Urban Skills: Emergency Rappelling

Written by
ISG Team

Urban Skills: Emergency Rappelling

Written by
ISG Team

Urban Skills: Emergency Rappelling

Written by
ISG Team
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Introduction

When you think of rappelling, the image that probably comes to mind is a group of well outfitted mountaineers or rock climbers.

When the ISG team started discussing the problem of self-rescue in the urban post-disaster environment, we recognized that, similar to the rural environment, you're working against the terrain. Instead of cliff faces and rivers, you're dealing with brick and concrete walls, alleyways, and the like.

Like the natural world, getting up off the ground is one of the most human ways possible of protecting yourself from the elements and during the course of our exploration and experiments with the urban environment, we found that getting off the ground meant risking being cut off from fast avenues of escape.

Why is that important?

Well, most of the time, when experts discuss "bugging out", their advice subtly illustrates they don't understand what they're saying.

They discuss modes of travel (foot, bike, car, boat, etc), but not the difficulties inherent to those problems. For example, when people recommend 'bugging out' before a hurricane comes, most will intuitively understand that you have to be ahead of the crowd or you'll be sitting in traffic until you run out of gas.

The exterior of the abandon complex at which the ISG team tested the Petzl eXo descender.

When we discuss mobility on foot with our backpacks and our family, we know there are similar limitations that hold back our mobility - which is one of our key skill areas. So, like being stuck in evacuation traffic, having the ability to take alternative routes sometimes means you have to have alternative capabilities... for example, spare fuel and a 4-wheel drive.

As we go forward, it helps to think of urban rappelling in this same way. If we get out on time, we won't need it.

...but If we don't, it can be a useful skill to have.

So what's the problem with existing information on the subject?

Well, plainly put, every single emergency rappelling video or article we've seen features some dude standing next to his well established static rope that's secured to a decent anchor point.

By our way of thinking, that's great - exactly what we want... for Type II emergencies (those not directly threatening your life) or adventuring.

However, for a Type I, which is threatening you right now, if you don't have that static rope up and ready to go, what then? What if no one is coming to rescue you?

How do you get out then?

Harnesses

Rigger's Belt
Author using rigger's belt and eXo to descend from urban hide site under full second line. The goal was to establish the practicality of this set up, and verify the methods would work. They did. Rigger's belt used is "Original Instructor Belt" Wilderness Tactical.

Pros

  • Allows rappelling over very short distances and durations (30 seconds, or about 2 stories comfortably)
  • Allows you to maintain your first and second line gear while rappelling.
  • Can be worn discreetly as a normal part of casual clothing.
  • Optional leg loops can be attached for added stability.

Cons

  • If used without leg loops, the belt is only as strong as your belt loops.
  • Not truly a rappelling harness.
  • Suitable only for short duration rappels, or emergency situations.

When it comes to disaster management, gear can make or break you. One problem we've seen is that people do half the work... for example, just wearing a rigger's belt around with their daily clothing.

While the rigger's belt is more of a fashion item than it is an 'emergency' harness these days, it can be used in place of a rappelling harness if you've got some rope. Furthermore, the rigger's belt was never intended to be an rappelling harness. They are a fall protection device.

But can a rigger's belt perform if you need it for an emergency rappel?

Our goal was to test do it live, with all our gear on, so you don't have to wonder if your stuff will work.

"We tested our methods and gear using our full second line. The gear we wear every day blends almost perfectly with the emergency rappelling techniques we used."

The Rigger's belt is a method that should only be used if the distance is greater than you can safely jump, but not so great that you'll be spending more than 30 seconds or so on the line. While we're not the foremost experts on rope rescue, we can say that we've tested this method and it *will* work... even under a substantial load weight.

With that said, the Rigger's belt can be improved by adding some 1" leg loops. This will add stability and take some of the tension off the belt and waist of the person on rappel... however, be aware that the narrow bands have a serious drawback if you are hanging on longer vertical rappels: Suspension trauma. This condition is caused by restriction of return blood flow from the legs, which can cause fainting, loss of control, or even cardiac arrest.

Short version: For anything other than a short rappel during an emergency, get a harness!

Swiss Seat
A swiss seat with carabiner attached.

Pros

  • Can be used as an improvised harness for those who lack rappelling gear
  • Offers a skill based solution to a gear problem
  • Can be used to lower down those who don't know how to rappel.

