Back to the Bottom: Rappelling Skills for Climbers

Key Points

  • Climbing skills take practice to master.

  • Rappelling down a mountain requires skill, special rope knots, and a specific anchor.

  • Rappelling down a climbing wall does not have rocky surfaces and includes more management of the rope as you're going down.

Climbing to the top of the highest mountain feels like you're on the edge of the world! However, the climbing skills needed to both reach the peak and safely descend aren't always in the fine print of the activity. Once the top is reached, the next step is to get back to the bottom. 

Climbing is an activity enjoyed by individuals across age groups and skill levels. The process is seemingly simple; however, there is a lot to learn. Using the climbing skills needed to ensure safety and enjoyment is the key, so get your pen and pencil ready to take notes on how to enhance your skills to take on your next adventure!

Rock climber rappels down rock face during sunrise

Descending: How To Rappel

Rappelling is the act of lowering oneself from a peak or ledge with the use of a rope. Extended setups, techniques, and equipment allow individuals to not only climb down but also climb back up. 

Gear Needed for Rappelling

Using the proper gear is a crucial part of having a safe and fun climbing experience; this includes gear you need both to ascend and descend. Check out the following list of gear specifically needed for rappelling:

  • Ropes: Understand the height of the location you will be rappelling down and ensure your rope length is adequate. An eight- to nine-mm rope is lightweight and easier for beginners than a thicker rope. Do not purchase anything less than a 7.7 in diameter.

  • Rappel device: A straight-through model is preferred as figure-of-eight devices can bend the rope during the descent. The straight-through model also doubles as a belay device. A figure-of-eight device – also known as a belay device – is a metal piece of equipment shaped like the number eight. The straight-through model has two slots that pull the rope straight through. It’s important to become familiar with these terms before taking on the activity. You can find these devices at athleisure stores like REI. 

  • Anchor materials: A personal anchor tether will be one of the most important tools as it keeps the anchor drilled to the top of the climb when rappelling down

  • Sling and locking carabiner: Slings help form a loop to take the static force of the descent.

  • Carabiners connect two pieces of equipment; they’re low cost and assist in securing your anchor, backing up a rappel, attaching gear to the harness, and more. 

  • Harness: Purchase an all-purpose harness that you feel securely fastened in. It’s important to be able to correctly size your harness, so this is a purchase you will likely want to make in person.

  • Lightweight clothing & supplies: Clothing protects your body, allows for movement, and reduces your environmental impact. Lightweight clothing prevents you from getting caught on rocks and other surfaces. Take care of what nature is providing for you to practice rappelling and climbing by taking the following apparel:

    • Helmet

    • Leather gloves

    • Shirts

    • Sweater and/or jacket

    • Pants or shorts

    • Shoes

Rappelling for Beginners

Once you have all your gear, you're ready to practice the art of rappelling! There are two simple ways to set up your ropes for climbing and rappelling. This is one of the most important tasks as it anchors your weight to the top of the climb. 

First, you need to connect your rappel rings by drilling them tightly into a secure rock using a personal anchor system. This is the anchor at the top of the cliff or ledge.

It's important to know the route you’re taking beforehand and use the same way you climbed up to descend. Become acquainted with the types of anchors in the area as taking an unknown route or descent leads to insecure, poor, or even nonexistent anchors. 

Next, the harness must be placed around your waist and legs tightly as this is what will hold the weight as you are descending or ascending the mountain, wall, and/or cliff. Make sure you are securely fastened from the other end of the rope to your rappel device through the belay loop and carabiner. The belay loop must auto-lock when fastening for optimal security. 

Finishing the rope on both sides with a triple barrel knot secures both ends with a tight finish. This prevents the rope from catching on other rocks or disturbances on the land when coming down or climbing back up. 

Once attached to the rappel device, grab the rope and throw it down the mountain. Make sure both ends of the rope touch the ground. Double check that the rope is centered, your carabiner and belay loop are locked, and both ends of the rope have a triple barrel knot. Unclip yourself from the anchor, begin releasing friction, and slowly rappel your body weight down. 

When you reach the bottom, there are three simple steps to take. First, disconnect the rappelling device from the rope. Second, disconnect your stopper knots. Third, carefully pull the rope down from the anchors. 

Rock climber rappelling gear

How To Rappel With An ATC

Once the beginner's stage is surpassed, it's time to bring it up a notch with extra tools and innovative devices to enhance your rappelling experience.

Most climbers carry an air traffic controller (ATC) with them; this is known as a common belay device. ATCs are used to control the tension of the rope when rappelling or climbing. Not only will they help control the speed of the climb or descent but they will also stop someone from falling. ATCs are used for solo rappelling or rappelling with a partner. 

To set up the ATC for rappelling, make a loop from the rappel rope that is already anchored at the top. Make sure that the two ropes are side by side and not on top of each other to prevent tangling. Tangling creates disruptions leading to accidents and device malfunctions. 

After the loop is complete and secure, add two quickdraws in the opposite direction. Using the quickdraws, pass the rope through the opposite ends of the bolt hangers. Like the original steps in rappelling, add a knot at the top of the rope and the middle. Now you're ready to clip the ATC device while locking it with a carabiner right at the loop. With the ATC device clipped, lastly, make a double rope strand as you are sliding the rope through the ATC.

As you begin to rappel down, use your break hand to control movement. Keep your hand near your waist. Placing your hand higher increases your speed and if it's too high, this ultimately leads to a freefall! The left hand guides the old rope, and prevents obstruction caused by knots or tangling. Once you reach the ground all that’s left is to unrope the ATC device. You did it!

How To Rappel With Just a Rope 

The original rappelling method used just ropes and was perfected by Jean Charlet-Straton in 1879. In 2023, there is a variety of gear and supplies in the rappelling process for safety and security. These current gadgets are great, but some situations still call for a simple rope and no other tools. In such cases, consider the following steps to rappel with just a rope.

Rappelling with just a rope is all about completing the task comfortably and safely. Initially finding a rope is the most important part of the process. Purchase a rope that is at least eight mm in diameter and is lightweight.

Next, set the anchor. This will be different depending on the location and surrounding nature. In rocky mountains, search for sturdy boulders. In mountain areas, use a tree that is at least seven inches in diameter but make sure it is securely rooted in the ground.

In the wintertime, you’ll have to create a bollard. Once you have set your anchor, wrap the middle of the rope around it to secure it. This marks the center of the rope and allows the rest of it to touch the ground at the bottom of the set location. 

Following the anchoring of the rope, get rid of all your extra gear. You need to be as lightweight as possible for the descent. Lower down your backpack, tools, and any additional items before you. It is also important to lower anything that may obstruct the rope in the process, such as heavy jackets or other materials. 

You're Ready To Rappel Down! 

To begin rappelling, wrap the rope over one leg and under the other. Pull the rope to the front of your chest and behind the back of your neck. At this point, you’ll decide which hand will be your dominant brake hand and which will be your guide hand. Pull the rope through the back of your arm and grasp it with the brake hand of your choice. With your guide hand, grasp the top of the rope near the anchor and begin your descent. 

If you choose to brake during the descent, pull the rope using the brake hand across your body. Rappelling down with a rope is done at the individual's selected speed for security and comfort. 

Weather changes the way climbers approach rappelling down with just a rope. In rainy or icy conditions, triple-secure your anchor with an additional knot and by making sure it is set to hold the amount of weight needed. A comfortable speed should also be used when descending to prevent additional friction or disturbance on the land and anchor.

Rock climber rappels down rock face

Military Rappelling

Military rappelling is a different type of climbing descent. This type of rappelling allows military members to use weapons as they are descending. 

Often, members of the force rappel from moving objects such as helicopters. It’s a thrill-seeking form of descent that’s dangerous and allows you to dangle in an open space.

This type of rappelling is done for tactical reasons and is presented in military training, as well as combat and deployments. Air assault courses include rappelling from buildings, helicopters, planes, and mountains as part of basic infantry. 

When performing these tasks, additional gear is required to hold the weight of multiple men rappelling at the same time.

Military Rappelling Gear 

To ensure the safety of soldiers during rappelling training and active practice, they use special equipment to adapt to their uniforms, weight, and location. 

  • Tactical gloves: These gloves are designed to protect military members.

  • Military paracord rope: This rope holds 550+ lbs and is over 100 meters long.

  • Law enforcement-approved climbing carabiners: These hold over 5,500 lbs with high-strength aluminum alloy.

  • Adjustable guide harnesses: These are versatile, lightweight harnesses that feature 4000 lbs testing. 

  • Multi-purpose utility rope: With a tensile strength of 1200 lbs, this is a heavy-duty rope for all occasions. 

Due to military members being ready for action at all times, they require limited tools to aid them in the process of rappelling. They have to adapt to using their uniforms, helmets, and military boots in the act despite their weight or materials.

Common Mistakes Made When Rappelling and How To Avoid Them

Human error is common when learning and adapting to new skills, but with thorough practice and skill training, the human error percentage begins to drop. However, mistakes are still present due to climbing and rappelling being thrilling activities with many risks. It's important to acknowledge the typical mistakes made and the steps to avoid them. 

Not Tying Stopper Knots

One of the steps in rappelling is tying stopper knots at the end of the rope. If this step is missed, it could easily cost a life. Stopper knots are there to stop the climber from sliding off the rope and falling hundreds of feet down. Taking the time to double-check your knots and their sturdiness is essential for safety. 

Locking Carabiners

Not all carabiners auto-lock, which can pose a major problem if you don’t check whether or not the carabiner is locked. A screw-gate carabiner needs to be manually closed and screwed shut to lock. To prevent this extra step and take additional precautions, purchasing an auto-lock carabiner is the answer. This system adds safety, is simple to use, and is quicker to assemble. 

Rock climber gear and accessories

Test Your Anchors!

Before you descend or climb the mountain, test the setup of your gear! Failure to check your gear can lead to the malfunction of your device.

One of the most important pieces of this activity is the anchor. Once you set your anchor, make sure to set weight on it to double-check that it is sturdy enough to hold body weight and endure all weather conditions.  

Check The Weather Before Engaging

Weather conditions affect the functionality of gear and the sturdiness of boulders. It’s not ideal to go rappelling during rainy, snowy, or windy weather. Even with the most extensive weatherproof gear, you're still left to the whims of mother nature. 

Rope Control

Understanding the functionality and importance of the rope during rappelling is life-saving. Go into the activity knowing and understanding that you control the rope – not the other way around.

The first mistake made when handling the rope is letting go of it. The rope holds your weight and becomes heavy if you’re not used to carrying that level of weight with your upper arms.

Staying in control of the rope prevents it from getting caught in the cracks of the rocks if climbing on rocky surfaces. When ropes get caught, they tangle and distract the climber. Often, climbers attempt to untangle the rope and end up letting go of the rock face. 

Not Wearing A Helmet

Not wearing a helmet is a rookie mistake. Helmets are there to protect you from mother nature – not your own mistakes. Weather conditions loosen rocks causing them to drop.

A hit from a rock in the head is disorienting and makes it more difficult to keep hold of your rope. For those with long hair, the helmet prevents your hair from getting caught on the rope or rappelling device.

Rock climber rappels down mountain

Soft Starting

Starting a new activity is exciting, but don't let the excitement distract you from safety! A soft rappelling start allows you to test your gear and gain a feel of the rope. Getting a good hold of the brake is essential.

Even if you’ve tested the anchor before rappelling down, there are still scenarios to be mindful of. For example, if the anchor receives too much of a shock from a fast start, it has the potential to undo itself and drop you down with no secure end. 

Rappelling Permissions and Permits

Many rappelling locations – such as national parks, conserved caves, or beach areas – require permits before attempting the activity. Before taking on your next trip, do your research and call ahead to make sure this is an activity for your skill level. 

Top 10 Best Places for Rappelling

Now that you’re ready for rappelling, are you planning your trip? If you’re looking for the best location to practice this thrilling activity, consider some of the following top places to go rappelling.

First is Yosemite National Park in California. Park conditions change year-round; you’ll find waterfalls, rivers, snowy conditions, and more at Yosemite. Climbers face a variety of challenges, but their various climbing opportunities have made this national park a climbers' paradise. 

On the other side of the world is Railay Beach, Thailand. Although this location is only accessed by boat, it is desirable for climbers of all levels. Climbing rocks are made of limestone and are a part of the world's largest coral reef. At this location, there is a climbing school called King Climbers known for being the longest-running climbing school. 

Stevens Gap is a different kind of rappelling: cave rappelling. At Stevens Gap, climbers rappel down 143 feet of caves into an astonishing waterfall. Stevens Gap doesn't offer traditional anchors. Rather than anchoring on rocks, climbers anchor to trees at the top of the caves. To reach Stevens Gap you must plan to get a permit (at no cost) to cross the private property separating it from the community. 

Rock climber rappels down canyon wall

In Morocco, Todra Gorge offers over 400 routes across the Atlas Mountains for climbers to experience. Made out of limestone, these mountains squeeze small peeks to allow a crystal-colored river to seep through. 

Not wanting to climb before rappelling down? Acadia National Park in Maine is the choice for you. With over four million visitors per year, Acadia is in the top 10 visited parks in the United States. Plan for your visit as climbing is dependent on sea level and weather conditions in Maine. 

Kazumura Caves in Hawaii has multiple rappelling drops down the longest lava tube in the world. This location offers tours and independent activities, as well. Climbers find entrances to the cave through the ocean. Dried lava dropping from the top is called lavacicles and adds to the beauty of the caves. 

Looking to rappel in a tropical area? The Victoria Waterfall in Costa Rica offers just that. Known for being the world's largest rappelling waterfall, climbers often horseback ride to the climbing area before taking on the activity. The waterfall drops 115 feet into the Black River where climbers begin a down water river trip. 

The Santa Rosa Waterfall in Guatemala offers both boulders and trees full of life as the perfect rappelling anchors. This site also features a small pool for climbers to cool off afterward.

Head Down, Feet First!

Now that you've done your research, you're ready to start gaining the experiences necessary to master the art of rappelling.

Your next adventure awaits! From beautiful waterfalls, caves, and mountains, your motivation for mastering your climbing skills has never been higher. Remember to learn from the common mistakes addressed above and ALWAYS double –and even triple – check your gear.

Make a plan for your next destination and prepare to get your rappel on!

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