Most climbers agree on one thing: rappelling is terrifying. While the concept of using a rappel device to descend a rope is simple, in practice it requires the utmost attention to detail. This proves difficult when you’re mentally and physically exhausted after a long climb and all you can think about is cheeseburgers. The margin for error is razor thin, and accidents often result in death.
Those risks are compounded by the fact that most big climbs require multiple rappels to get to the ground, which adds logistical challenges. If you want to rappel more than 30 to 35 meters (roughly 100 to 115 feet) at a time (or half the length of one rope), you need to bring along another rope. But a second rope adds weight, and when you’re committing to big days in high mountains, extra pounds matter.
The Escaper ($50), a new detachable anchor system from French climbing-gear manufacturer Beal, could solve that problem, allowing you to rappel the full length of a single rope, then retrieve the rope by pulling on it a certain way and keep descending. Weighing in at 3.2 ounces and packing down to the size of a beer can, the device seemingly offers a weight-saving solution. But while making it possible for climbers to get to the ground with fewer rappels and thus descend faster, the mechanism it uses could prove risky and make rappelling more dangerous. We tested it out to see if the pros outweigh the cons.
How It Works
The design of the Escaper is simple but brilliant. There’s a four-foot section of dry-treated dynamic climbing rope with a Dyneema wrap, a bungee cord, and an attachment loop at the bottom. Thread the end of the Escaper through the anchor and then all the way down through the Dyneema wrap, which resembles a friction hitch. Tie your main rope to the attachment loop below the Dyneema wrap. As with a Chinese finger trap, pulling on the Dyneema wrap (or, in this case, weighting it for rappel) causes it to tighten, effectively locking it in place. The rappeller can then descend.
Once on the ground, it’s time to get your rope back. Pulling and releasing the rope sharply causes the bungee to stretch and then spring back up, moving the Dyneema wrap along with it. With each pull and release, the Dyneema wrap inches down the Escaper rope. Yank the rope enough times (Beal says it takes a minimum of eight, but in our testing it was closer to 12) and the friction hitch inches right off the end of the Escaper. The device’s rope segment slides through the anchors, and the Escaper and climbing rope fall to where you can retrieve them.
Beal isn’t just marketing this as an emergency tool; the company envisions it as a tool for competent climbers familiar with the terrain to routinely make full-length, single-rope rappels, lightening their packs and getting to the ground faster. “The name is Escaper, so it is first a backup device,” says a Beal representative. “But when you know the routes, you can use the Escaper as a standard way to rappel with a single rope. So it’s a back-up system, but not only a backup system.”
Why It Might Be Dangerous
Holding a Rappel
The device is designed to come unattached after a rappel, which raises the question: Could that happen during a rappel? Rappels are rarely straight or free-hanging. Climbers will likely unweight or partially unweight the rope as they come to ledges or bulges. Theoretically, unweighting the rope mid-rappel could mimic the yanking and releasing action that makes the Escaper inch over itself and ultimately release. In the instruction manual, Beal requires a consistent weight of ten kilograms (22 pounds) to keep the bungee taught, but how do you know if you’re exerting the minimum amount of force on the device to keep it engaged?
Asked whether unweighting the rope could mimic the pull-release motion of rope retrieval, the Beal representative says, “It is possible, which is why we say you need to maintain ten kilograms of weight on the rope.”
But the representative adds that “the pull and release actions are very active movements,” meaning that they should be quicker and more forceful than those used when unweighting the rope during a rappel.
Backing It Up
Beal recommends using a backup knot and a testing system for each rappel: fix the Escaper with a knot at the end of the rope segment and send your partner down while you stay at the anchors to make sure that the friction hitch doesn’t move during rappel and does move when yanked for retrieval. Then you can remove the knot and rap down. This requires communication between you and your partner, which isn’t always possible. Consider this situation: You notice a problem during your partner's rappel, but your partner is now 200 feet below and out of earshot. What are you to do?
With respect to that scenario, the Beal representative says that the Escaper isn’t any different from a typical two-rope rappel. “What can you do when you rappel with your two strands of half rope and the knot is stuck somewhere?” he asks. “The Escaper is as efficient as any other method to rappel down.”
Will you reliably be able to retrieve your rope after you rappel in all conditions? Testing the Escaper as a demo on a trade-show floor—as Ed Crothers, who directs the American Mountain Guides Association climbing-instructor program, did—went smoothly. But that was under ideal conditions. “It was in a free-hanging, vertical orientation, attached to an eyebolt, which nearly eliminates the friction that would be found in many climbing situations," Crothers says. “I still have a lot of questions.”
For instance: What happens when you factor in the weight of a full 60- or 70-meter rope or a wet rope? What if the rope runs over ledges, cracks, or slabs, causing friction? In the field, yanking your rope won't always be as easy as it is in a demo situation—and if you’re more than one rope length off the ground, getting your rope back is essential.
Our team of testers—me and several experienced climbers and canyoneers, including Spencer McBride, a guide in Zion National Park—used this device in several situations: on a test anchor at chest height, on single-pitch climbs, and on multi-pitch climbs with one big rappel to the ground. In all these situations, the rope ran straight, with few ledges and little contact with the rock, and the Escaper performed perfectly, staying put during rappel and coming free after about a dozen harsh tugs from the ground. However, we couldn't mimic a long, jerky rappel, weighting and unweighting the rope, without abandoning our backup protocol, which none of us felt comfortable doing.
As for retrieving the rope after rappel, we found that pulling a 70-meter rope with the added resistance of the Escaper was quite similar to pulling the added weight of a second 70-meter rope on a standard double-rope rappel. The biggest difficulty for me was getting the snap of the pull-release motion, especially with more than half the rope out. It requires a powerful, coordinated, full-body motion at odds with the slow and controlled method of pulling ropes in a standard rappel.
The Escaper isn’t the first device of its kind. In the late fifties, French climber and inventor Pierre Allain created the Decrocheur Allain, a metal device with a spring-loaded hook that popped off the anchor as soon as it was unweighted. It never caught on. A similar approach involves hooking a standard piece of aid-climbing gear called a fifi hook to the anchor—it, too, requires consistent weight during the entire rappel. Some climbing guides use a special rope hitch that comes undone with a few pulls, but it has resulted in at least one death.
The Escaper is the first device designed to allow the user to unweight the rope multiple times before it releases. And unlike similar tools and tricks, Beal is claiming it isn’t just a last-ditch emergency device. As the Beal representative says, Beal wants the Escaper to become a regular part of the experienced climber’s kit.
For Ron Funderburke, education director at the American Alpine Club, it’s the lack of certain caveats and concerns in Beal’s instruction manual that are the cause skepticism. “They don’t mention icy conditions. They don’t mention vegetated or loose terrain, where the Escaper could dislodge debris or get stuck,” he says. “Are we to believe that none of these circumstances impose conditions on the Escaper’s use?” (Though as the Beal representative told Outside, “Beal feels like they covered this in their product-use guidelines,” pointing to a bullet in the instruction manual that warns that "in wet or icy conditions the system will become more susceptible to abrasion and lose strength.”)
With the device so new and testing limited, it’s nearly impossible to answer many of these safety concerns right now. In the meantime, most of the professionals we spoke with encourage climbers and canyoneers to think of the Escaper as an emergency-only device rather than a replacement for a conventional rappelling setup. More important, they emphasize that only advanced and experienced climbers should use it.
“In the hands of the unaware or incompetent, this device could be deadly,” Crothers says. “But if over time it proves itself to be a viable, versatile tool, then it could be a game changer.”