Cons

  • Uncomfortable
  • Requires excess rope

For urban rappelling, we didn't use the Swiss seat - but that's an oversight on our part and we would like to thank BlackFox IRT's John S. for bringing it to our attention. The Swiss Seat can offer some redundancy to the riggers belt, or offer a skill based solution to the problem of not having a harness. For that reason, being able to tie a Swiss Seat is a useful skill.

One of the weak links of the Rigger's Belt is that it's very dependent on the quality of the pants that are worn. If you're wearing poorly constructed jeans using low quality cloth, you can tear the loops, which *could* pop the belt from around your waist up under your arms.

The swiss seat can add some redundancy and to the rigger's belt and can be used as a stand-alone harness that you can make in the field. That's useful knowledge.

If you choose to make a Swiss Seat, be aware that cutting your rappelling rope means you have to take certain precautions in order for it to be safe and should be done by a professional.

Black Diamond Momentum DS Climbing Harness

Pros

  • Very stable
  • Comfortable
  • Easy to use

Cons

  • No access to 1st line equipment while worn.

The Momentum climbing harness is the same rig we used when rappelling in a traditional environment. We've used these harnesses extensively from bouldering to traditional rappels. They work really well and make belaying and rappelling a breeze. The only issue with them is that they restrict access to any equipment carried on the belt. While this isn't a problem at all for recreational rappelling, or for people who don't carry 1st line gear, but in an emergency retaining access to your equipment could be important.

Beyond that, the harness is the way to go.

Petzl eXo Escape System

Pros

  • Fool proof design
  • Simple design
  • Features a locking cam so if you full throttle your descent, it'll lock, rather than drop you.

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Narrow rope (7.5mm)
  • The model we tested, the rope could not be detached from descender. This meant each person had to pull and reset it. A carabiner on a removable device would have been much faster.

After testing the rigger's belt on while doing traditional rappelling, we started scouting for an abandon, urban space to consider how rappelling could be used in the urban post-disaster environment. Toting around a static line is exhausting and it's a lot of work for a problem that requires expediency, so on our first trip we took the static line and simply never used it. Additionally, it takes up as much space as a backpack, meaning one person in our group ended up without her kit.

While scouting, we found that for setting urban hides, the situations called for shorter drops and quick access. Under our normal packs, this meant there was no room for static rope and we wouldn't benefit much from the longer length or thicker diameter anyway. Most of the drops we were facing were not much more than 12-24 feet.

The eXo Descender comes with the carabiner to secure the emergency rappel, the cam assisted descender, and the rope.

The answer we came up with was to use the Petzl eXo escape system, and have the lead descend first, and the rest of the team follow using their harnesses and the descender. The eXo was originally designed for firefighters making emergency egress, which means it was well suited to our tests; lowering ourselves down, under load, in the post-disaster environment.

The escape system itself comes with a bag for the static rope, 50' of lightweight rope, a harness, and a 'fool proof' descender. The descender has a 'panic lock' on it, which means you can't accidentally drop yourself too hard. It also tips the scales at almost $420, but don't exit the browser just yet - we've got some thoughts on workarounds.

As an individual piece of gear, the eXo was excellent, but as a small team, it was a success. It also makes rappelling with simple rigger's belts and gloves practical. In other words, if you've got a small group, not *everyone* needs an eXo, so for a family, it might be a great option.

Rope and Recovery

A recovery line with a carabiner. Stayed tuned for updates and better images/videos.

The rope we used for the urban rappelling was a 7.5mm dynamic rope supplied with the eXo. This diameter counts as a 'half rope', which require a bit more attention if you're belaying. As well, the thin diameter made it a little harder to control when not using the eXo. Attaching a figure 8 to a riggers belt or harness worked well enough, but with thick gloves, the rope felt too thin in hand, which made for a tense descent.

A better option for this environment might be a slightly larger 8mm rope, which is lightweight and far less expensive than buying the eXo - 40 feet of 8mm dynamic rope is about 2 pounds, and costs under $40. This would allow a little more versatility if your team needed to belay and gives a little more positive feedback while in hand and descending.

Regardless of what you use for rope, another crucial piece of the puzzle is recovering your rope after your rappel. Depending on how your rappel is set up, a simple carabiner on a length of rope should be enough to pull your anchor points down. You may need several, but with a simple anchor point like we used a carabiner attached to the eXo's EASHOOK Carabiner. Similar could be done with any other carabiner anchor point.

