Rappelling is incredibly useful if you’re into any form of climbing or mountaineering.
If you find yourself at the top of some great height, the lip of a canyon or maybe even the edge of a building, you can use the rappelling techniques described in this article to get down safely.
Often used by the military to get into dangerous areas, or by rescue workers to save a stranded hiker in the middle of the wilderness.
Climbers and Cavers rappel down rock faces that are too dangerous to descend without extra protection.
These techniques that were originally intended to assist canyoners to make it to difficult to reach areas has now been adopted by rope access technicians, to clean the windows on short and tall skyscrapers.
The most popular technique is fairly simple, requiring only a few key points. But as you hang from the rope, your life is literally on the line.
Recreational and professional rappellers take this very seriously, as they should.
If there is the smallest bit of damage found that bit of gear is replaced with a brand new item.
There are many different techniques of rappelling, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. Some offer the climber an opportunity to rappel without a harness or any other gear apart from the requisite rope.
It’s important to note that no matter what technique you use, rappelling can be very dangerous and should not be undertaken lightly.
Understanding the ins and outs and the dos and don’ts of rappelling can be useful if you’re a prepper waiting for the apocalypse, or if you’re a climber who wants to know the proper technique to belay yourself or others.
In this article we’ll cover the basic rappelling technique as well as the things to pay attention to on your first rappelling adventure.
What Is rappelling?
The word rappel, comes from the french word rapeler, meaning to pull through.
This refers to the process the rope goes through as you descend it.
The rope is fed through what’s called a belay device, essentially a specialized metal ring with a divider down the middle to guide the rope into and out of itself.
We’ll go deeper into detail on the gear in the Rappelling Gear section below.
Different than strict belaying, a rappeller often is supporting only themselves.
There are cases when the rappeler balances his or her own weight with another rappeler, but those techniques are to be used only in emergency situations.
Rappelling is loosely defined as descending some treacherous height with the use of a static rope.
The rope is secured in some way at the top, either by fastening it to a climbing anchor or wrapping it around a tree, or counterbalancing yourself with another climber.
Using a belay device you then control your descent by either shifting the rope through the system, or letting the rope slide through your fingers.
There are techniques that allow you to slow your descent without the use of special equipment, but for the initial description we’ll be focusing on the basic technique and start to get creative later on in the article.
Any rappelling technique worth its salt will begin with fastening the rope to something at the top of whatever you wish to descend.
This is called your anchor, whether it’s a metal climbing anchor firmly cemented into the edge of a cliff, or a big boulder that you wrap the rope around.
When the rope is secured at your anchor, you begin securing yourself to the line. First thing’s first though, you have to make sure a few things before you slide down the rope.
You’ll want to make sure that your rope actually reaches the bottom of the cliff.
It would be a shame to make it half way down and realize that there’s no more rope, meaning that you either have to climb back up the rope, a very difficult task if you’re not the Hulk.
Or if climbing up is not an option, you’ll have to cut the rope and jump down that ridiculous height. (I suppose if you are the Hulk, that wouldn’t be that bad.)
As was briefly mentioned above, in order to secure yourself to the line you pass the rope through a belay device and secure that belay device to the proper climbing harness you should already be wearing.
After setting up any safety measures, like a friction hitch, belay extension or fireman’s belay (covered later in this article) you’re all set to lean back into your harness and let the line carry your weight.
You lower yourself down by either guiding the rope through the belay device in small increments as you would if you were belaying a climber and need to keep tension in the system at all times; or you can let the rope slide through your heavily gloved hand and steadily glide safely down.
It’s advised for beginner rappellers that you start small. That means that begin by rappelling down a small hill at a relatively shallow incline.
Trusting the system to hold your weight, and by extension your life, can be a scary process. Slowly increase the incline of the hill you rappel down, until you’re comfortable standing/sitting on the edge of a sheer cliff.
