Imagine that you’re standing at the edge of a cliff.
You must descend to the bottom quickly, there’s a terrible storm coming and there’s no time for you to walk along the edge in search of another way down.
You have no climbing equipment apart from a good length of sturdy climbing rope and a carabiner. Can you get down safely and in time to beat the storm?
Let’s start simple, can you rappel without a harness?
Rappelling without a harness is dangerous business, and should only be done when absolutely necessary. That being said, there are ways to rappel with just rope by twisting it around yourself in various combinations. These methods can often be uncomfortable, and as we already said dangerous, but it merits saying a second time.
In this guide, we’ll go through two tried and true methods of descending a cliff with just a rope. One of them safer than other.
We’ll look at why you’ll want to learn to rappel without a harness, and in what situations this knowledge can come in handy.
And we’ll look at a couple of techniques for fashioning a makeshift harness out of an extra length of rope or webbing and a carabiner for a safer descent.
Why Learn To Do This?
Like I said above, it is drastically more dangerous to rappel without a harness than with a harness.
These techniques are meant to be used in emergency situations and at times when there is no other choice.
But emergencies do happen, and people are thrown into a panic when they don’t know what to do.
Having the forethought to practice what you’d do in an emergency is a helpful way to ensure that you’re prepared when danger strikes.
There is also the added benefit that learning how to rappel without a harness can help you to better understand the inner workings of rappelling with a harness.
Since what you’ll actually be feeling when the ropes are sliding around your body, is what’s happening inside the belay devices just at a smaller scale.
Experiencing the movement of the line as you descend will give you a better appreciation of rappelling. These techniques would be used by someone venturing out into the wilderness in search of something.
Whether that be a stranded hiker or a secret cave with gold in it; situations where every pound of weight you take with you counts.
If you can get to the stranded hiker quicker then that’s obviously better for everybody, and if you can get to the gold first by leaving behind the harness and bringing just rope, then you’re gonna do that.
Before You Free Abseil
Before you step off the ledge, you’ll need to make sure that you check your environment.
Checking that the object you’ll be tying to, entrusting you life to, is sturdy; Inspecting the area before, looking for anything that the ropes might knock down at you while you’re descending.
Double the Rope
When climbing, you might be used to working with one rope passing through your harness.
And indeed one can rappel on a one rope system with a partner or some kind of sophisticated setup up at the top.
If you’re going on your own, you don’t have that kind of luxury. You also might not want to leave your rope behind once you’ve gotten to the bottom.
A classic way to get around this kind of problem is to double up the rope as you go down.
Any of the techniques listed later in this article can be utilized by doubling up the rope, and some of the techniques are nonsense without this first vital step.
You can prepare ahead of time for this by going through your climbing rope, and marking it at the halfway point with a bit of tape. It’s important to note that it really should be climbing rope.
When you’re hanging off the edge of a cliff by a thin colorful line of nylon fabric, you want to be sure that that line is strong enough to hold much more than your weight and can withstand the stretch and stresses that climbing can put on it.
So if you are going to use any of these techniques, in any other situation than practicing the winding technique without the weight, please use some proper climbing rope.
Now that your climbing rope is marked at the halfway point, Wrap it around whatever object you’ll use as your anchor and toss the ropes down.
You can tie them together or tie a knot at the bottom of each end, but it’s important for the ends you’re throwing down to have a little bit of weight to them.
Tying them together using a double fisherman’s knot or a classic figure 8 can give the rope a better chance of making it all the way to the bottom without getting caught on any branches the way down.
However this technique leaves open the possibility of getting looped around something strong if it doesn’t make it to the bottom and needs to be hauled back up.
Either way you tie them, the whole rope needs to be coiled up at the top for you to throw it down, being sure to have already wrapped the middle point around your rock or tree etc.
Another key point here before we move on: you need to make sure that your rope touches the bottom. I hope it’s obvious that these techniques are only useful as long as the rope reaches.
