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The advent of modern sport climbing brought with it an explosion in rappelling as a stand-alone adventure activity. Even BSA summer camps that run no climbing instruction offer rappel towers, usually to boys with no experience belaying either themselves or others.
Rappelling is dangerous. It is significantly more dangerous than climbing. During a rappel, one is entirely dependent on the system, and any errors or inattentiveness are therefore immediately life-threatening. It causes much greater wear and stress on ropes, particularly in high-speed or "sport" rappels. Reviews of climbing accidents each year include a long list of rappel incidents and fatalities.
Properly used, rappelling is a method for descending a climb when other methods of descent are not available. For that reason, and for its use in self-rescue and rescue of others, it is worth learning.
Troop 8 does not do "Sport" or "Hollywood" rappelling, and strongly discourages the practice of fixed-base rappelling (off of towers, trees, etc.) Rappels should ordinarily be reserved for their real use: getting from the top of a rock face back down to the bottom, when safe walk-downs are not available or convenient.
There are exceptions. One is for teaching the skill. The second is that some first-time scout climbers lack the balance, fearlessness, and upper-body strength to succeed at a climb on their first day out, especially given our limited areas in the midwest. It can be devastating for a kid to have the whole day be a failure - not able to even "get" a single climb! Because anyone can do a rappel, but it’s also exciting and scary, using a rappel at the end of a first climbing day gives these guys something to succeed at, and allows them to go home fresh from a victory. Use it for this if it fits with the instructional progression. The advent of climbing gyms has lessened our use of rappels for this purpose, because there are always "do-able" routes at the gyms.
Troop 8 practice does not ordinarily use roped top belay for rappels, except for the first one or two rappels or particularly stressed kids. A safe and less cumbersome technique is the "bottom belay" ("Fireman's" or "Army" belay), where a belayer grasps the rappel rope from below, and at any sign of difficulty pulls downward on the rope. This belay is easy and effective for everything except anchor/rappel rig failures (which with a double-check and standardized system are no more of an issue than regular climbing belays).
Because of the special risks of rappels, rappel instructors for raw beginners should be chosen from the most experienced of the climbing instructors. It is necessary to very carefully manage emotion and personality while setting up proper position and systems. Often instructors without a lot of experience working with young people in climbing wil be surprised by the variety and nature of "screw-ups" and miscommunications. Many would not normally occur with adult climbing students. Rappel instructors must be located at the top of the rappel close to the student, and have their full attention on the rappeler while the rappeler is on the rope.
The Troop 8 rappel instruction procedures include "unusual attitude" and obstacle training. These are designed to get kids comfortable with all the funny things that can happen when rappelling. The sequence is dependent on what’s available at the location, but includes:
- While rappelling, have scout slide his feet down lower until they lose grip, causing him to swing face-first into the rockface in a vertical orientation. Recover.
- While rappelling, have scout keep his feet planted and continue rappel until "sitting" upside-down on rock face, with feet upward and butt against rock (or completely upside down) Recover.
- While rappelling, have scout move sideways out of the fall line until foot friction fails and there is a "spin & swing." Recover.
- While rappelling, have scout tie off part way down and wave with both hands. Recover.
- Rappel over an overhang to a free rappel with no rock contact.
Unusual attitude practice is of course always done on a belayed rappel. Unusual attitude practice should be repeated until the scout demonstrates comfort and confidence dealing with these situations.