The most dangerous part about rappelling, if all of the rigging is done correctly, is the fear. Fear can make us do some stupid things, like let go of the rope.
If fear doesn’t ruin your rappelling trip by making you slip up in some unfixable way, it will ruin your rappelling trip by having you paralyzed with fear when you could be looking around at the beautiful landscapes only afforded to those who are willing to hang on a rope off the side of a cliff.
Is Abseiling Dangerous?
Another word for rappelling is abseiling.
These two terms are used interchangeably throughout the world with some countries like the United States of America preferring “rappelling” while other countries like The United Kingdom prefer “abseiling.” Both terms are understood almost everywhere.
Abseiling is not dangerous if everything is done correctly.
That being said, it can be very difficult to do absolutely everything correctly on every run. Certainly not impossible, but difficult.
When abseiling you’re attempting to fasten yourself to something as permanent as possible in the area you’re anchoring from.
The issue with this is very little in this world is permanent.
Most fatal mistakes are made at this point by choosing a natural anchor that isn’t strong enough, or failing to tie the correct knots, the rope comes loose with the rappeler dangling from it and falls to their death or serious injury.
That isn’t to paint rappelling as impossibly dangerous, with no way to stay safe.
Like I said, if you know what you’re doing and understand the intricacies of rappelling.
if you know how to tie the essential knots that aren’t going to come undone in the middle of your descent, and you prepare with the proper gear and are aware of the area and climbers around you, you can rappel for years without injury.
Types of rappelling
Typical rappelling and abseiling are inherently dangerous but they are the safest techniques that have been developed.
There are other rappelling techniques out there that are significantly more dangerous, but offer certain benefits that make them useful in different situations.
We’ll cover a few of these different types of rappelling in this section of this article.
There are many different methods of rappelling that will not be covered in this article. These primarily are small but important variations on the classic rappelling technique which will be covered in greater detail below.
Things like changing your solid anchor to a simple wrap around something solid and balancing your weight with another rappeler, and so on.
Detailed descriptions of these various rappelling techniques can be easily found elsewhere on the internet.
The Aussies have a reputation for doing things in the most extreme way.
This may be because there are so many animals in their country that are trying to kill them, or maybe it’s because the majority of their country is arid desert.
That isn’t to say that all Aussies are crazy, but if they don’t like that stereotype, this rappelling technique will not help their cause.
An Australian rappel consists of all the same elements of a regular rappel, but the main difference is that the rappeler is facing downward.
This gives the rappeler a better sense of how far it is to the ground, since they’re staring right at it as it rushes toward their face.
This means they can descend much faster than anyone would think acceptable doing a normal rappel. (Many people would consider the speeds they descend with the Australian rappel unreasonable too.)
This technique was adopted by the Australian army, since you can control your descent with one hand and aim and fire your gun with the other.
It is also used across the world to stimulate adrenaline junkies by sending them over the edge of a skyscraper face first.
This technique is significantly more dangerous than the regular rappel, principally because of the methods one uses to turn and face the ground.
The simplest and most cumbersome technique is to wear your harness like normal with the belay device in front of you, and turn around.
This can be difficult since your weight will always be wanting to turn you back around and while fighting this urge to right yourself, you may make a mistake and your hand could slip.
Another technique is to put your harness on backwards. This is generally not recommended because a climbing harness is designed to hold your weight in a seated position.
So if you put the harness on backwards and there is a sudden stop, the harness will want to bend you in the opposite direction that people normally bend.
You can of course resist this bending, but that might turn you upside down, at which point you risk slipping completely out of the harness and nobody wants that.
The last technique to do the Australian rappel is to employ the use of a specialized harness with reinforced tie in points on the back as well as the front.
This is the safest method to perform the Australian rappel but it comes with a price tag. These harness are very expensive and are typically only used by military professionals and adventure experience companies.
Rappelling without a harness
Some adventurers like to go out into the wilderness with as little as possible.
