Beal Escaper: A scary but handy tool for when you need to rappel with one rope

Posted on: June 28, 2019


MSRP: $49.95

The first time I eased my weight onto the Beal Escaper—which Beal describes as a "detachable abseil system"—I felt as nervous as I did many years ago when I was aiding up a 50-foot seam that was filled with moss and rusty wires on Tangerine Trip (VI 5.9 C3+) on El Capitan (Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La). The moss in the seam made it nearly impossible to evaluate what I was connected to, but it wasn't unreasonable to guess that most of the fixed gear was bunk. Young and eager to make progress, I clipped one frayed, sketchy wire after another. I held my breath as I eased my weight onto something that looked like a shoelace tied around the head of a broken, flexing piton—if this piece failed, the rest of the manky protection below me would most likely fail as well, and I'd be looking at a massive fall.... That same fear is what I felt the first time I trusted my life to the Escaper.

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But the Escaper is sounder that it appears. It still freaks me out—I'm sure most people would agree that it's healthy to be suspicious of anything designed to release after you unweight it—but it can be a worthy little tool that could prove useful for a variety of situations. It's not perfect, however.

To understand the Escaper, it's good to grasp some physics—or physics may soon have you in its grasp. I'll do my best to explain....

What does this "Escaper" do?

The Escaper enables a climber to rappel on a single strand of rope and then still be able to retrieve the rope from below. Traditionally, most rappels are done with a single rope that is doubled over through the anchor, forming two strands; or with two ropes that are tied together. In both cases, the climber retrieves the ropes by pulling one strand or the other (if using two ropes, be mindful which side the knot is on relative to the anchor).

So, how does this Escaper "escape"?

The Escaper is a 4-foot length of rope that can be threaded through or around an anchor, and it secures on itself in such a way that it can be released through a series of tugs.

The setup is like this: once situated through/around the anchor, the tail end of the Escaper is threaded through a braid of thin webbing that cinches down on the rope and holds it in place when the attachment point for the rappel rope is weighted with more than 10 kg (22 lbs.) of force. When the Escaper is unweighted, an elastic system scrunches the braid of webbing upward, which loosens its hold on the Escaper's tail and allows it to slip through in short increments. It takes several tugs for the Escaper to fully release and fall down with the end of the rappel rope.

Derek Franz discovering just how much effort it can take to activate the Beal Escaper after a short rappel from the top of Elephant Rock. [Photo] Mandi FranzDerek Franz discovering just how much effort it can take to activate the Beal Escaper after a rappel from the top of Elephant Rock. [Photo] Mandi Franz

One of the aspects that makes me very cautious when using the Escaper is that the rope feels slippery and can slide in and out of the braided webbing quite easily before it's weighted; my concern is that if I were to weight the device too suddenly—say, if I slipped while there was slack in the system—it might fail to engage and the tail of the rope would be jerked out of the mechanism. To safeguard against this, the instruction video on Beal's website encourages people to tie a simple backup knot with the remaining tail below the braid. The last person to rappel can untie the knot.

The main issue with the Escaper is that not all rappels are situated the same, which means the Escaper's performance also varies. For example, a long rappel from an anchor that is behind a ledge or some other obstruction makes it harder to activate the Escaper than a short rappel in which the anchor hangs cleanly over the fall line. Whether you're pulling with a dynamic or static rope also makes a difference: dynamic ropes have some elasticity, and the longer the rappel, the more rope-stretch you're dealing with when you're trying to tug hard enough to activate the bungee on the Escaper.

It was both frustrating and reassuring that every time I used the Escaper for a real rappel I had a harder time releasing it than I thought I would. After watching the videos and doing test pulls from the deck in my backyard, the process seemed easy enough, maybe too easy. Beal's website reports that it takes an average of eight pulls to release—it's often quite a few more. I also had one situation in which the Escaper failed to activate, and I had to climb back up to retrieve my rope; I'll explain more about that shortly.

