There is more to climbing than just going up. Once you reach the top of the cliff you’ve scaled, you will need to get back down. Rappelling, also known as abseiling, is a technique used to descend ropes. While walking down or lowering off can be much safer, knowing how to rappel is an essential skill in every climber’s arsenal.
Rappelling is sometimes the only way to get off a route. Unfortunately, rappelling is also one of the most dangerous activities a climber can undertake. A vast majority of climbing injuries and deaths occur due to human error while rappelling. Here at The Adventure Junkies, we encourage you to use this rappelling guide simply as a starting point in your quest for learning.
Rock climbing and rappelling are dangerous. We recommend tackling these activities with the help of experts from a professional guiding company or an experienced mentor.
In this intro to rappelling guide, we assume that you are learning how to do a single pitch rappel with one rope. Further considerations are required for multi-pitch rappelling or rappelling with two ropes.
The ideas covered here are also offered under the assumption that you either have knowledge of how to build anchors or are rappelling off bolts in a fixed anchor.
WHAT IS RAPPELLING?
Rappelling is a technique used to descend a rope. Unlike the simpler act of being lowered by a belayer on the ground while tied into one end of the rope, a person on rappel can control his/her own descent.
Before you can partner up with a friend and head out for a day of climbing, you need to know how to belay. Rappelling is yet another essential skill to learn early on in your climbing career.
WHEN WILL I NEED TO RAPPEL?
The most common situation in which you will need to rappel is descending off a route when there is no other way down. When you’re out for a day of cragging, it is usually quicker and easier to clean your anchor and lower off the route. Sometimes, however, an anchor is equipped with only rap hangers or rap rings, which then forces you to rappel.
Some routes cannot be accessed from the base, and instead, require an approach from the top. Rappelling to the start of the route may be necessary for these situations. If you are accessing a route from above, it is VERY important that you know exactly where the route climbs. Never rappel blindly.
Knowing how to rappel also serves as a safety measure. If you are climbing a multi-pitch and need to bail off the route, rappelling is often your only way out.
HOW DO I SET UP A RAPPEL?
You need a belay tool that doubles as a rappel device, a Personal Anchor System (PAS) and a backup to safely set up your rappel once you reach your anchor. The best device to use when you are learning to rappel is a tubular belay device such as an ATC.
The first thing you need to do before setting up your rappel is to inspect your anchor and secure yourself with your PAS. Many climbing routes have only rap rings on bolts – two fixed points through which you can thread your rope to rappel. If you’re climbing in an older area, you may come across rap hangers (fat, rounded hangers that are larger than sport climbing hangers) at the top of the climb.
If you are satisfied with the condition of the anchor, use two locking carabiners to connect your PAS into each point. Carefully weight your PAS, then call “SECURE” to your belayer to inform him/her that you are attached to the anchor and prepared to set up your rappel.
Next, you can request that your belayer takes you “OFF BELAY.” Do not say “OFF BELAY” until you are absolutely certain that you are safely secured to the anchor. At this point, you can clean any gear off the anchor except for your PAS.
PREPARING THE ROPE
Once you have secured yourself into both anchor points with your PAS, pull up a loop of rope and attach it with a clove hitch or overhand knot to a carabiner on your harness. This quick step will prevent you from losing the rope if you accidentally drop it.
Untie your rope from your harness and thread it through the anchor. Tie a clove hitch or overhand knot in the threaded end and attach it to another carabiner on your harness. Now untie the first overhand knot you tied and pull the rope through the anchor until you reach the halfway mark. Carefully coil the rope as you pull it through.
Tie a stopper knot into each end of the rope. It only takes a few seconds and knots in the ends to prevent you from accidentally rappelling off the end of your rope. Toss the coiled half closest to the anchor followed by both ends of your rope while shouting “ROPE.”
Be sure to toss your ropes away from the cliff to reduce the chance of these getting tangled or caught up on various features. If possible, check with your belayer to see if both rope ends reached the ground.
SETTING UP YOUR BELAY DEVICE AND BACKUP
RAPPELLING FROM YOUR HARNESS
Once you are confident your rope has made it to the ground, make a bight in both rope strands and pass them through the parallel openings in your belay tube. Next, pass a locking carabiner through the two rope strands and the cable on your device. Attach the carabiner to the belay loop on your harness, ensuring it is locked.
EXTENDING YOUR BELAY DEVICE
Sometimes you may wish to extend your device away from your harness to rappel. There are several benefits to extending the belay device including easier use of the prusik. Extending your belay device can be more useful on multi-pitch rappels.
One great way to back up your rappel is with the use of a prusik knot. To tie a prusik, you will need a length of 6mm cordelette (also known as an accessory cord). A correctly tied prusik knot will slide down the ropes in hand but will auto-block if you let go of the brake hand for any reason.
Once you are confident that your entire system is set up correctly, take up the slack through your rappel device and slowly weight the rope. After weighting the rappel, remove your PAS from the anchor.
Sit back in your harness with at least one hand holding the rope in the brake position below your device. Feed the ropes through the device as you lower yourself back to the ground. Keep your body in an “L” position and walk your feet down the wall in front of you for maximum control.
It might be wise to ask your belayer for a “fireman’s backup” from the ground when you are first learning to rappel. To do so, the person on the ground will hold both ends of the rope loosely in their hands. If any issue arises, the belayer closes his/her hands on the rope to stop the movement of the person on rappel.
If someone is rappelling after you, shout “OFF RAPPEL” once you reach the ground and have removed your belay device from the rope.
TIPS FOR STAYING SAFE
Climbing accidents can leave climbers injured, but rappelling accidents are usually fatal. A lot can go wrong while rappelling, so it is important to take every measure possible to minimize the risk. One acronym that can help with your safety checks is B.R.A.K.E.S.
B – Buckles: Double check that all the buckles on your harness are double-backed.
R – Rappel Device and Ropes: Check that the rope is threaded through two anchor points. Make sure that BOTH rope strands are through your device and clipped into your carabiner. Your carabiner should also be locked to your belay loop.
A – Anchor: Make sure you have a safe anchor. Bolts? Make sure they are solid in the rock. Webbing? Make sure it is not torn, worn, chewed or weathered. Tree? Make sure it is alive and large enough. Boulder? Make sure there’s no way it could move.
K – Knots: Double check all knots in your system particularly if you’re using two ropes to rappel.
E – Ends: Tie knots into BOTH ends of your rope.
S – Safety and Sharps: Back up your device with an auto-block such as a prusik. Make sure the rope is running over a clean face, avoiding sharp edges.
At The Adventure Junkies, we want you to stay safe out there. Practice your rappelling with an expert. Keep your systems clean and simple. Use minimal communication. Always use a backup. Have fun!