Note - This post discusses techniques and methods used in vertical rope work. If you do them wrong, you could die. Always practice vertical rope techniques under the supervision of an experienced climber, and ideally in a progression: from flat ground, to staircase, to vertical close to the ground before you ever try them in a real climbing situation.
So, what exactly is an extended rappel?
Simply put, rather than attaching your rappel device directly to your belay loop in the standard manner, you add some sort of runner / carabiner combination it to “extend” it farther away from your body.
Maybe a decade ago, the extended rappel was regarded by many as a sort of a fringe Euro rope trick. I recall seeing as a diagram in a long-ago Petzl catalog and thinking, “Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that one…”
While it’s now becoming more standard, many beginners may not be familiar with this method, or the various ways you can rig it. So, even though it’s in a lot of instructional books and websites, let's cover some rigging options and the benefits, a couple of which are not generally recognized.
First off, I’m certainly not saying you should be using this set up on every rappel. If it’s just one pitch to the ground and a bluebird day, then the traditional rap off of the belay loop should work just fine. However, beginners should consider learning this as standard procedure.
There are some downsides. It requires a bit extra gear and time to properly set up. It also add some extra cluster onto your belay loop; depending on how you set it up, you could have three total carabiners and associated webbing on your loop, rather than just a single rappel carabiner. Ironically enough, this extra cluster can make it a little harder to do a proper safety check, because the front of your harness gets pretty busy.
Safety note: You want to use an extension that’s roughly 1-2 feet long. Reason: you always want to be able to reach above your rappel device to put on a prusik in case you need to unweight your device. So, don’t use a double (120 cm / 4 foot) runner at full length for an extended rappel.
Like most aspects of climbing, how you set this up and whether or not to use it really comes down to personal preference. Try out a few different options, and see which one makes sense for you, and especially try to dial-in the length of your setup depending on your height and arm length.
An extended rappel works great with an autoblock rappel backup.
Shown in all setups below, an autoblock is an optional but often used addition. The autoblock functions as your “third hand” rappel backup, and let you go hands-free on the rappel at any time.
To make the auto block, use a webbing loop designed for this such the Sterling Hollow Block, or second choice, a short prusik loop. The Hollow Block generally works better than a prusik, as it slides along the rope more easily.
Wrap a Hollow Block or prusik loop a few times around the rope, then clip both ends to a locking carabiner on your belay loop. (Use your belay loop rather than the old school method of your leg loop.)
There are a lots of ways to rig this. People on the inter-webs argue about the fine points until the cows come home, but as long as your setup is strong and secure with a sewn runner or quickdraw, (and ideally not tied with a water knot) it's probably going to work just fine.
For the simplest configuration, all you need is a runner or quickdraw. Everything past this adds either convenience, redundancy or both, but with the trade off of longer setup, more gear to carry, and as mentioned, extra cluster on your harness.
Let’s look at a few bare bones setups first, then get into more complex rigging.
Single length (2 feet/60 cm) runner, girth hitched to tie in points. Pros: Fast to rig, easy to untie. Cons: no redundancy.
OMG, what if the runner breaks, I’ll die! For you redundancy fans, keep in mind you are in fact rapping on one rope, with one rappel device, one rappel carabiner, and one belay loop, so don't freak out over rapping off one Dyneema sling rated to 22 kN (even if it does look like Swiss dental floss).
Having said that, if redundancy gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, feel free to another single length runner if you have one. (And, please don't freak out about girth hitching a sling; yes, girth hitching “weakens” the sling, but you weigh 1 Kn or less and the sling is rated to 22 Kn. =^)
TWO single length (2 feet/60 cm) runners, girth hitched to tie in points. Pros: Fast to rig, easy to untie. Cons: fully redundant.
Use quickdraw(s). Sport climbers may have a locking quickdraw or two as part of their anchor set up. Use it! Pros: fast to rig, easy to break down. Cons: you might not have one. This happens to be an extra long Petzl Express 25cm quickdraw, but any length works.
Sport climbers can also use two standard quickdraws, with carabiners opposite and opposed. This is the equivalent of a single quick draw with locking carabiners. Pros: fast to rig, easy to break down. Cons: depending on your draw length, it might be a bit short and not give enough extension. Longer draws are generally better.
Now, let's look at some rigging that uses a double length (4 foot/120 cm) runner. Note: A sewn sling is preferred here, rather than a length of webbing that you tie with a water knot. Also, a nylon sling is recommended over a dyneema sling, because nylon has a bit more stretch and handles knots better.
Double length sewn nylon runner “basketed” through the harness tie in points, and then tied with an overhand knot. Pros: complete redundancy. Cons: hard to untie; that sucker might be on your harness for years, depending on how much you weigh. =^)
Double length sewn nylon runner, girth hitched through harness. Overhand knot near the middle, rappel carabiner clipped to one of the loops. (This was the original set up I saw in the Petzl catalog so long ago.) Pros: Second loop of webbing gives you a handy lanyard/leash for clipping into subsequent rappel anchors. Cons: no redundancy, hard to untie, but at least you can get it off your harness, unlike the previous example.
