Rappelling is an activity that allows for brand new perspectives.
It’s not as physically demanding as other closely related sports such as rock climbing or spelunking.
So you can easily stop your descent half way through and enjoy a view of your surroundings that would have otherwise been impossible to see without all the rigging and the ropes.
What is waterfall rappelling?
Waterfall rappelling gives you the wonderful opportunity to see the lush landscapes that typically surround a waterfall. Alternatively you could lower yourself into the powerful torrent that is the waterfall itself and let the water run over you. There are a few services that offer waterfall rappelling tours, they set up all the rigging and guide you up to the top, they let you know what to do and how to do it and they send you over the edge for whatever level experience you want.
Maybe you’re looking to do some research before you go on your waterfall rappelling tour, or perhaps you are considering bringing all your rigging gear out to the local waterfall and trying to see it from a new perspective.
In this article we’ll go over the main things to consider before stepping off the edge into the water.
What to wear for waterfall rappelling
You’re going to get wet.
That’s the plain truth of it. So you don’t want to wear anything that you don’t want to get wet.
Some extreme waterfall rappellers swinging into and out of an alpine waterfall might wear dry suits to maintain their body temperature, but that has more to do with the environment the waterfall is in, than their not wanting to get wet.
Part of the experience of rappelling inside of, or at least next to a waterfall, is the getting soaked. The resigning to the sheer power of flowing water.
That being said, you’ll want to wear some quick drying clothing if you have it, and some pants that come down to the knee; the harnesses will chafe your bare legs otherwise.
Some good sturdy trekking shoes will be useful, especially when on your way up the waterfall.
If you have any shoes that will drain nicely, they would be good to use in this situation, but in waterfall rappelling, flip flops will not do.
Needless to say you’ll want to put your phone or camera in some waterproof container, and leave any jewelry at home or the hotel.
Anything that can be blown off of you by the force of a waterfall crashing down on you, and that is most things, should be safely tucked away before stepping out over the edge.
3 Tips to stay safe in waterfall rappelling
If you’re venturing out on a guided waterfall rappelling tour, your guides will give you all the necessary information to stay safe and have a great time.
If, however, you’re planning on taking matters into your own hands and venturing out into the wilderness with your sights set on a waterfall..
If you just want to be prepared in the even that you find yourself at the top of a waterfall with all your rappelling gear, and no other way down apart from down; then there are a few things to consider.
Use the right ropes
Climbing ropes stretch slightly more when wet than when they’re nice and dry.
This is usually not something to be terribly worried about if you’re just rappelling.
If you were planning on lead climbing the waterfall and using the rope to catch you when you inevitably slip or are pushed off the edge by the water’s force, that’s when you should be worried.
A climbing rope’s stretch is most useful when decelerating a climber’s fall, and when the stretch of a rope is weakened by being soaked, there is a greater chance that you’ll pull the rope to its maximum.
When rappelling, as I said, this is less of a danger since the weight you’re putting on the rope is a static weight.
But this doesn’t mean that spending long periods of time soaked in water is perfectly healthy for the ropes.
Ropes often have to be replaced as their stretch is lessened to keep climbers and rappellers safe.
Dry treated ropes are designed for use in wet weather conditions. The inner nylon fibers are treated as to not absorb any water that gets inside the rope.
This isn’t a perfect fix, as even dry treated ropes lose some of their strength when in wet situations.
We explored briefly above what to wear on your waterfall rappelling adventure, but that only covered the general idea that you are going to get wet, so don’t wear anything you need to get dry cleaned.
But waterfall rappelling is a widely varied creature, and can be done in the tropical rainforest as well as just recently thawed rivers high up an alpine ridge.
Unless you find yourself in some emergency waterfall rappelling situation, you’re likely to have known ahead of time what the weather is going to be like and what clothes you’ll want to bring.
In addition to the clothes you’ll be wearing as you slide down the rope, you might also want to bring a dry set of clothes with you.
Secure them in a waterproof bag and carry them with you, or have them readily available in case you need them.
Don’t let go
This seems like obvious advice but such simple ideas as “Don’t let go” are easily forgotten when you have the weight of a full waterfall crashing down over your head.
The ropes and the rigging are designed to hold your weight and much more with the slightest pressure held on the rope from the right point.
Failure to follow this simple rule can mean you plummet with the falling water, instead of feeling it crash against you.
The most common rappelling accidents come from accidentally letting go for some reason completely out of your control.
Maybe a rock fell on you and knocked the rope from your fingers, maybe you got scared something would hit you and you flinched and brought your hand up to protect yourself.
In any case, this could mean disaster for you and unsuspecting person beneath you.
The Don’ts: What should you avoid doing when rappelling on waterfalls?
We’ve covered some important things to bring with you, like a waterproof sack for a change of clothes and so on, but what are some things that you should avoid doing when rappelling down a waterfall?
First and foremost, don’t panic
Accidents happen when you lose sight of what you’re doing, freak out and maybe even let go of the rope.
If you’re at all in danger of doing this, you or your guide should tie a friction hitch to your line so that if you let go or your hand is knocked loose you’ll be caught by a little bit of paracord.
It’s strange how so much can rest on so little.
Don’t resist the harness
A common problem with new rappellers is they don’t like the idea of leaning into the harness.
When you’re walking down the side of a cliff, as opposed to free rappelling when there’s nothing around you to put your feet on and you’re just dangling from the line, you need to keep your feet on the side of the cliff.
When you’re moving down a steep incline, it’s a much more comfortable descent when you’re walking down the wall, rather than sliding down.
Because of this, it’s best practice to actually lean back into the harness and trust the ropes and rigging to hold your weight.
If you resist letting the harness hold your weight, you might be standing at an awkward angle and you foot might slip.
This wouldn’t mean death, but it could mean that you slam into the wall you’re descending and then getting back to your feet is an ordeal.
Don’t jump off
If you’re an experienced rappeler or maybe you’re just more adventurous than you are smart, you might be tempted to do something out of Missions Impossible and leap off the edge of the waterfall and catch yourself with your ropes.
This is a bad idea on several fronts.
Firstly as we discussed earlier, the ropes are weakened ever so slightly when they’re wet.
They can hold a person’s static weight just fine, but you weigh a lot more when you’re falling than when you’re just sitting there.
Jumping off the edge and catching yourself with a harness can work just fine, but it puts a lot of strain on the ropes.
Secondly, unless you’re jumping off of the cliff into open air, you’ll probably need to catch yourself on the oncoming cliff face.
Your few seconds of glory soaring through the air with the waterfall crashing underneath you will end abruptly as you smash, with a lot of momentum now, into the side of the cliff like Wile E Coyote.
Don’t rely on the guides
This sounds like I’m encouraging you not to trust the guides, and that is not what I’m saying. The guides are there to help you have a great time and stay safe doing it.
What is meant by “Don’t rely on the guides,” is you should understand how the system works for yourself so that if, heaven forbid, anything does go wrong, you will understand the ins and outs of a rappelling system and be able to adjust accordingly.
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