Carabiners

When considering climbing, you'll need carabiners unless you're working with a setup that has them integrated. Carabiners break down into more types and configurations than we can get into, but for climbing, you'll want locking carabiners with a working load limit that takes into account the amount of force in kilo Newtons (kN) placed on the carabiner if you should fall.

Also keep in mind that carabiners derive their strength from the gate being closed - be sure that the carabiners attached to your hardness are closed and locked, with the gate facing up and the away from you before you begin. Carabiners securing your rope should be opposed and locked. The Black Diamond Carabiner's we used are rated at 24 kN closed, but 7 kN when open. That means they're more than 3 times stronger when properly closed and secured. Check this link for some interesting information about energy and falling.

Testing

In "Sustainment" we discuss how certain gear is necessary to address our immediate concerns (whether emergency or routine) and how we can build a backpack that helps us equally, whether we're enjoying nature with our good people or working our way out of a destroyed city.

We also describe 'ad hoc' gear; that which we carry as necessary.

Climbing gear is in the 'ad hoc' category when we take to the mountains or rocks, so most of our group carries their normal stuff, while some of the rappelling/climbing gear is split up. For urban self-rescue, we found that the same thing can apply - though mercifully the Escape System is *much* smaller.

Eager for our chance to test out our equipment we first found a small ledge that was a simple one-story drop of about 12 feet.

We then conducted the following tests:

  • Set up the eXo for time (approximately 20 seconds)
  • Rappel in 1st line (EDC gear) - No problem.
  • Rappel in 2nd line (Sustainment Backpack + EDC) - No problem.
  • Rappel with Riggers Belt and Black Diamond Rappelling harness - works great.
  • Rappel using descender with and without gloves (note: Don't even consider rappelling without gloves if you're not using a descender!) - works, but gloves are definitely recommended.

Once the line was set up, we found that the eXo descender took an average of 25 seconds (21 seconds for the dedicated eXo, and about 28 seconds for the harnesses) for a person to secure themselves and make the 12 foot drop, whether using the supplied harness, the tested Black Diamond harness, or the lowly rigger's belt. This means that if one person has the descender kit, anyone else in their group can get away with having some pretty humble rappelling gear... but beware - the riggers belt isn't comfortable compared to an actual climbing harness.

One of our principles is 'stacking' gear - that means that our 2nd line is 'additive' to our 1st. We organize this gear so that it's as accessible as possible without getting in the way, or having access restricted. For this rappel, the author was carrying his full 1st line with one exception: The clinch pick fixed blade knife had to be removed in order to lock in to the eXo. Overall, the author was pleased that it was able to support the his weight and equipment, a total of ~210 pounds.

While in a small group the eXo really cuts the time, the model we tested was fastened to the rope, and took a few extra seconds per person to adjust. If you had a larger group, it would be easier to just run a static line or have a second (or third) person equipped with an eXo. We figured anything over 5 people would be asking a lot of a single eXo.

Considerations

ISG Team member descends using eXo with a Black Diamond climbing harness.

The main advantage of the eXo for most people is the relatively short (25', or about 2 stories worth) of rope, and it's thickness: 7.5mm (1/3 in). Most dynamic ropes will be around 11.4mm (7/16 in), so the smaller diameter and lighter "half ropes" with shorter length saves weight in a big way. This makes it more practical for a person to keep on their person or in their kit.

However, it's harder to control due to the small diameter and based on our testing, even with decent rappelling gloves it transfers a lot more 'jolt' to the user than the thicker rope.

For someone experienced in rappelling, it's no issue, but the rope's character will make it a little less controllable and comfortable if you're *not* using the descender. 8mm dynamic line can also be used, and the added girth gives a little more control.

So there are two points to take away here: 

  1. While the descender is really nice and makes rappelling easy, it's not entirely necessary if a person knows how to rappel. It could be done with just the 7.5-9mm dynamic rope, a figure 8 and some gloves. That said, you'd need twice the length (100') to rig a rappel without the descender.
  2. For those new to rappelling or, if you have a family to consider, children especially, the descender is a very safe method of getting down quickly and safely, but it may be simpler to tie them in, and lower them down as if they were belaying.

If you don't want to spend the $400 on the eXo and you're already familiar with rappelling, you might consider just getting 100' of static rope in 7.5mm to 9mm, and some expedient methods of tying it off. If you do this, carry a couple carabiners and a figure 8, you'd be able to set up a makeshift rappel at a much lower cost. However, expect you'll need to invest in some instruction if you're not ready to bet your life on your rope work.

