If you say to someone, “I went rappelling this weekend,” they would probably imagine a hiking trip with an experienced guide fitting you with a harness and giving you all the necessary instructions, then you sliding delicately down a rope to the safety of the ground below.
But there are many different kinds of rappelling or abseiling.
You could have been gliding towards the ground head first or balancing yourself against another rappeler over the edge of a cliff, or you could have been climbing down a cliff with no harness; nothing but a rope.
There are so many different rappelling styles out there, and in this article we’ll take a look at each of them, disecting what makes them different from the other types.
By doing this, we hope to make it clear that rappelling is a widely varying sport, and maybe even help you decide what technique to learn next.
If you’d like to see a graphical breakdown of the rappelling styles, we got you covered:
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What Is Rappelling?
First off, let’s get the basics out of the way.
Rappelling is loosely defined as descending safely and controllably off of a height, whether that be a rock face or a building, using a rope.
The word comes from the French word rapeler, meaning ‘to recall’ or ‘pull through’ refering of course to the rope being pulled through the belay devices that are often used in a rappelling system.
Rappelling is often used by climbers and mountaineers on their adventures. Without rappelling rock climbers would get stuck at the top of their routes and mountaineers would be limited to not so steep slopes.
Rappelling is also used at more dangerous times too, when a rescue worker needs to help an injured person descend a steep incline, they can hook them up to a harness and rappel them down to safety.
It is also used in the armed forces to quickly slide down from a helicopter into the battlegrounds. The earth is a very big place with lots of different kinds of landscapes.
Rappelling gives us the opportunity to explore into areas too deep and dark to peer into, and help us get down from the tops of mountains where we can see the world a little bit clearer.
Rappelling is a handy tool and it can be done slightly differently depending on what situation you’re needing to use it for, or depending on what part of the world you’re in.
How to Rappel
The key to understanding all of the following techniques is understanding the basic technique of rappelling.
Also known as abseiling, rappelling uses a belay device, like the one you’d use for belaying a climber, but in this case you’re essentially belaying yourself.
A belay device is a small metal armature that you feed the rope through and clip a carabiner through the rope.
This means that the rope must pass into the belay device, around a carabiner and then back out again before reaching all the way down to the ground.
This adds enough friction to the system so that you can easily stop your descent with a small tug on the downhill side of the rope.
The rope you’ll be going down in any rappelling technique will be securely attached or wrapped around an anchor of some sort, whether that is a sturdy tree, a heavy rock or a proper climbing anchor drilled into the side of a rock face.
It’s important to note that when rappelling with any technique, your rope must reach the ground, or at the very least reach close enough to the ground that your feet can touch.
Otherwise you’ll just be hanging there and have to find a way to climb back up the rope, or cut it and fall.
Rappellers often use an extender to keep their belay device a few feet away from them.
This helps avoid any danger of getting clothing or anything caught in the belay device, and it allows you to focus on just the downhill side of the rope.
Rappellers usually also add a friction hitch to the downhill side of the rope and attach that to their harness.
This is incredibly helpful in case of some catastrophic event where the rappeler falls unconscious; the friction hitch will catch and hold the main line, stopping them from falling.
We’ll begin exploring these different rappelling techniques with a fairly simple addition to the basic technique we just went over.
Tandem rappelling gives a slight variation on traditional rappelling by adding a second climber to the same rappelling system that is used for only one climber.
Using this technique, you can get two people down a steep incline safely, even if one of them is injured, completely ignorant of rappelling techniques, or just plain scared; as you can comfort them on the way down.
The set up to perform the tandem rappelling technique is almost exactly the same as the classic rappelling technique described above.
The rope is still attached firmly at an anchor up top, and the belay device is extended away from the rappellers, and the friction hitch is in place.
To attach a second rappeler, they use their own belay extender and a strong carabiner to clip into the belay device itself. It’s a good idea to have the second climber’s extension be a little shorter than the first climber’s extension.
This lets the two of them go down the incline single file, one in front of the other, instead of side by side. This avoids the extra obstacle of them needing to step over one another on the way down.
Simul-Rappelling, like the tandem technique is done with two rappellers, but is done in a very different way.
Instead of the two climbers being suspended from one belay device on one rope, the climbers are both descending an incline using their own belay device on two ends of the same rope.
So one end of the rope would be down on the ground and would lead up through the anchor and come back to the ground at the other end, and each rappeler would descend one of these ends down to the bottom, using the other as a counter weight.
This technique is very dangerous and should only be used in emergencies.
Part of the reason it is so dangerous, is that if one of the rappellers fell unconscious or for some reason made a mistake and let go of their belay device, the other rappeler would no longer have a counter weight and would fall.
There are several things that you can do to make this type of rappelling safer. You can start by making sure that the rope you’ll both be rappelling down is tied in knots at both ends.
If you skip this step and one of you does fall, they can fall right out the other end of the rope, then there’s nothing to keep the rope from sliding all the way through the anchor up at the top, with you hurtling towards the ground.
Another reason this technique is so dangerous is that it requires both rappellers to be totally in sync; something that is surprisingly difficult.
A good way to make sure that you’re both on the same page is to attach yourselves together. You can attach a length of rope or whatever you have available between your harness and your rappelling partner’s harness.
There should only be a few feet between the two of you, meaning that the both of you would be rappelling steadily down side by side.