For me, on average, it took a couple minutes of vigorous pulling before the rope dropped. In one case, even when I had a clean fall line from a bolted, free-hanging anchor, it still took more effort than I would've guessed, and I did the rappel twice to test with a static and dynamic rope. As frustrating as it was to get the Escaper to release, it was also comforting. One paranoia I have is that if I'm rappelling on low-angle terrain I'm more likely to be weighting and unweighting the rope as I make my way down, which could theoretically activate the release mechanism on the Escaper if this happened too many times. After testing, however, this scary scenario seems unlikely to happen, though I'm still mindful about it.

Full disclosure: I've used the Escaper less than 10 times in the field, so it's possible I still have some technique to learn—maybe I'm pulling too hard when a light jiggle would be better, though I doubt that's the case. It's hard to discern these subtleties when I'm by myself and when I often lack a full view of the anchor from below.

In my first real test, the anchor was on a slab that rounded out a few feet above a vertical face (see photo above). Except for those few feet where the rope was sliding over the granite slab, it was a clean drop 40 feet to the ground. Standing directly below, I couldn't get the Escaper to release after a few minutes of tug-of-war. I walked away from the cliff to get a more direct angle and it released, though it still took a surprising amount of effort.

In the case where it didn't release, I was not surprised. The anchor was not a perfectly equalized set of chains/rap rings, and I didn't have any webbing or tools to replace the old tattered webbing that would have provided a more ideal anchor point. The best option was to thread the Escaper directly through the bolts, but this resulted in the cord being slightly pinched when weighted, and the anchor was already above a bulge that forced the rope to run down through a crack. I had a second rope as a backup, so when the Escaper didn't release, I was able to self-belay back to the rappel station, where I saw that the Escaper hadn't budged in spite of all the pulling I'd done from 100 feet below, even after jumping up and down with my full body weight.

Overview of the Pink Face in No Name Canyon near Glenwood Springs, Colorado: The highest red dot indicates the location of the first rappel where the Escaper failed to activate. The second dot marks the second, free-hanging rappel station. [Photo] Derek FranzOverview of the Pink Face in No Name Canyon near Glenwood Springs, Colorado: The highest red dot indicates the location of the first rappel where the Escaper failed to release when pulled from below. The second dot marks the second, free-hanging rappel station. [Photo] Derek Franz

So, here are my takeaways: the Escaper is lightweight (100g/3.5oz) and thanks to its small stuff sack it can fit easily into a large pocket or be clipped onto a gear loop. This makes it a handy tool that can facilitate a faster retreat, and I think there's potential to find some creative uses for it as well. That said, I recommend paying close attention to the location of the anchor relative to the fall line, and I would be wary of making long rappels with it unless I was sure I would have a clean pull from below. Alpine climbers and people exploring new routes and descents are the most likely to benefit from the Escaper.

Franz follows Pitch 16 on Tangerine Trip, ca. 2006. [Photo] Todd PrestonFranz follows Pitch 16 on Tangerine Trip, ca. 2006. [Photo] Todd Preston

Alpinist Digital Editor Derek Franz once rappelled off a single loop of old webbing tied through a constriction in a crack to escape a storm on the Diamond of Longs Peak when he was 15 years old. He still has nightmares about what could have happened. You can hear that story on an episode of the Alpinist Podcast titled "Open Heart."

Pros
Enables a climber to rappel on a single strand of rope and then still be able to retrieve the rope from below
Rated to 18kN
Lightweight (100g/3.5oz)
Stuff sack is small enough to fit inside a large pocket or be clipped to a harness

Cons
Sometimes difficult or impossible to activate the release mechanism
Requires extra careful diligence to use safely and effectively

Rating:

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Comments
alshaver

Compliments to the author for his timely correction to the original article. He may have saved a life. The 20mm max anchor size spec is printed on the use diagram that comes with every escaper and can be found on the Beal website by selecting escaper/attachments/notice/open notice and scroll down to diagrams page, Diagram "E".

The Escaper is a revolutionary tool that changes the game for cut rope emergency situations and everyday use for adventurous, backcountry, off the trade route, highly responsible and meticulous alpinists. It has tremendous benefits for a small community of climbers. After decades of climbing with others, I have to say that most climbers are not diligent enough to use it safely. You know best which group you belong to.

