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 below the cliff. Rappelling is, on the surface, a relatively simple climbing skill but in that simplicity lie its dangers.
Rappelling Requires Lots of Climbing Skills
Rappelling is not just the process of making a controlled slid down the climbing rope, but it also incorporates a lot of other essential climbing skills including creating rappel anchors, tying ropes together with strong knots, rope management, rigging the rappel device, using safety back-up systems, and retrieving or pulling the rope down. 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.
Practice Rappel Skills on Small Cliffs
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.
6 Essential Rappelling Skills to Know
Here are the 6 basic climbing skills you need to learn and know to safely rappel:
At least two bomber anchors are needed to rappel off a cliff, although three anchors 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 steel descending rings—rather than nylon slings, which can melt, break, and fail if they are in direct contact with rope.
When rappelling, you use either one or two climbing ropes, which are threaded through the metal anchor material. 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.
Knots for Rappel Ropes
Tie your two climbing ropes together with one of these four rappel rope knots--double figure-8 fisherman's knot, square fisherman's knot, double overhand knot, and double fisherman's knot. Tie stopper knots in the ends of each rappel rope strand so you don’t rappel off the end. Also use an autoblock knot as a safety back-up (read How to Tie and Use an Autoblock Knot).
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 (read How to Rig a Carabiner Brake).
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 (read How to Tie a Prusik Knot and How to Tie and Use an Autoblock Knot).
Pulling Rappel 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 in a crack, the rope catching in cracks or behind flakes, or too much friction to easily pull the rope down. 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.