Your partner can act as a safety back-up on an abseil descent in pace of using a prusik knot. Last month I shared a little tip on the sequence of setting up your prusik knot when preparing to abseil. Following on from that, this month I’m going to describe how your partner can provide a similar abseil safety back-up so that a prusik is not needed at all.
As before, this assumes that you can already set up a retrievable abseil in a climbing or mountaineering situation.
Abseil Descents in a Party of Two or More
This tip becomes relevant when a party of two or more are waiting to use the same abseil descent. This could be because you are already climbing in a larger group (for example, a rope of three climbers or several pairs of climbers on the same crag or following the same route). It could also be because as you reach the anchor of an abseil other parties arrive at the same time.
If every individual were to set up and use their own prusik knot as a safety back-up, several minutes are added to the whole process of getting the entire group down. Putting on a prusik shouldn’t, in theory, take very long – but sometimes it can. Lack of familiarity, fumbling (maybe cold hands or gloves in winter?), dropping the prusik first time, mis-tying then re-tying the prusik – these are all frequent occurrences that add more time into the whole process.
Abseiling With Your Partner as a Safety Back-up
A quicker sequence for the whole group could look something this:
- First abseiler descends using a prusik as a safety back-up as ‘normal’.
- Second abseiler fits abseil device but not prusik loop. (Since this is a group, one of the other climbers waiting can assist by taking the weight of the dead rope if necessary, to make fitting the abseil device easier.)
- The first abseiler (now on the ground or next belay ledge) takes hold of both strands of the abseil rope. They hold it firmly, as if belaying, but with a little slack in the rope above.
- The second abseiler starts to descend, with their partner now acting as a safety back-up on the abseil.
- In the event of an incident which causes the descending abseiler to release the rope, the partner on the ground simply pulls the rope tight. This will lock off the abseil device on the abseiler and stop them from moving. It’s almost as if the abseiler is controlling their own abseil device but with an arm that is 50-metres long!
- Once Abseiler No 2 is down, then either Abseiler No 1 can continue to act as safety back-up; or No 1 is released from that role and No 2 then acts as safety. This will depend on the situation at the time.
Pre-Requisites and Limitations of Partner Acting as Safety on Abseil
There are a couple of pre-requisites and something of a limitation associated with this method.
- First, and hopefully most obviously, the person acting as the safety on the abseil absolutely must do this job diligently and devote their full attention to it. It’s of the same critical importance as belaying a climber going up. It’s not something to do half-heartedly while you re-arrange gear or have a sandwich.
- Second, everyone concerned must know how this works and trust their partner to do it. In the case of parties who have just met at the top, this is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.
- Finally, depending on the overall context, this method doesn’t always save time. For example, if this is a descent with multiple abseils, the overall process may be slicker if Abseiler No 1 starts to construct the belay for the next abseil rather than safeguarding their partner, Abseiler No 2. They can use their prusik as normal, allowing the first abseiler to get on with other tasks.
- A prusik knot is not the only way of providing safety for an abseiler descending in a mountaineering context.
- The first abseiler should use a prusik as a normal.
- Thereafter, the partner, or one of the group, who is on the ground can act as a safety back-up for any or all remaining abseilers.
- They simply need to hold the abseil ropes and be prepared to pull them tight in the event of an incident. The abseiler’s device will then become locked off and they will not descend any further.
- Diligence and trust are both key factors in using this technique.