safety and good ropes. And both people are confident in the skill. Do it slowly! I did a huge rappel as graduation from a 1 day class (1972- no not '92 or '02). Half was free drop. Maybe on a hemp rope, as nylon was "new," and slick. No gloves, as body friction was enough to halt you. If you let go, or twist out- well belay would stop you. I'd do it again, off anything, with a trusted partner & TWO ropes (belay). It was the way it was done.
- FYI - This started with my daughter due to "Myth Busters" - Jail breaks. I'd rappel now with twisted toilet paper rope. And a GOOD belay with a trusted partner and belay (rappel,not by hand).
-It seems VERY LOW for safety for anything else, like no belay, lack of confidence or skill, bad rope. Including an emergency. "We can maybe walk away from the top - cold, tired, dehydrated, late, etc. We can't walk from the bottom if it doesn't work out." (Half of us are down there?)
- With practice a few times, I'd absolutely let my kids do it. But unless they knew how, I probably wouldn't have the rope. Or have gotten stuck there to begin with.
- from some one who is more recent than me "Never let someone talk you into setting off (PERIOD) over an edge on rappel if you still have questions or don't feel comfortable, and never, ever take your brake hand off the rope."
- He probably had 'gear'. And I'd go off the edge with him, old style - without the 'gear', but two ropes.

Honora Renwick
Aug 22, 2008

I did this once to try it out. We abseiled a 4 metre 60 degree bluff. The run out was a soft snowy slope. My partner booted a bollard out of brittle rock to anchor off. It was OK but as mentioned, modern fabrics cause rope burn in your groin so you have to do it slowly! When I showed it to someone in a practice situation, and they tried it out, they fell (uninjured). We absolutely cracked up, laughing.

Chris
Jul 31, 2008

This technique is inadvisable for free-hanging rappels. If your route takes you over an overhang, find another route.

Dave
Jul 16, 2008

Yes, today this is an emergency technique. But it should be noted that until the 1930's this was THE premier rappel technique, by which many of the world's premier peaks were climbed and descended. Take it for what it is; an ace in the hole for a situation that's unlikely to ever happen. But if it does... this is a solid, safe way down, coming from someone who's done it more than once (watch out for rope burn on spendy outerwear, by the way). If you can't hold a doubled rope securely, you probably shouldn't own one. Just my .02

Hernan
Jul 16, 2008

If you have never tried it, not even for practice, his is a 1 (just in emergencies). The method helps on other situations only if you know what you are doing and have previous experience. Be careful. Like you said above: get a carabiner and check this site for some quick rope techniques...
http://www.animatedknots.com/harness/index.php

fallingteacher
Jul 09, 2008

Depends on how steep and tall the cliff is? Seriously, I'm thinking it's a .5--it better be a real emergency, not just late for a pick-up. I've done this before as a demonstration but only on fairly flat ground. It works, but like he says, lose the rope and lose your life. I mean, how many times have you dropped your keys when you thought you had a good grip? Carabiners and ATC's are cheap if you know you're going over.

Lisa Melendy
Jul 02, 2008

On a scale of 1 (only in emergencies) and 10 (fine to do whenever) how safe would you say this rappel is?

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