In the last 10 days, two separate rappelling accidents occurred in the Bow Valley near Canmore, Alberta. In the first, a young woman improperly rigged her rappel/belay device and fell 20 metres from the top of the cliff to the bottom resulting in serious but not fatal injuries. In the second, two people were killed while simul-rappelling a six pitch route when one climber rappelled off the end of the rope.
As with many climbing accidents, these instantly garnered attention from the "Monday morning quarterbacks", although, strangely, but possibly significantly, the first accident was virtually ignored while the second gained huge traction on bulletin boards across the web. I suspect the first, somewhat pedestrian accident, was overshadowed by the shock factor of the second.
Improperly rigged rappel/belay devices which result in ground falls are, unfortunately, all too common and seem to occur with more frequency at climbing areas that attract novices. The first incident described above occurred at a very popular beginner area, and, the climber was new to the sport. Simul-rappelling accidents are much rarer, perhaps simply because simul-rappelling is much rarer.
Many people, even climbers, are confused by what simul-rappelling means. Essentially, two climbers rappel down opposite strands of the climbing rope at the same time thus acting as a counter-balance to one another. With bomber anchors, straight-forward rappelling (from bolted station to bolted station), adequate rope length, auto-locking belay devices (such as the Gri-Gri), and two experienced climbers, simul-rappelling can be a fast and efficient way to descend long routes with many rappels. Experienced climbers can literally cut descent times in half.
However, simul-rappeling with novices, on difficult terrain (such as alpine climbing where there are no established stations) has been described as double-jeopardy, because, if one climber screws up (rappels off the end of the rope), both climbers face potential death falls.
I first learnt to simul-rappel about this time last year before a trip to El Portero Chico. Climbs at EPC are long (12 to 26 pitches) and the descent is always to rappel the route on solidly placed bolts, so simul-rappelling has the potential to, not only save enormous amounts of time, but get you down in daylight rather than dark.
After a couple of practice sessions at our local crag, my climbing partner and I felt good to go. Since then, we have safely descended literally dozens of routes by simul-rappelling. While this does not mean it is a technique to be used by everyone in every situation, there are clear instances where rappelling not only works well, but has safety advantages (getting down before dark or before a storm).
Of course, the Monday Morning Quarterbacks in semi-hysteria are convinced that simul-rappelling will, given enough exposure, lead to almost certain death. "A gri-gri is not going to help you or your partner if you go off the end of the rope, or if one of you didn't rig your device properly, or if one of you didn't buckle your harness properly or...or...or....or" one pundit gasped.
Well, sure, I could be a fucking idiot and do any number of stupid things, but, as it stands, I'm not.
Simul-Rapping at a local crag