Over the edge: Common rope rescue challenges with transitioning edges
The first step is often the hardest, namely due to issues with maintaining control over the movements and protecting the gear
I’ve rigged in my rope system and made my way to the edge. Now comes the moment of truth, transitioning from the safety of a working platform or surface over the edge and into my descent mode. This is a foundational skill for rope rescue but one that often serves as a key cause of injury to rescuers as well as patients.
For this discussion, let’s focus on personal rope skills for descending or rappelling over the edge. The same concepts we discuss here can be applied to a fixed brake system where a rescuer is being lowered.
Check out the video for a play by play of edge transitions.
Detailing a proper edge transition
To get started, let’s establish a baseline for what a proper edge transition might look like. In this scenario, with a moving brake, the rescuer connects the main line to their descent control device (DCD) and their belay device to the belay line. Safety checks are completed, and verbal commands are initiated and acknowledged to reflect a rescuer is on rope and preparing to deploy.
The equipment is most likely a Petzl ID or CMC Clutch on the main line with a Petzl ASAP on the belay line. These devices should be positioned just beyond the edge so that they don’t side load in the case of a slip or fall. However, the top side may not afford this option, and the rescuer may be required to “descend” to the edge.
Once the rescuer is at the edge, they get into an athletic position and begin easing backward by manipulating their DCD. A good operator will not be choking the rope and will trust the design and performance of their gear, using proper technique and hand positioning to adjust the amount of friction applied to the device. The rescuer will move their body position backward and away from the edge, with their feet staying anchored as a pivot point.
Once the rescuer has the proper angle to deploy fully over the edge and down the wall, the feet become mobile and deliberate, controlled steps are taken down the wall. The speed and significance of the steps should be directly married to the DCD manipulation to maintain proper body position. If the rescuer is too upright and does not lean back enough, the result will most likely be a wash out and may cause the rescuer to slip face first into the wall or edge. If the rescuer continues to drive backward and fails to move their feet at the right time, the likely result will be inversion. These are obviously undesired outcomes and often result in injuries and damage to gear.
So, what makes the infamous “edge transition” difficult?
Identifying the challenges: Control and gear-protection
The hardest part of negotiating an edge is the transition from a standing position at the launch point to a vertical rappelling position on a wall – or without a wall to work off in the case of a bridge or outcropping. The challenges are primarily maintaining control over the movements and protecting the gear.
One of the key variables that can make a transition extremely difficult is the location of the anchor or the system base. Low anchors create tremendous tension and hard-to-manage angles for the rescuer to apply proper gear management and control. This use to be a staple in our instructional requirements. However, after witnessing even advanced students continually struggle with maintaining control using low anchors, we universally abandoned this as a technical need.
If the system requires a low anchor, simply deploy a climbing etrier. This can be a manufactured product or one that can be quickly assembled with webbing or cordage, essentially a series of foot loops tied into a section of hardware that is properly anchored on the top side. This implement allows the rescuer to rig into their system and then simply sit on the edge, place their feet into the foot loops and “climb” down until the load the system. This should be accomplished with one to two steps maximum if you properly pretension the system. This approach significantly reduces the risk for inversion or foot slips when rescuers wash out or deploy prematurely without leaning back.
Conversely, using a high-directional anchor allows rescuers to negotiate edges with ease due to the elimination of a significant angle transition and all the tension that comes with that concept.
Experience also plays a tremendous role in developing a sense of the proper body position and when to reposition the feet. Experience is also essential with gear management, which requires an awareness of rope position, edge protection and proper manipulation of the DCD. As the rescuer transitions over the edge, it is critical to ensure that the ropes end up on the edge protection. This is particularly important when very precise edge protection is being used, such as a compact edge roller.
Very controlled movement with the DCD will be managed by keeping the control hand near the device and using both the hand position and rope angle as well as the friction adjustment of the device to finitely control rope movement. Choking the rope, mismanagement of the device, and poor hand positioning will cause excessive fatigue of the forearms and hands and often result in uncontrolled movement.
Check out the video for a play by play of edge transitions.
Identifying a solution: Single-leg positioning
Over the last several years, we have refined our instructional delivery to develop better skills for ourselves and our students. We expend a lot of time and attention on foot movement and device control.
The key that I have identified to transitioning edges with confidence and control is refining the ability to do single-leg positioning. What does that mean? Single-leg positioning is the ability to balance on one leg with control. This is an important skill because it allows a rescuer to choose the placement of each foot or step selectively and methodically while maintaining control. This does not mimic the rapid-fire “step-step” technique that many use. The single-leg concept is practiced in ground school and then applied on the edge.
Applying the solution: Step by step
Here’s a step-by-step guide to a successful edge transition training:
- When you are transitioning the edge, stop playing rope through the DCD when your body position is between 30 and 45 degrees.
- Shift one foot toward the center line of your body, put a slight bend in your knee, and then slowly lift the other foot off the edge. Keep that foot near the edge initially in case you to need to restabilize.
- Bend the loaded knee repeatedly, bringing your body in and out from the edge and controlling your body position.
- Then switch to the other foot.
Once you have completed your practice and demonstrated proficiency, you can now apply this technique as you complete the transition. Here’s how it plays out:
- Instead of making a lighting-quick “step-step,” simply load one leg, identify the location that you want to place your other foot for the step down, and gradually allow rope to move through the descent control device while bending the loaded knee. This will naturally place the step-down foot right where you want it.
- Then load the new leg and repeat the process.
In many environments, foot placement is critical as it can displace rocks, result in foot entrapments, damage surface objects in industrial settings, or cause other unfortunate outcomes. Far too often, we don’t consider these types of surfaces if we are consistently training on training towers and not getting out into the field.
Fixed-brake system applications
To provide some summary context for a fixed-brake system where you are being lowered, all of the same principles and techniques apply. The big variable is communications. Remember that the operator managing the DCD cannot feel what you feel or see what you see.
To control your speed and movement, you must conduct somewhat of a “dance” with the operator that only works through communication. Keep your communications concise and short. “Lower Slow,” “Lower Fast” and “Stop” should be the only communications you need when heading down.
As a rule of thumb, this edge transition should be slower simply because of the delay caused by communicating actions and the need to err on the side of control and caution.
Drive home the concepts
Make sure you watch the video to help drive these concepts home. We would love to hear your feedback and hope this makes an impact, particularly if you’re struggling with edge transitions.
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