If the rope you tossed down hangs and dangles 20 feet in the air, you’ll be perfectly safe down to those 20 feet, but then what?
In some instances when the rope is too short, you’ll be able to tie two climbing ropes together to make up for the difference.
The most popular rappelling techniques from around the world:
South African Abseil
We’ll begin with this method because it is the safest of all the methods we’ll cover in this article.
Once the ropes are in place and you’re ready to descend, the rope pattern acts as an almost literal harness.
The ropes wrap around both sides of the body cradling your rib cage, then sliding around the back, and through the legs practically giving you a seat.
That’s not to say that this technique or any technique covered in this article is going to be comfortable. Harnesses are designed to be comfortable, we’re finding ways to rappel without a harness.
The South African Abseil, (Abseil – another word for rappel used interchangeably across the world) was invented by South African mountaineering instructor Andrew Friedemann in 2000.
It offers an alternative to the previously more popular Dülfersitz technique; which while fun to write and even more fun to say, has the possibility of sending you tumbling head over foot if you don’t do it correctly.
Begin by performing all the preparatory techniques listed above.
- Making sure that your rope is good and sturdy climbing rope with no weak spots or frays
- Wrapping the rope around your chosen anchor at the midway point
- Knotting the ends of the rope together to make a loop and tossing them down
- Ensuring that you have enough rope to reach the bottom
Having practiced the technique beforehand on simpler, less dangerous slopes, you’re ready to put the technique into practice.
- Begin by stepping in between the two halves of the rope facing the anchor.
- Wrap the rope in your right hand under your right arm around your back and under your left arm.
- Do the same with the rope in your left hand. The pattern in front of you left to right should now look like: Right rope in left hand, left rope wrapping around the body under the left armpit. Looking across the body, right rope going under the right arm to the left hand, and then finally the left rope resting in the right hand.
- Bring the two ends together in front of you under the original lines.
- Step your right leg over the rope on your right side, and step your left leg over the rope on your left side.
- Reach behind you and grab the two ropes in your dominant hand and pull them to that side.
- If you have a good rappelling glove, you could just hold these ropes in this position with the rope leaving your hand away from your face.
- If you don’t have a rappelling glove, you can wrap the rope around your wrist once to give you as much control over your decent as possible.
- Hold the rope out to your side and descend by letting some of the slack slip through your fingers and relax into the cradle. Let the ropes slide around you.
When performing this technique, posture is important. Leaning too far back can be dangerous for obvious reasons, you might tumble out of the makeshift harness.
But leaning too far forward can be just as dangerous. The South African Rappelling technique is best utilized when standing perpendicularly to the surface you’re descending.
That is sitting back in the harness and letting it support your weight.
Invented around the turn of the 20th century by Hans Dülfer a german mountaineer, the Dülfersitz technique is a powerful technique if you need to get down something in a hurry.
Begin again by performing all the preparatory steps listed above, wrapping your rope around your anchor in a loop and sending it down to touch the ground etc.
- Start with both cords pulled together in one hand.
- You’ll start wrapping by stepping over the lines with your right leg. The choice of leg actually makes no difference to the technique, apart from the fact that if you wish to begin by wrapping your left leg, you’ll have to mirror these instructions to your opposite side.
- With the lines passing under the right side of your groin, lead them up around your left shoulder. The hanging end of the rope should now be draping over your left shoulder down your back.
- Reach behind you and grab the left over rope with your fingers pointing down the length of rope. This will give you better grip than trying to hold it with your thumb pointing up towards your body.
Proper technique requires that you hold the ascending rope with your left hand, the end attached to the anchor; and the descending rope with your right hand.
When rappelling using this technique you absolutely must not let go.
This is in effect what makes this technique more dangerous that the South African Abseil above, because if either of your hands slip, maybe by mistake or maybe a slip or a falling rock injures your hand, a fall is inevitable.