And even for very careful adventurers, the device has significant limitations. It can only be threaded through max 20mm-3/4 inch anchor, friction from low angle rock below the anchor may increase retrieval difficulty or prevent retrieval. Once released, the chance of the device hanging up on rock, bush and tree are vastly greater than just a rope getting snagged. As such, the user must practice a lot in a non critical situation to get a feel for what situations work for this device and which are low probability of success scenarios.

Here are some tips that will increase likelihood of success with the Escaper:

The friction characteristics of metal chain, quick link or rappel ring are what this device was designed to be threaded through. Anything else, such as rope or webbing will compromise it's release performance. Don't even think of threading it around a tree or rock and expect it to release.

When I am adventuring off the beaten path I ALWAYS carry ultra lightweight sling material, leaver biners and rappel rings. Failing to do so is an invitation to a cold night on a ledge...or worse.

It is sadly true that many American climbers don't understand the physics of anchor geometry and place bolts side by side rather than vertically in line with the upper bolt having a longer chain so that both chains end at the same location - as Europeans do. The side by side placement Greatly and unnecessarily multiplies the load on the bolts. The superior Euro system allows the Escaper to be threaded through both chains/rings for redundancy.

The American side by side on the horizontal axis system requires either eschewing redundancy, or connecting the 2 bolt hangers together with a short piece of cord at each rap station while using the Escaper. As I always have cord and a knife with me, this is not a problem.

As for putting cord directly through a bolt hanger goes - don't due this. Whether you are using the Escaper, or not. The sharp edges can cut cord. There do exist specialized hangers that have radiused edges for rapping off of. These hangers are rare and I do not know if the Escaper will work on them.

2021-04-12 18:12:18
derek@alpinist.com

Follow-up note:

I have not been able to find my old hardcopy of the fine print, nor have I found it anywhere online, including Beal's website, and I've gone back and revisited a variety of the other articles and videos about the Escaper as well.

If the 20mm max diameter for the anchor is of such critical concern, then why is this not advertised more explicitly? It is a critical weakness for the design and the company does not appear to go far enough to make this clear.

I stand by my testing and 3-star rating. Maybe I did push the limits of the device's capabilities, but I did so with a backup system, and frankly I expect gear testers to nudge these boundaries when it is possible to do so in a safe manner. I certainly do not want to appear to endorse improper use, however, so I am grateful to have those questionable photos brought to my attention.

—Derek Franz

2020-08-18 17:04:45
derek@alpinist.com

Thank you for pointing this out. The photos have been removed.

This is a solid reminder to double-check and thoroughly read the fine print before using such an unfamiliar device. I watched videos and read other reports about this product, and practiced using it from trees and deck railings in the backyard, and apparently I still failed to fully account for all the details regarding proper use. Yikes!

That said, I find it surprising that a device intended for rappelling would not be designed to account for being used with rappel rings on bolts, which are commonly greater than 4 inches apart (a common scenario here in the US). Or what about wrapping it around a tree or rock that is greater than 4 inches in diameter? Apparently, these situations would require leaving gear to make a more equalized, central anchor point, even in the case of having two perfectly good rap rings.

Apologies for spreading misinformation. I hope no one suffered harm as a result!

—Derek Franz

2020-08-17 14:30:08
alshaver

The author provides 2 photos that grossly violate the instructions provided with the Beal Escaper. This is very likely why the device would not release as advertised. It could also possibly cause someone to die either because the device won't release when required, or will release when it shouldn't. Either situation can kill a climbing party. (Anchor)"Diameter: maximum 20 mm" For metric challenged Americans, that is 3/4 inch. 2 of your photos show the Escaper threaded through TWO anchor points ~4 Inches Apart! The instruction sheet provided with life support equipment is not the "terms of use agreement" for your Spotify account. You must actually read it before you use the product AND before you publish on the World Wide Web on an otherwise respected website. Please remove the 2 potentially fatal photographs immediately.

2020-07-04 17:31:40
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