As with most skills, the more experience you have, the less gear matters. Our suggestion is strike a good balance. Get out and learn rope work on the rocks, but consider how you might be able to adapt it to the urban environment.

A final word on this: we talk often about people and their inability to prioritize. If you've got a safe full of $500 Glocks, a garage full of 'bug out bags', a family who doesn't know how to rappel, and you're balking at $400 for a rescue harness, your priorities are wrong. Spend your money learning the skills. Don't be the guy with a burning Jeep full of guns.

The more you know, the less you carry.

Situations

Surveying the area for the lowest exposure site with the best egress routes. '6 ways in, 12 ways out'.

While our main emphasis at ISG is on common, preventable emergency management, we do like to step back and have a look at the less likely situations once in a while. In our view, the eXo could probably be an excellent emergency plan for someone living in an apartment or condo to get away from a fire. Afterall, that's what it was designed for.

But what about the in a larger scale emergency like Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, or Michael? How about floods like those in Texas recently? What about during civil unrest in an unfamiliar city?

As part of our testing, we scouted and set up an urban hide in an abandon building. The notional situation was that while traveling, a major disaster crippled the local area and we were forced into refugee status. With our 2nd line kit, we were to scavenge for supplies (we found a bunch of soap, and ample material for sound traps), a source of water, and finally, charge a HAM radio using solar power... all while avoiding unwanted attention.

A common theme we've seen when exploring abandon sites is that the ground floors tend to be flooded and the upper floors tend to have leaky roofs. So we began looking for something that was a few floors up where we would have time to hear someone coming, but off the beaten path, but not so far up we were boxed in.

We also found that the 3rd floor had quite a few doors that hadn't been bashed in - and several were still locked. After using some entry tools, we chose a third floor hide.

It had quick access to the stairs and a nearby room with a broken window that led to a roof. From this roof, we would be able to attach to a railing that could support our weight, and drop down into an overgrown courtyard.

Let's be up front: this is an unlikely situation.

If we found ourselves in this situation, it's because we've failed at pretty much every other important task (planning, social engineering, risk management) and have to rough it until we can push ourselves into a better situation.

Conclusion

Once on the ground, having expedient egress routes mapped was a consideration. Considerable time was given assessing the security risks of moving on foot during an emergency based on the ISG Team's experiences with real world emergencies.

When all's said and done, there are a lot of considerations to be made before urban rappelling. While it could come in handy in a very serious emergency, you're far better off investing time in a decent egress window in your home, or having a solid supply of food.

Once you've taken care of all of the most likely emergencies, we'd recommend getting a few years of climbing and rope experience so that when you *do* assess the problem of urban rappelling, you're not starting at a skill deficit. Also, it pays to check for alternate routes that allow you to move without the additional risks of setting up an urban rappel.

With that said, the eXo and similar descenders are made to be fool proof - find something secure, hook in, throw the rope, and go. Especially with a purpose built climbing harness, you'll be on point when it comes to maneuvering over urban obstacles.

While the Rigger's belt is an acceptable emergency method for short rappels, it's uncomfortable and inferior to a climbing harness. That's no surprise. People who make Rigger's Belts will tell you they're for emergencies... so as an everyday belt, you be the judge. It's nice to have, and they work well as EDC belts, but if you're doing much rappelling, you'll probably be wishing you just brought a harness.

We believe that a small team or family that wanted a safe way to get their children down when moving over uneven terrain would be best suited having some dynamic rope, some harnesses/figure 8s, and some carabiners.

With our heavy emphasis on mobility - the ability to move on foot, under load, over moderate distances - even short drop offs of 6-8 feet can present a fall hazard. Expedient abseiling and rappelling in general are good ways around this, but knowing some rope work is certainly a helpful option to have.

We hope you've enjoyed this and that it's cast some light on a murky, poorly defined niche of emergency mobility: urban rappelling.

Thanks for joining us,

ISG Team

With special thanks to Mike A., Gino A., and John S.

NOTE: Rappelling is inherently dangerous. Any information presented within this article is for academic purposes only. Do not attempt without qualified instruction or without the necessary skill to safely set up and execute a rappel. Author is not responsible for misuse of information presented within this article.

Gag. We hate having to say that.