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Beal Escaper: A scary but handy tool for when you need to rappel with one rope
Posted on: June 28, 2019
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.
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....
The author preparing to trust his life to the Beal Escaper for the first time on top of Elephant Rock in Buena Vista, Colorado. [Photo] Derek Franz
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 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 release when pulled from below. The second dot marks the second, free-hanging rappel station. [Photo] Derek Franz
The first rappel station on top of the Pink Face where the Escaper did not activate. The red static rope was used as a backup. [Photo] Derek Franz
The second rappel station on the Pink Face was free-hanging and was ideal for retrieving ropes after a rappel. Again, the red rope was used as a backup. [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 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."
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