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.
Meaning of 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.