The backside clove hitch is a new way of thinking about the process of transitioning from climbing to rappel.
Advocated by professional guides Marc Chavin and Rob Coppolillo, this method uses the climbing rope coming off of the leader’s connection to the anchor as the primary anchor point for the follower, as opposed to the anchor itself.
Marc and Rob are co-authors of “The Mountain Guide Manual”, where they discuss this technique. I was also fortunate enough to take a clinic with them a couple of years ago, where they showed this method.
It's also covered pretty well in this article from climbing.com.
Lots of multi pitch routes require a rappel to get down. For many climbing teams, this transition period, from moving upwards to moving downwards, can be a bit of a cluster.
The traditional method of each climber using a leash to connect in close to the anchor, each person untying from their respective ends of the rope, threading the anchor and then each person rigging for a rappel separately can be awkward at tight stance and often seems to take longer than you think it should.
The backside clove hitch is an attempt to address some of these issues, and it does so rather elegantly.
It can take a bit of creative visualization to try to imagine how this works in your head. I have to say it took me a while before I got it worked out. But once I did, and realized the subtle benefits that come from this system, I knew it was going to become a regular part of my rappel routine. I suggest you try it on flat ground with a partner a couple of times to get the hang of it.
Here's the basic set up: the leader is clove hitched directly to the master point of the anchor. So far, standard procedure.
(Note: in the photo below, the belay system for bringing up the follower is omitted for clarity.)
Note the arrow: the leader has tied a figure 8 on a bight (could also be a clove hitch) on the “backside” of their connection point, and clipped a spare locking carabiner to this knot. When the follower arrives, they clip this locking carabiner to their belay loop, and do not connect directly to the anchor.
In the photo, the distance between the actual anchor and the connection point for the follower is just a foot or so. In real life, this could quite a bit longer (1-2 meters?), depending on the stance and ledge you’re on.
That's the key concept. (This example shows a courteous leader that's trying to make things easy for their second. If the leader doesn’t have a spare locking carabiner, they can just tie the knot and have the second clip in with their own gear, same result.)
What are some benefits of the backside clove hitch?
1 - Cluster free anchor. By having the follower clipped to the backside of the leaders rope, there’s no need for multiple leashes clustering up the anchor. Plenty of room to stretch out, move around a bit, assuming the ledge allows you to do so. Your position is not limited by 3 foot long daisy chain.
2 - Always using the dynamic rope to connect everyone to the anchor. Ropes are stretchy. Generally, leashes and daisy chains are not so much. Stretchy is good. Use it when you can.
3 - Zero chance of dropping the rope. For a two person team to transfer to a rappel, of course one end of the rope needs to be freed up to pass through the anchor. With the backside clove hitch, this is simple: because the leader’s end of the rope is securing the entire team to the anchor, the follower’s end of the rope will always be the one threaded through the anchor. As soon as the follower arrives and clips the locker on the pre-tied loop to their belay loop, here’s what happens:
The second unties
Thread the rope and pull it through to the middle point
The follower rigs an extended rappel, the leader rigs for a standard rappel or an extended rappel
The follower removes the figure 8 on a bight / clove hitch from the backside of the leader’s clove hitch
The leader rappels first, remaining tied into the end of the rope
Follower rappels second, getting a fireman’s belay if desired from the leader
And here’s another subtlety of the system: you always maintain control of the rope, because it remains tied in to the leader’s harness the entire time. Rule number one in setting up a rappel is don’t drop the rope, and this set up addresses that perfectly.
4 - Faster and safer rappelling. After the follower threads their rope and and pulls to the middle point, both climbers can rig for rappel. The safest and fastest way to do this is to rig an extended rappel with both climbers doing so at the same time. The extended rappel means climbers can check each other, which increases safety. Because they both rig for rappel at the same time, and also increases speed, because the second can begin their rap the moment the first person is at the next anchor. If the leader remains tied into the end of the rope while rappelling as suggested above, and if the second pre rigs their rappel, the rope is essentially locked in place and the leader cannot rap off the ends of the rope.
So, that's about it; very simple concept, that might make your transitions faster and smoother and safer. What's not to like about that?