You should be sure to be constantly communicating with your rappelling partner. Telling them if you need to stop or speed up, and you should both go down the incline at the same rate.
If you’re tied together in some way, you’ll find that one of you going faster than the other will be more of an annoyance than anything else, so stay communicative and stay safe.
Again, as was mentioned above, this technique is dangerous and should only be used in emergencies or when there is no other option.
Perhaps you have the ropes but not the things to make a sturdy anchor, or perhaps you don’t have the time to both rappel down individually.
Whatever the case, be happy that you’re both conscious and can rappel safely. For instances when one climber is unconscious or seriously incapacitated, read the next section on Counterbalance Abseiling.
Counterbalance abseiling is very similar to simultaneous rappelling as described above.
However, this type of abseiling is usually used in situations where one climber or rappeler is incapacitated and cannot control their own descent.
In this technique, there is only one rappeler doing all of the work, while the other person is being steadily lowered to safety.
The set up is very similar to that of the simul-rappel described above, with one rope being passed through an anchor at the top connecting the two rappellers.
The incapacitated person will be tied directly to one end of the line, while the other person will have the belay device and control both of their descents.
You’ll want to make sure that the incapacitated person is safe on their way down. If they aren’t unconscious but just injured in some way, you can give them the responsibility of guiding their own descent.
If they are unconscious, you can do your best to look ahead and guide them toward a clear path. Making sure that they won’t be banging their head into things, or getting their leg caught in something.
The rappeler with the belay device, will steadily lower themselves by letting the rope pass through their belay device, and use the other person as a counter weight.
As they go down the rope, the rappeler in charge needs to be very careful that the incapacitated person is descending at the same rate as they are.
A good way to solve this problem is to tie both people together using a length of rope or belay extension.
Unless something unexpected happens, this method should be able to get both people down to safety, and it has the added benefit that when all is said and done, they can pull the rope down and bring it with them.
The fireman’s belay is a useful safety technique to know.
It’s very simple and requires someone standing on the ground below the rappeler. In the fireman’s belay, someone on the ground, holds the descending rope by the end.
They watch carefully the rappeler for any sign that they might have lost control.
The moment that the person performing the fireman’s belay sees that the rappeler has lost control, they pull down on the rope.
This essentially does the same thing that the rappeler would do with their brake hand, except it’s being done at the bottom of the rope and not right up close to the belay device.
The fireman’s belay is a helpful technique to use if the rappeler is new to rappelling or is nervous at all about their own skills.
Otherwise using this technique is a good idea in general as it adds an extra layer of safety to your rappelling experience.
Moving away from safety, we have Australian Rappelling.
This Australian technique of rappelling turns the rappeler to face toward the ground with one hand on the brake and the other hand left free.
It’s because of this that the military have adopted this technique to be used as an assault method; them facing down allowing them to hold a gun in one hand and fire upon the enemy, while safely controlling their descent with the other.
The technique can be used to slowly walk down the side of a cliff or wall, but it can also be used to catch yourself after a free fall.
This free falling technique was dubbed Rap Jumping by Macka MacKail an Australian Army officer in the late 1980s, and is now used by dare devils and adrenaline junkies all over the world.
Rappelling on its own is dangerous. And any time you increase the difficulty of the rappel, or add different things to pay attention to it becomes even more dangerous.
With the belay device sitting behind you out of sight, there are more things that can go wrong on your way down.
It’s because of this that many climbers and rappellers shake their head when someone tries to do the Australian rappel, otherwise known as the Geneva Abseil.
If you’re absolutely convinced to use this technique, it’s recommended that you have an experienced climber perform a fireman’s belay for you as a backup.
The easiest and most obvious way to do the Aussie rappel is to strap in to your harness as if you were going to do a normal rappel, and turn around.
Reaching around with your dominant hand to hold the brake rope and letting yourself down.
This comes with its own considerations, like you’ll want to keep your belay device further away from your body so that your clothes or hair don’t get caught in it.
The most popular way of performing the Aussie rappel, is to put your harness on backwards. This can make tying in very easy because all the strong points are behind you now.
However, this means that if there are any sudden jerks or stops the harness will want to bend your back into a very uncomfortable position.
A common and not recommended solution to this back bending problem is to wear the harness the right way around and simply clip a carabiner through one of the loops on the back of the harness.
This is not recommended because unless you have a specially designed harness with reinforced loops on the back, the straps on the back of the harness aren’t intended to resist the forces of a falling person.
Tying in to the back of your harness could easily fail sending you hurtling toward the ground.
There are of course specialized harnesses that have reinforced tie in points in the front and back, however these types of harnesses are expensive and usually only worn by military professionals.
Rappelling Without a Harness
There have been a couple techniques covered in this article that are meant to be used in emergencies, such as the Counterbalance Abseil.
But those techniques require that you have all of your climbing gear with you. What if all you have is your climbing rope, can you still get down safely?
There are techniques that you can use to rappel using only a rope, but they are not safe by any means, and should only be used in extreme situations.
Any no-harness technique will begin by wrapping your rope at the halfway point around your anchor and using both ropes together to descend.
South African Abseil
Invented by South African mountaineering instructor Andrew Friedemann in 2000, the South African Abseil offered an alternative to the already popular Dulfersitz technique, (not covered in this article) which while extremely versatile is also extremely dangerous.
The South African Abseil allows people to control their descent much more carefully than the Dulfersitz, which is why it’s regarded as the safer of the two.
After 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.
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