But no matter how little they bring with them, they usually bring a length of rope, because it is not only very useful to tie things together, but there are techniques one can use to rappel down the side of steep hills and cliffs with only a rope.
Needless to say, the techniques that will be covered in this article should only be used in emergencies and are not intended to replace rappelling.
It is my hope that by understanding how one might rappel without any of the fancy gear, you can better understand how rappelling works with the fancy gear.
It’s important to note that any rappelling technique intended to be performed without a proper anchor will require you to wrap your rope around an anchor at the halfway point and use both ends of the rope to descend.
In other words, if you’re going to be using a sturdy tree to make your way down a cliff, begin by finding the middle point of the rope and wrapping both ends around the tree and tossing them down to the ground.
They should comfortably touch the ground.
This technique was developed pre-World War I by a man named Hans Dulfer, a mountaineer and explorer.
It was incredibly useful for climbers who found themselves in an emergency and needed to get down a mountain, but didn’t have the time to properly set up the rappelling systems.
Begin 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.
- Wrap the rope around your body 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 the rest of these instructions to your opposite side.
- With the lines passing under the right side of your groin around your right leg, lead them up across your body toward 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.
While the regular rappelling technique has some leeway for where you can place your hands, and in many instances you can let go of the rope to readjust; with the Dülfersitz you absolutely cannot let go.
Failure to hold on would mean that your body would be tumbled before you were completely out of the rope on your way to the ground.
The South African Rappel
This method is fairly newer than the Dülfersitz above.
It was invented by a man named Andrew Friedemann in 2000.
It offers a much safer technique for descending the side of a cliff without the rappelling gear. It’s important to mention again that this technique is intended for use only in emergencies.
Just like the Dülfersitz, you’ll begin by wrapping your rope at the halfway point around some kind of anchor.
- 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.
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.
When rappelling you’ll probably be carrying a lot with you.
This is why rappelling is very often a team activity to do with lots of friends; it’s easier to carry all the stuff if you have lots of people to carry it.
In this section we’ll cover some of the essential gear to bring with you when you go rappelling.
The belay device is arguably the most important item to have when rappelling.
The belay device is a metal device through which you feed your climbing rope.
There are a few different designs of belay device on the market, but the general principle works the same no matter if your belay device is a classic ATC or an auto belay device.
You begin by bending the rope at the point you’d like to attach to. Feed that bend in through one of the openings in the belay device.
When there’s a visible loop protruding through the other end of the belay device, clip your carabiner through this loop.
Most belay devices have also a steel wire as a back up, should anything go wrong the steel wire will catch you, you should be sure to clip your carabiner through this steel wire as well.
When the rope is fed through the system correctly, you should be able to hold much more than the average person’s body weight with simply the grip of one hand.
This leaves your other hand to steady yourself or do whatever you please.
Climbing rope is different than other types of rope you might be able to buy at Home Depot.
The rope comes in Dynamic and Static varieties.
The dynamic rope stretches a certain percentage of the total length. This means that the impact of falling onto the rope as a climber is lessened.
You should not use anything other than climbing rope for rappelling. Climbing rope is designed to handle the friction and stresses that climbing and rappelling put on it.
A different type of rope wouldn’t be able to bend through a belay device without fraying, and it certainly wouldn’t be as comfortable if you fell onto the line.
While you can rappel without a harness, it is much more dangerous and you’ll be infinitely more comfortable with one than without one.
There are many different climbing harnesses to choose from on the market.
You should choose one that fits comfortably, is completely undamaged if it is used, and one that has the amount of gear loops you’ll need when you’re climbing.
This last factor will vary depending on what kind of climbing you’ll be doing. Usually, for a typical rappelling trip, it is handy to have a gear loop or two, but not totally necessary.
Helmets are of course a necessary addition to your gear when you’re going rappelling.
Not only is there a danger of running your head into the wall if your feet slip out from under you, but the main danger is the risk of falling objects hitting you in the head.
