We’ve all seen in the movies when an assault team comes crashing in through some window sliding down a rope.
Or maybe they’re being dropped off by a tactical helicopter into some dangerous war zone, a handful of soldiers quickly slide down the rope and get into position.
These types of scenes are in almost any blockbuster action movie nowadays, but until I spent some time researching for this article, I never knew there was a difference between rappelling and fast roping.
So what’s the difference between fast roping and rappelling?
These two disciplines are vastly different. For starters they use very different types of rope. A rappeller would use a length of static or dynamic climbing rope usually no larger than 10 or 12 mm thick; while fast roping requires a specialized rope roughly 40mm thick. Secondly, while you’re fast roping you’re not connected to the rope at all. Your legs and hands are holding on, but that is it, whereas rappelling requires you be strapped into a harness and a belay device.
It would be laughable for someone to suggest they fast-rope down the side of a ravine, just as it would be silly to see a soldier fiddling with locking carabiners and belay devices while the helicopter hovers overhead.
That isn’t to say that rappelling can’t be used in military operations, in fact before the invention of fast-roping, that was how they made their way down from a helicopter.
What exactly is fast roping?
Fast-roping, or Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES), is used by military personnel to quickly get off of a helicopter in an area where there either isn’t enough space to land, or perhaps they weren’t given permission to land.
The thick nylon ropes are about 40mm thick or about 1.6 inches, just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand. Another reason the rope is necessarily so thick is that it’s typically used to quickly get off of a helicopter.
The helicopter will hover above the ground and the rope will be thrown down.
A lighter, less thick rope would be buffeted around by the turbulent wind underneath a helicopter, so they opted for a much thicker rope that will stay relatively still when hanging from a helicopter.
This technique was developed in the early 1980s by the British military in conjunction with a local rope manufacturer.
The first iteration of this type of rope was much smoother and as such the soldiers couldn’t control their descent as easily and would slide down too fast.
They later opted for three braided nylon ropes, totalling about an inch and a half in diameter, to give the soldiers more friction on the way down.
Friction is the big issue when fast-roping. Sliding down this thick rope with all of it’s variance in surface means a lot of generated heat.
Some specialized gloves have been designed that can withstand the friction, but generally soldiers have a thick insulating glove slid over their tactical gloves.
This means that when they get to the ground, they throw off or stow their thick leather gloves and underneath they have their tactical gloves already on and they’re ready for anything that might happen.
When you’re entering into a dangerous no landing zone, as these military personnel often are, the more time you spend out in the open, the more dangerous it becomes. This is where fast-roping comes into play.
The soldiers slide down this thick rope as if it were a fireman’s pole, but in order to slow their descent, they use both their hands, legs and feet to keep from slamming into the ground.
Why is fast roping harder than rappelling?
Fast roping is significantly harder than rappelling.
When rappelling there are many different safety measures taken to keep the climber or rappeler safe.
You’re strapped into a harness specifically designed to handle the stresses that climbing and rappelling put on it.
The rope you slide down is made in such a way that it stretches ever so slightly, cushioning any abrupt stops you have to make on the way down.
The rope is passed through a belay system and you hold your whole weight up with a gentle but firm grip on the rope.
Fast roping on the other hand is the polar opposite. Unlike rappelling, when you’re fast roping, there is nothing connecting you to the rope you’re sliding down apart from your own two hand and feet.
If for some reason you let go, maybe your hands overheated on the way down, or maybe the fast-roper above you slid too fast and kicked you in the head, if you let go there’s nothing between you and the cold hard ground.
While fast-roping you also have to reckon with a few things that you wouldn’t need to think about while rappelling. The most obvious one is of course the helicopter.
Unless you’re military personnel, you probably won’t find yourself rappelling out of a helicopter any time soon. Aside from the intimidation factor of having a roaring helicopter over head, you also have to reckon with the winds.
The more time you spend descending from the helicopter, the more likely it is that you’ll be blown one way or another by these intense winds.
Remember that the helicopter is holding itself up in the sky, and an average military helicopter can weigh around 10,000 pounds unloaded.
That means that the helicopter will be blowing a lot of wind downward past your rappelling body.
Another factor, while you do experience it while rappelling but not nearly to the degree you do when fast roping, is friction.
When you’re rappelling, you’re supporting your entire body weight, including any gear you’re carrying with you, with the grip of one hand.
The belay device used in rappelling essentially twists the rope so that you need to use a lot less friction to stop your descent than you would if you were just holding onto the rope.
When fast-roping, you don’t have that luxury. What you see is what you get with this technique.
Imagine the heat coming off of your hands after you slid down 30 feet of nylon rope, no belay devices or special wrapping techniques to soften it.
If you didn’t have the thick special gloves that the military are equipped with, you would definitely be without skin on your hands, and probably even flesh.
Guide to fast roping
Fast roping, while not easy is pretty simple.
We’ll begin by first understanding that like it’s name suggests, this is meant to be fast. You could slowly climb down the rope, but that wouldn’t be helpful in these types of situations.
The point of using this type of rope is to quickly get to the ground. (It is fun to imagine though, a rugged military man all tricked out with 30 extra pounds of gear, gingerly inching his way down the rope.)
But in all seriousness, how does one fast rope? It begins with some special gear. Like I alluded to earlier, this technique requires special gloves.
A thick leather gardener’s glove would do just fine in most situations, but the military have spent a lot of money on finding great alternatives to gardeners gloves.
Many times you will begin a fast roping from the seated position. Seated on the edge of the hatch in the floor of the helicopter with your feet dangling high over the ground, you’ll pinch the rope between your feet.
Military personnel all have durable army boots that will easily withstand the friction involved in fast roping, but if you don’t have these things, the inner soles of a typical running shoe would do just fine.
What probably wouldn’t do so well is the fabric mesh that you often find on the sides of a normal running shoe, the friction involved in fast roping would probably disintegrate that mesh, if not it would at least damage it.
When you’re ready to slide down the rope, reach out with your thickly gloved hands and grab hold of the rope. Shove off the edge until you’re hanging from the rope.
At this stage, loosen your grip and allow the rope to slide through your fingers.
Some soldiers I have seen allow the rope to pass up through their legs and hold the rope close to their chest over to one side, while others kick their legs out forward and hold the rope in front of their torso.
Something to note is that you want to make sure to hold the rope away from any exposed skin.
If you’re a soldier going into battle, that’s likely to be only your face, but if you’re fast roping for some other reason, you’ll want to be careful of exposed skin.
As you get closer to the ground, you’ll want to start squeezing tightly with your hands and feet, if you have the rope passed between your legs, you can use them as well, just be sure that you don’t burn the insides of your legs.
When you get to the ground, let go of the rope and get out of the way, you probably have another person sliding down the rope right above you.
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