Of the myriad ways to kill yourself climbing, rappelling is the quickest, but also the easiest to safeguard.
Climb long enough and you’ll have a close encounter … or several. Mine was in 1986 at Arches National Monument, five minutes up the black- top north of Moab. I had just rope-soloed a new route on the Organ, a five-pitch tower. Standing on the broad, plateau-like summit with night falling and no headlamp—I had expected to be down at my VW microbus well before dark—I rushed through my first rappel setup, anxious to beat an incoming storm.
I strung the ropes through the rap station, shouldered the haulbag, which was loaded with enough pins, cams and paraphernalia for a Yosemite Grade V, and to save the time it would take coiling it, clipped a spare 9mm trail line so it dangled straight off my gear sling. I snapped on my rap device, leaned back into the twilight, and realized an instant too late that I hadn’t clipped to my rappel ropes. With a snivelling sob, I plunged like a sack of potatoes toward the bedrock approach slabs, 500 feet below.
Until that moment, I hadn’t considered exactly how I would die, and now that I knew it was to be rappelling, I was ashamed. ‘Rappelling, dang it!’ I thought as I sped earthward.
I dropped 150 feet through the air, past the ends of the rappel ropes, then, miraculously, wrenched to a halt. The 9mm trail line, haphazardly clipped to the shoulder sling I’d home-sewn on my momma’s Singer, had snarled and, whip-snapping above me as I fell, jammed in a crack—the only crack on the smooth Entrada face. It had wedged, Stopper-style, and caught me.