In that case, not only are you severely concussed but you run the risk of accidentally letting go of your rope, which could lead to a dangerous fall.
There are specific climbing helmets on the market with reinforced tops and shock absorbing material on the sides.
These helmets are specifically designed to withstand an impact from a sharp or heavy object from above, i.e. a rock fall or a dropped bit of gear.
A necessary addition to your gear is good quality carabiners.
You cannot use the cheap carabiners you’d find at the hardware store.
Proper climbing carabiners have been strength tested to hold well over the weight of a human being.
There are many different styles of carabiner, and while some of the decisions to be made are to do with style, you’ll probably want to choose a locking carabiner.
A locking carabiner comes with a cylinder that screws over the opening. When you clip into whatever you’re clipping into, you close this cylinder around the opening, and you’re out of danger of this carabiner coming undone.
Any time you’re about to go rappelling you should thoroughly inspect all your gear for the slightest defect.
A bit of climbing rope that is sun damaged or frayed can be extremely dangerous.
Check your gear every time
Carabiners can have hairline fractures that can drastically weaken their strength, and you do not want them breaking when your life is on the line.
Any piece of gear that is damaged in any way should be retired immediately. It’s common practice when a piece of climbing or rappelling gear is retired that it be destroyed.
Lest another climber or rappeler use it unsuspectingly and get hurt because of it.
A common safety technique for beginner rappellers or for people trying out a new technique, or for anyone wishing to have a bit of extra safety as they climb down a steep incline is the fireman’s belay.
It’s generally a good idea to have someone more experienced than you doing your fireman’s belay, but the technique is not complicated.
The fireman’s belay is your safety net and it is performed by a person on the ground. They hold onto your descending rope at the bottom. If you begin to fall or lose your footing, they can tug down on the rope, stopping your descent.
If you’ve ever belayed for a rock climber, the technique is the exact same apart from the location of the belay device.
When belaying the rock climber, the device on down on the ground; when performing a fireman’s belay for a rappeller, the belay device is up there with the rappeler.
Step by step guide to safe rappel
When you’re leaning back into the harness, or hanging from the rope there will be three areas where you need to pay attention.
- You need to keep your right hand on the end of the rope that leads down to the ground. (You can of course mirror these instructions if your dominant hand is your left.)
- You need to keep your left hand on the line leading up to your anchor, using this hand to steady yourself on the line.
- Lastly you’ll need to keep an eye on your belay device. You don’t need to watch it all the time, just be aware of where it is and that you don’t get anything too close to it or caught in it. The last thing you want when you’re dangling from the rope is to get your hand pinched in the belay device.
Unlike belaying a climber, when the there is a somewhat complicated technique, when you’re rappelling the technique is pretty simple.
You need to keep your hands on the lines as you descend and let the ropes slowly slip through your fingers.
Sometimes rappellers use thick gloves to protect their hands from rope burn. This helps them keep good traction in any situation since the rope they’re letting pass through their fingers can burn them if they’re not careful.
If slipping and sliding isn’t their bag yet, you can change the set up very slightly to put the belay device further away from the rappeler, only an extra couple feet using a belay extender.
This gives you plenty of room for a slower but far more comfort giving descent.
For descending with this technique, you’ll hold the rope that leads down to the ground with both hands instead of just one.
This means that you can let yourself down in smaller increments and get the feel for this kind of descent. In this example I’ll describe the left hand being on top, but it depends on which side of your body the ropes hang off.
Your left hand should never get closer than maybe six inches to the belay device, again you don’t want to get any part of yourself caught in that thing when there’s weight in the system; and you right hand will begin about six inches behind your left.
- When you’re ready to go down, you begin by sliding your bottom hand down the rope and holding it tightly down by your hip.
- Next, slide your left hand down to about six inches from your right.
- The last part is the simplest. Slowly release the tension on the rope and your weight should feed the slack through the belay device.
Simply repeat this technique for a slow and controlled ride down.
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