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The scenario

My climbing partner and I are at the top of a pitch and we drop a belay plate to the ground. There is no safe descent, we were planning on rappelling down off safe anchors.

What do we do?

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Nice self Q&A. +1 on both. :-) –  Mr.Wizard Mar 20 at 18:10
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Sit down, cry for a while, get your mobile out and call mountain rescue to get you out... ;-) But I don't think you would accept that as an answer, right? –  Benedikt Bauer Mar 23 at 8:05
    
    
@BenediktBauer, ha ha! Mountain rescue tend to frown on that kind of call! –  Liam Mar 25 at 10:07
    
@Liam Of course they will frown upon such call. It was only a joke! –  Benedikt Bauer Mar 25 at 10:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

If you drop a belay plate you can use a Munter Hitch to descend down the rope.

enter image description here

Here's an animated example of how to tie this knot (1 to 6 only)

It works like a belay plate so if you hold your hand close to your leg it will lock off. Moving it forward releases the slip knot allowing you to rappel. You can use a munter with two ropes (or one rope in half) or a single rope.

It's a good idea to attach a Prusik as a back up if you can.

Here's a video describing the whole process in detail.

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There is also the carabiner brake method, shown in Freedom of the Hills, 8th ed, p. 197, figure 11-11. I found it difficult to assemble, so it would be worth practicing at home. –  Ben Crowell Mar 19 at 23:13
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@BenCrowell I remember seeing that in that book. I can't remember if it is supposed to be superior to the HMS; do you? I remember thinking that it would be easier to carry a second ATC than enough ovals to set that up. –  Mr.Wizard Mar 20 at 18:07
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@BenCrowell (1) I'm pretty sure I remember FotH saying that you must use oval carabiners for that setup. How many people are carrying six ovals these days? (2) There are several options to add friction to a Munter; one is extra turns on the spine as linked in the answer above; another is the "Super Munter.". –  Mr.Wizard Mar 21 at 1:55
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@Mr.Wizard: Interesting info about the options for adding friction to a Munter -- cool! The carabiner brake method doesn't require 6 ovals, it requires a minimum of 3, plus a locking biner. I don't know about other people, but my trad rack does include 3 ovals and a locker. –  Ben Crowell Mar 21 at 3:23
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I think it would be worth pointing out in the answer that while the Munter is useful, it imparts crazy amounts of twist into your rope and will also wear the outer sheath more quickly than a belay device. –  manoftheson Apr 22 at 7:48

One method is to build a brake out of carabiners. The minimum equipment for this is three oval biners plus a locking biner, and the diagrams below show how to construct the system with only this many biners. However, this setup doesn't give much friction, especially with a thin rope, and normally people use at least one more oval, as described in the text below.

diagrams showing how to construct a carabiner brake

To construct the brake start with the usual large locking biner clipped to your belay loop, as you would for any rappel. The diagrams show a double-strand rappel.

  1. Clip the two oval biners A and B, with their gates opposite and opposed, through the locking biner. Pull a bight through the ovals.

  2. Insert your third oval, C, through the bight, with the spine oriented as shown.

  3. Clip the load strands back through the sideways biner C.

  4. Flip C around and over the tops of A and B, forming a crossbar with its spine. Make sure that the rope ended up passing over the spine of C, not its gate.

As noted previously, the setup shown in figure 4 doesn't really give much friction. If you have a fourth oval biner D, it's a good idea to add it next to C, so that they form a sort of double-thickness crossbar. Both C and D should have their spines touching the rope, not their gates. (They can be reversed, but not opposed.) Only A and B should be opposite and opposed.

Don't try to do without the locking biner. If you simply clip A and B to your belay loop, the rope will rub against your belay loop and possibly destroy it through intense frictional heating. It is OK, however, to replace the locking biner with a pair of nonlocking biners, opposite and opposed.

The standard braking position for this standard setup is to hold the brake strand down at your hip, just as you would with an ATC. If you raise the brake strand to a higher angle, it could press against the gates of C and D, possibly causing them to open.

There are various ways of increasing the friction. If you have a huge load to lower and lots of oval biners, you can build two of these brakes in series. You can rearrange the brake bars to send the rope through in an S shape. In comments, Steed suggests using a locking biner for C, in which case it becomes safe to brake with the brake strand raised.

A possible advantage of the carabiner brake over a Munter is that the Munter will tend to twist up your rope. A possible disadvantage is that you may not have enough oval biners.

