Improvised Abseils


Improvised Abseils = abseiling off temporary belay points in order to get off a mountain.

Firstly spend time setting up a good belay point. Find a good solid bollard of rock, well wedged chock-stone or a sturdy tree. In some cases it may be necessary to use pitons or other trad gear. Use a sling or Abseil tat to tie around the belay tree etc. Abseil tat is a thin piece of certified semi-static rope which you tie in a loop with Double-fisherman’s knot. Then take the climbing rope and thread this directly through the abseil tat. Make sure that both ends of the rope reach the ground or the next stance below. Always tie the bottom ends of the rope together to prevent being able to accidentally slide off the end. This is particularly important when the ends of rope cannot be seen, such as can happen at night or in bad weather.

If using two Half ropes to abseil with, they must be tied together using either a Double fisherman’s knot or a well dressed Over-hand knot. Before starting the abseil make a note of which colour rope to pull in order to retrieve them at the end. When abseiling on ropes which are joined, it often works best to place the knot on the outer side of abseil tat, which causes it to flick outwards and away from the cliff as it slides though and thereby helps prevent the end from snagging. This also helps the rope from jamming in the abseil tat when pulling the ropes through.

When planning a climb, always read the route description and find out how you will descend. If it requires abseils, find out how many and from what sorts of anchors. Most route guides will show this information. It is usual to take with about 2m of abseil tat per abseil and a knife to cut it with. Always put your own new abseil slings onto an anchor, even if the ones left behind by other parties appear to be strong. The abseil points on popular descent routes are often easily seen and there is plenty of old tat hanging from them.

An improvised abseil from a block with lots of old “tat” already in place. (Wadi Rum in Jordan) Note the orange sling which is connected to the back up anchor and will be removed later.

Many peaks require multiple abseils to get down, usually abseiling from one abseil point to the next.

The following sequence works best.

1) The first person to abseil must carry spare abseil cord, and a pocket knife to cut it with. As soon as they are down they test that the rope is running easily, by pulling the correct colour to see if it moves. If it does, the person then starts to set up the next piece of abseil tat. They should be finished by the time the rope is ready to be pulled. Remember to always tie the ends together to make sure the first one down cannot abseil off the ends if they have not touched ground. They must of course also have prussic loops at the ready. Or even safer, abseil with a “deadman’s brake” prussic in place.

2) If the abseil ends conveniently at the next belay point, the first person down can immediately thread the “pull down” rope through the abseil point. This saves time in that the rope, when pulled down is already threaded correctly and is less likely to become entangled. As a safety measure after threading, the ends can be retied together while the rest of the party comes down. The reason for this is because if the abseil point above fails they will take a huge fall but eventually get stopped by the new abseil belay point. This simple back up has saved more than one climber’s life!

Usually the most experienced person would abseil first. Or if the anchor is of suspect strength, then place a temporary back up which does not take any of the weight, but would hold the load if the main anchor failed. Then get the heaviest person in the group to abseil first! The lightest person goes last and before starting, removes the backup. (The back up is often an expensive cam which cannot be left behind.)

Tip: Place reflective tape on the ends of your rope. This makes the ends easy to find and can be found at night under torch–light.

Gavin Raubenheimer

Gavin is the owner & operator of Peak High Mountaineering. He is a certified Mountaineering Instructor (M.I.A.) endorsed by the Mountain Development Trust of SA. He is a NQF National Mountaineering (level 7), Cultural and Nature Guide (level 4). Gavin is a past President of the KwaZulu-Natal Section of the Mountain Club of SA. He has been involved in mountain rescue since 1992 and since 2005 has been the Convener of Mountain Rescue in the province. Want Gavin and his team at Peak High to guide you on a hike? Put yourself in the hands of the certified and experienced experts in mountain hiking, guiding and climbing. See Gavin's Google + profile