You’ve climbed to the top of a cliff and now you have to get back down. Sometimes you can walk off the back side, which is usually the safest way to descend. But sometimes you have to rappel because it’s easier, safer, and faster to get back to flat earth. Rappelling is, on the surface, a relatively simple climbing skill but in that simplicity lie its dangers.
Rappelling is not just the process of sliding down the rope, but also incorporates a lot of other climbing skills including creating anchors, tying knots, rope management, rigging the rappel device, using safety back-up systems, and retrieving the rope. If you use good judgment, pay attention to all the details, and always double-check your rappel systems then you’ll stay safe and alive.
Safe rappelling is totally dependent on your equipment and your skills. If you’re a novice climber then it can be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when you rappel. It’s best if you learn and practice all the rappel skills, preferably on a small cliff, before you try to rappel off a big cliff, in a lightning storm, or off a mountain.
Here are the 6 basic climbing skills you need to learn and know to safely rappel:
At least two bomber anchors are needed, although three are preferable. Anchors can be bolts, cams, nuts, pitons, trees, or tied-off boulders. Rappel ropes are always threaded through metal—carabiners, quick links, and descending rings—rather than nylon, which can melt, break, and fail if it’s in contact with rope.
When rappelling, you use either one or two climbing ropes, which are threaded through the anchors. It’s preferable to use a doubled single rope so you don’t have to worry about knot failure or the rope getting jammed in the anchors when you pull it.
Tie your two ropes together with one of these four rappel rope knots. Tie stopper knots in the ends of each rappel rope so you don’t rappel off the end. Also use an autoblock knot as a safety back-up.
- Rappel Device
It’s best to thread the rappel ropes through a rappel device, like an ATC or figure-8 descender. In a pinch you can use the old-style Dulfersitz, a Munter hitch, or a carabiner brake rig.
- Autoblock Knot
Use an autoblock knot or a Prusik knot as a safety back-up on the rappel ropes to let you stay in control, especially on long steep rappels.
- Pulling Ropes
Pulling rappel ropes is not as easy as it sounds. Lots of problems can occur when you pull your ropes, including getting the knot jammed, the rope catching in cracks or behind flakes, or too much friction. If any of these problems occur you’re going to have a whole new set of problems retrieving your ropes and they’re not going to be fun.