Learn How to Rappel

Rappelling is an Essential Climbing Skill

Climbers rappel in tandem off Wilson Arch near Moab, Utah. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

Rappelling is a specialized climbing technique that is used to descend from mountains and cliffs by making a controlled slide down a fixed rope. The climbing rope is anchored to a cliff with artificial anchors like cams, pitons, and bolts or natural anchors like trees and boulders. Usually, the rope is either doubled with the midpoint at the anchors or tied to another climbing rope. The climber then uses a rappel device which utilizes the friction of the rope through the device to control his descent as he literally slides down the fixed rope to a ledge or the cliff-base.

What is a Rappel?

After the climber slides to the bottom of the rope, he then retrieves the rope by pulling it through the anchor. The French word rappel, meaning “to recall,” comes from this retrieval. In Europe, the technique is usually called abseiling, which comes from the German word abseilen, meaning “to rope down.” In England, this is usually shortened to “ab,” as in “We’re going to ab off now.” In the United States, climbers shorten the words rappel and rappelling to “rap” and “rapping;” for example, “How long is the rap?”

Rappelling is Skill-Based

Rappelling, while one of the most dangerous techniques used in climbing and the cause of many climbing accidents, is skill-based. Most rappelling accidents occur as a result of climber error rather than as an act of God. If you learn all the essential skills of rappelling, then you’ll be safe on all your rappels. You mess up, though—Splat! you’re dead meat.

Choose the Best Rappel Device

While there are several techniques to rappel, including the old-style Dulfersitz rappel or a carabiner brake rappel with six carabiners, the best way to rappel is by using a specialized rappel device, which doubles as a belay device. The rappel device you choose is important since not all devices work the same and some are better than others. Rappel devices like the Black Diamond ATC or a Petzl Reverso are great choices since they are strong and easy to use. Some climbers will use a figure-8 descender since they are easy to use and offer a smooth ride down the ropes, but it is another piece of gear to carry, can kink your rap ropes, and the ropes run fast through the device. Best to buy and use a device that works for both rappelling and belaying. The Petzl GriGri, a self-braking device, works great for single-rope rappelling but is complicated with two ropes.Read 3 Common Belay and Rappel Devices for more information.

Essential Equipment for Rappelling

What other climbing equipment, besides a rappel device, do you need for rappelling? Other essential gear is either one or two climbing ropes, depending on how long the rappels are; material like webbing, slings, bolts and hand drill, pitons, cams, and nuts to create a safe and equalized rappel anchor; an auto-locking carabiner to attach the rappel device to your harness; a comfortable climbing harness since you will be sitting in it during the rappel; a sling and carabiner to tie an autoblock knot on the rappel ropes; a pair of gloves to avoid burning your hands if you zip down the rope too fast; and a personal anchor system (PAS) from Metolius or Bluewater Ropes to clip into anchors both before and after rappelling. Read Essential Rappelling Equipment for more information on your rap gear.

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