Backing up a Rappel Part 1: Fireman’s Belay

This climbing season, over 4 climbing deaths in North America have been recorded due to rappelling accidents

Each of these cases could have almost certainly been prevented if some basic safety precautions were taken in regards to rappelling:

  • Tie stopper knots (a double fisherman is the standard) in the end of the rope so you cannot rappel off them.
  • Check that both ends of the rope reach the ground! Do a visual inspection and have a partner on the ground confirm it.
  • Test your rappel system by weighting it with your body weight(or even more by jerking around) before you trust your life to it.
  • Backup your rappel

One of the simplest methods of backing up the rappel is the fireman’s belay, which ideally should be combined with another method built into the rappel system, such as an autoblock.

Fireman’s Belay


The Fireman’s belay, seen here illustrated by Zion Mountain School, is a simple way of backing up a rappel off of a single pitch sport route.

The Procedure

(This is NOT a climbing or rappel lesson and there is no way that you should be doing a rappel without qualified instruction from a professional. This article  is meant to supplement, not replace qualified training.)

  • A 2nd climber stays on the ground monitoring the rappeling climber while holding both strands of the rope the climber is rappelling off of.
  • If the rappeller loses control of the rappel, the climber on the ground can pull on the strands, halting the fall of the climber.  It is essential for the belayer on the ground to pay close attention to the descending climber.
  • The belayer on the ground should be holding the rope loosely so that the rappel is not slowed down, but there shouldnt be much slack in the system because they need to be able to quickly pull the strands tight to halt the rappelling climber’s descent.

The benefits of the fireman’s belay are its simplicity and it requiring no additional equipment. It also is a check that both ends of the rappel rope reach the ground, since the belayer on the ground needs to hold both strands of rope in his hand. For these reasons, it’s a method we think should be used whenever possible.

The fireman’s belay is effective but is not foolproof – it should be used in conjunction with other safe rappelling practices.

Disclaimer: If you had trouble understanding this post or the terminology used, chances are you shouldn’t be rappelling. Please  find qualified instruction from your local rock climbing gym or guide.

Climbing is dangerous. You are responsible for your own safety. Please get advice and practice climbing techniques with professional guides or experienced, trustworthy climbers before trusting your life to something you read off the internet.

Source: Chockstone “Backing up an Abseil” 



Post a Comment

Login if you have a account, or fill in your information to leave a comment