Further information

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Note that with this device you brake by lifting your hand up, not by putting it behind your back as with most belay plates. So you should bring your reflexes under strict control. –  Steed Mar 23 at 15:30
    
Note 2: if you are using locking carabiners, only three are required (B may be omitted). Please correct me if there are some advice against this. Also, if C is a locking carabiner too, it is really MUCH safer. Imagine that C turns around when you release the weight from the ropes for a moment... In fact, we are usually using 1 carabiner in place of A and two carabiners at C, gates flipped, to make sure at least one gate will not get opened by the passing rope. –  Steed Mar 23 at 15:41
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Note 3: never ever clip carabiner A/B directly into your belay loop, or it will be destroyed instantly by the passing rope. –  Steed Mar 23 at 15:46
    
@Steed: Note that with this device you brake by lifting your hand up I don't think this is right. See this article: climbing.com/skill/rappel-without-a-belay-device Also, biners C and D both have their gates facing away from you, so if you were to lift the rope, it seems to me that it could risk opening the gates. The braking position is also shown on this video at around 8:15 youtube.com/watch?v=03JjYHk2L2A . –  Ben Crowell Mar 23 at 15:57
    
@Steed: In fact, we are usually using 1 carabiner in place of A and two carabiners at C, gates flipped, to make sure at least one gate will not get opened by the passing rope. Hmm... by gates "flipped," do you mean not putting the spines side by side, or do you mean spines side by side but gates forming an X? All the sources of information I listed in the answer say to put C and D not opposed. This would be because the rope should be passing over the spines, not the gates. –  Ben Crowell Mar 23 at 16:03

Curiouser and curiouser! /Alice in Wonderland/

DISCLAIMER: this is definitely not a proven advice from the book and may be suitable only for experienced climbers, who do it on their own risk!

Wonder what to do if you have no spare carabiners for the carabiner brake and need to descend many rope lengths so that Munter Hitch would twist and damage it like hell?

Use your ascender (I mean Petzl Ascension or something similar). If you look at it from the bottom (handle) side and add some imagination, you will see a figure eight there: Original image from Wikipedia

So you can use this instead of a figure eight.

Pros:

  • It doesn't need extra carabiners
  • It doesn't twist rope that much

Cons:

  • Obviously, the device was never meant to be used like this

PS. This is mostly an example of how you can think out of the box.

PPS. Thinking out of the box is your own risk. I personally would use this method only as the last resort if other methods fail (e.g. in the middle of an expedition, when you can't throw away your ropes after the descent).

PPPS. Yes, this was used in practice.

PPPPS. No, there are even weirder methods, e.g.: http://video.yandex.ru/users/rus-alp/view/1/?ncrnd=739692

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I don't think it's a good idea to encourage other people to try something like this. –  Ben Crowell Mar 23 at 19:37
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Them edges look sharp, I'd rather take my chances climbing down I reckon. –  Liam Mar 24 at 8:45
    
@BenCrowell, I have posted a disclaimer and two P.S. notes to warn against this method. If you think it's not enough, please feel free to edit my answer to emphasize it more. –  Steed Mar 24 at 8:54

This topic will be incomplete without mentioning the good old dulfersitz method used by our fathers when there were no belay plates and no carabiners.

This method doesn't require any equipment other than the rope itself. And, well, sturdy clothes.

The method is to pass the rope around your body in a special way shown in the picture 1 below. Picture 2 shows a variation with a carabiner.

original: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corda_alpinismo.jpg?uselang=ru

(origin: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corda_alpinismo.jpg)

This is a "last resort" type method, because it is quite hard on your body on inclined slopes and simply painful on verticals. But it works and you can even use a prusik to back it up.

Because the rope presses hard on your leg and eats up your clothes by friction, people started to add more fabric to their pants at the main friction point. Then they started to sew metallic parts to their pants. Then they realized that they didn't need pants if they had metallic parts. This way the first belay devices were born.

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Method 2 looks like a nice idea for saving your crotch! If you didn't do the art yourself, you might want to credit the source. –  Ben Crowell Mar 23 at 20:13
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Sorry, mentioned it in the image description, but it looks like this info in not displayed in the title of the image as I expected. Edited the post to provide reference. –  Steed Mar 24 at 8:56
    
the sheer balls that must of been involved in doing a long committed abseil using this method must of been immense! Scares the cr*p out of me.... –  Liam Mar 25 at 10:28

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