Gear Guy

Any advice on good rappelling gear?

My Boy Scout troop is planning to buy some rappelling gear, but we need some advice first. Eric Shelbyville, Indiana

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Hey, I have an idea for you guys. Why don’t you get some climbing gear? After all, rappelling is a method for descending a mountain. But, you have to get up there first. I’ll concede, Shelbyville, Indiana, is not the rock-climbing capital of the world. But you could plan an expedition to, say, Colorado this summer and climb some real mountains.

The thing is, simply taking up rappelling doesn’t get you anywhere, and, as a stand-alone activity, I can’t say it’s particularly safe. Lots of mountaineering accidents happen during rappels—anchors pull out, people rappel off the end of their rope, descending gear jams. I’ve climbed for 25 years, and I rappel only when there’s no other way to get down. The fact is, I plain don’t like it.

Be that as it may, the basic equipment list goes like this. A rope, of course. For all-around use, a 10.5-millimeter-thick, 60-meter-long rope is best. Something like the Maxim Leavittator ($159), which also has a water-repellent coating so it doesn’t get too soaked in wet weather or on snow. Next, you’ll need a harness. Black Diamond’s Momentum ($42) is an excellent all-around harness, comfortable and strong. Everyone has a preference when it comes to rappelling devices, but I’ve long used the Black Diamond ATC (Air Traffic Controller—$17). This is what’s called a “straight-through” rappel/belay device, as opposed to a figure-of-eight model that, while strong and simple, has been known to twist the rope as it passes through, therefore kinking it. You’ll require leather gloves, of course. Any good-fitting pair from a hardware store will work; the fit is important, as you don’t want any loose leather getting caught in your rappel device. And lastly, nylon slings (make your own from one-inch webbing material) for setting anchors.

Two words of advice. One, instruction. Do NOT try to figure this out on your own, set up a rappel station, and take off over the side of a building. Two, caution. Rappelling is not a game, nor is it recreation. It is a hazardous descent method that should be treated with respect. Properly executed, a rappel is efficient and safe. But the safety margin is exceedingly thin, and any single failure will cause the entire system to fail, with the obvious grave repercussions.