Only now the fall is made worse because you’re tangled in the rope on the way down.
But if you understand how to do this technique correctly, and you’ve practiced it many times, you can do some pretty impressive things with this technique.
It can be used for a careful and conscientious decent, or for a DIY fast-roping rappelling mechanism.
Hasty Harness Knot
As we’ve discussed above, it is definitely possible to rappel down any terrain using proper techniques and a bit of know how, but what if you’re with someone who isn’t confident in these techniques.
Someone who hasn’t practiced out all the dangerous shaky hands and mistaken movements.
In situations like this, you may want to set up an alternative method for them to descend, by jerry rigging a harness out of some climbing webbing and a climbing carabiner.
- Begin by finding the midpoint of the webbing. Just like you may have done with the climbing rope before, you may want to have marked the middle point before hand.
- Stuff the midpoint into the beltline of the pants, this will be the main supporting loop of the harness.
- Wrap one end of the webbing around each leg and thread the ends through the loop stuck into the person’s waist band, and pull taught.
- Wrap each end of the webbing around the back of the climber’s torso and around the midline two or three times, each end going a different direction.
- Tie the ends together off to one side; out of the way.
- You can now clip your carabiner through the first loop and also around the webbing wrapped around your waist.
Tips for tying up your DIY harness:
If you’ve tied this correctly, the carabiner should be closed around any strand of webbing that crosses your midline.
Any strand that crosses the imaginary vertical line that goes from your navel down in between your legs should be clipped into the carabiner before putting any weight onto the system.
Another DIY harness that can be made with a short section of rope is what’s called the Swiss Seat.
You can usually put this harness together with about 12 feet of rope, but the length neede can vary depending on the climber’s waist size.
Ideally if you’re going to be using this in an emergency setting, getting rid of any extra hassle is a must.
This is why you don’t want to have a lot of excess rope which can get tangled in the descent on a passing tree branch or your lifelines themselves.
The only other item you’ll need to make this harness is a strong carabiner. I hope it goes without saying that you’ll need to use climbing grade carabiners that have been tested for strength.
Sometimes carabiners can form hairline fractures that can be easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. Be sure to inspect all equipment thoroughly before attempting any rappelling.
Before we begin, you must decide which side to have the harness knot on. You’ll want to tie the knot on your non-dominant side.
In other words, whichever side you’ll be breaking on, that is holding the rope behind you to slow you down, you’ll want the rope on the opposite side.
In the instructions below we’ll be tying the harness together on the left side, for right handed breaking. For left handed braking, simply mirror the instructions to the other side.
- Begin holding your short section of rope at the mid point, and bring the mid point to your left hip.
- Take one end and wrap it behind your waist, and hold both ends in front of you. Starting at your left hip instead of the mid point means that the strand that has gone around your waist will be shorter than the other half.
- Cross these strands over each other like you were beginning to tie a shoe. Left over right, or right over left, it doesn’t matter which way you wind them.
- Whichever direction you chose to cross them, cross them one more time so that now the ropes have been crossed twice.
- Let the ropes hang down in front of you and pass them through you legs and around your back side.
- Bring one rope under the rope at your left hip point. Pass it back around an under the standing rope you just laid and through the loop you created to make a half hitch, locking it in place.
- Repeat this process on the right side, and bring that rope across your front so that both ends are on your left side.
- Tie these two ends together on your left side with a square knot; the same kind of knot you’d use to tie your shoes without the bows that can be easily undone. And secure both loose ends out of the way with a half hitch each.
Tips for using your DIY harness
When you’re ready to use this harness, clip the carabiner through the two horizontal pieces of rope that cross the midline. Ensuring that the opening of the carabiner faces you.
This is a handy technique to know if you’re ever in a situation where you need to help an inexperienced or injured rappeler and don’t have any of the required equipment you would normally carry with you rappelling under normal circumstances.
Last updated on: