How to Rappel for Rock Climbing

How to Rappel for Rock Climbing


Rappelling off a tower after a trad climb at Battert

Rappelling (a.k.a. abseiling (UK) or “rapping”) is a critical skill technique that every new climber must learn and learn well. Rappelling is often the only way to down from a route. 

Even when there is a down climb, the descent can be dangerous or full of loose rock and bad paths. Rappelling is quick and very safe if done properly. 

Nevertheless, more people are injured and die from rappelling every year than from climbing. Unlike climbing, there is no second person belaying you. Once you go over the edge, you’re on your own, making rappelling something to take very seriously. 

Here are a two key points to always keep in mind when rapping:

  • Always tie stopper knots at the end of your rope before rappelling. Even if you are certain your rope is long enough, do it anyway. Rapping off the end of a rope is one of the most common causes of death when climbing.
  • Always back up your rappel with a prussik for increased safety if you desire. Even if you don't want to rap with a prussik actively, you should always carry extra lengths of cord on your harness with which to make an ascending set-up (You can see Cristina's extra cord attached on her right hip). There are a myriad of reasons why this may be necessary. For example, you may realize you've started a 35m rappel and set up a double strand rappel with a 60m rope!

How to Set Up a Rappel:

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First things first: secure yourself! You’ll probably at the top of a cliff or at a belay station. Even if you feel totally safe on a nice roomy ledge, a slip or fall will probably mean game over for you. Tie  into whatever gear you have at the top of the climb. Use a runner that is girth hitched to your  harness or something like a Petzl connect adjust which is fast and practical. Consider the rappell anchor. The anchor that you set for your rappel will often come down to what’s available. Many popular crags will have rap rings or chains at the top to make the descent easy. You always want to rappel through rings or chains and not the bolts because chains and rings are smooth while bolts have  edges that will damage your rope.

Gear Required to Rappel:

  • Rope – where 1/2 the length is long enough to reach the ground or next belay (e.g. 60 meters / 2 = 30 meters)
  • Belay device with guide mode like the ATC Pilot
  • Personal Anchor system (sling, Metolious PAS, Petzl connect adjust etc.)
  • Prusik – I highly recommend the Sterling Hollow Block.

Setting up your rappel

  • Run one end of the rope through your rap rings (or chains) until the middle of the rope hangs between the two points. Keep this end of the rope and all the slack on the ledge with you to prevent it from slipping off the cliff and almost certainly getting caught in a crack, tree, etc. 
  • Always, tie stopper knots in both ends of your rope. You can use a variety of knots in order to create the "stopper" effect, but the stopper knot itself is essentially the same knot used to back up a double figure eight, or one half of a double fisherman's. The stopper knot's purpose is to ensure that the end of the rope never passes through your belay device, thus preventing you falling off the rope and dying.
  • Make sure both ends of your rope are flaked. It's easiest to loosely coil each half of the rope and toss it over separately. Depending on the terrain, it may or may not be easier and less prone to tangling. While still tied into the anchor, lean out and take a last look over the edge. If all is clear, yell "ROPE!" and give it a toss!
    Finally, check the rope's landing Is it stuck on something? Are both ends on the ground? Sometimes it will get stuck on something, but all you can do is deal with it on the way down. This is another reason to setup a backup knot so you can stop and work hands free!
  • Now that your rope is set, attach yourself to the system. For beginning rock climbers, it is most common to rappel through a belay device like the the ATC Guide. The belay device should be attached to your belay loop on your harness via a locking carabiner and the the rope should feed in one side and out the other. You will be providing your own belay and controlling the speed of your descent. To do this, place both hands on the rope about 6" (15-20 cm) below where the rope exits the belay device. To brake the rope, hold your hand firmly at your hip so that the friction from the belay device stops the rope.
  • DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING. Is the anchor solid? Are all your locking carabiners actually locked? Is the rope fed through the belay device properly (e.g. through both sides of an ATC)? Is your backup Prusik or Klemheist setup correctly and working?
  • If your partner is down at the base of the cliff, let them know that you are about to rap down. They can give you a so-called FIREMAN'S BELAY from below by simply holding both ends of the rope. Should something happen to you, they only have to pull down on the rope and it will act as a belay, stopping the rope running through your belay device
  • Remove your personal anchor while keeping your hand brake on the belay device. Lower yourself slowly by feeding rope through the belay device. Lift it up slowly to release tension and let the rope slide through at the speed that you feel comfortable. Remember to lean back like sitting in a chair.
  • Rappelling is awesome. Enjoy it safely!

Learn to Rappel Video