Give this overhand knot a test to be sure it’s in the right place and adjust it as needed, because after you weight it a few times, you’re not going to move it unless you have needle nose pliers. And, because this can be such a bear to untie, this blue runner is probably going to become your dedicated leash and rappel extension device, so use a brand new runner for it and not some old beater.
Here's a modification on that last one. This time, the rappel carabiner is clipped AROUND the overhand knot through BOTH loops, and the leash carabiner is clipped back to the belay loop. Pros: Complete redundancy, handy leash for clipping subsequent anchors. Cons: hard to untie, third point of cluster at your harness with the locking carabiner.
The trick of clipping across the two loops of an overhand knot might be new some folks. Don't freak out about it, it is legit. In fact, it's how you make the SWAMP anchor, which you can read about here.
Let's wrap it up with my preferred set up.
This uses a Metolius PAS (Personal Anchor System) or similar type of multiple sewn loop leash, Sterling in this case.
One end of the PAS is girth hitched through the tie in points.
The other end of the PAS is clipped with a locking carabiner to the belay loop.
The rappel carabiner clipped through two of the PAS loops.
Pros: completely redundant, easy to untie, handy leash for clipping subsequent anchors. Cons: Third point of cluster at your harness, requires one extra piece of somewhat expensive gear, but if you have it, this is a perfect use for it.
I think that about covers it. Use common sense, make sure your slings are in good condition, use sewn slings when possible (and not those tied with a water knot) and locking carabiners for your connection points, and you should be fine.
OK, I get how to set it up. Why would I want to do this?
Excellent question! Here are 6 answers, in rough order of importance.
1 - Works better with an auto block “third hand” back up. With an extended rappel, you can clip an auto block directly to your belay loop. This is the most secure and comfortable place to clip it (better than your leg loop), it keeps the rope and the auto block centered in a straight line, helps the rope feed more smoothly, and ensures the auto block does not become caught in your rappel device.
Are you doing a straightforward rappel on a bluebird day with no complicating factors? Then you can probably skip the auto block. Or, are you rapping with one or more challenges, such as beginners, darkness, cold, wet, icy ropes, heavy pack, pendulum to reach the next rap station, rope cluster that needs fixing, single strand, unsure of the next anchor location, etc.? In that case(s) using an auto block can be an excellent idea.
2 - Allows the whole team to “pre-rig” a rappel. This means that team members use an extension, rig for the rap at the same time, and leave their rappel devices on the rope while other people are rapping. The extension allows them to stand close to the anchor but not be pulled around by the rapelling person, who is tensioning the rope. Pre-rigging improves safety, because the last person can get a safety check, and it improves speed, because there’s no waiting around for each person to rig for the rappel. Pre-rigging is covered in depth here.
3 - Easier to rig your rappel device correctly. If you’re rapping off your belay loop, and if you’re wearing loose or bulky clothing, and/or it’s dark, it can be a struggle to look down and be SURE that your rappel device is in fact threaded correctly. By extending the device away from any distracting clothing, it’s easier for you and your partner to inspect.
4 - You have less chance of your clothing getting caught in your rappel device. But there’s maybe an increased chance of getting your hair stuck, because it’s closer to your head, so this might be a trade off. Bottom line - tuck away your hair, beard, pack straps, hoodie strings, dreadlocks, and any stray clothing whenever you rappel, extended rap or not.
5 - It makes the rappel more ambidextrous. Because the rappel is in front of you and elevated, you can use either hand as needed. Or, as I like to do when the rap gets faster as the friction decreases near the bottom, use both hands comfortably in front of you on the brake strands at the same time. It's more awkward to get two brake hands on the rope if you’re doing a traditional rappel off of your belay loop. Generally, an extension gives a more comfortable, smoother rappel.
6 - Advanced Crafty Rope Trick (CRT) - If you’re using a plaquette style belay device such as a Black Diamond ATC Guide, an extended rappel lets you easily “flip the plaquette” to ascend the rope. If you ever need to transition from rappelling to ascending your rope (like that time you rapped past the anchor and looked up only to find it was 20 feet above you, whoops) this is a pretty cool trick.
Clip a locking carabiner to the “ear” of of your rappel device, Find a stance where you can get a little slack in the rope, and then clip that locking carabiner back onto your belay loop. BAM, your rappel device is now an ascender! Granted, this is going to be an extremely rare thing to do the average recreational climber, but it’s still another trick in the toolbox. This Crafty Rope Trick is covered in detail here.
Here’s a nice video that covers the extended and pre-rigged rappel.