Descending Safely: The Complete Guide on How to Rappel

Knowing how to rappel is a valuable skill for every rock climber and mountaineer to have in their pocket. Most people are so concerned about going up the wall that they fail to prepare for the (arguably more important) counterpart: safely coming back down. While being lowered by a belayer is generally the most ideal way of getting back to the ground, sometimes it isn’t possible or recommended for proper safety or gear maintenance. That’s why we’re going to lay out step-by-step the process of rappelling, so that you can be prepared for whatever situation you find yourself in.

Why Rappel?

man rappelling down a frozen waterfall

Rock climbing can be a dangerous sport, and rappelling isn’t exactly the safest aspect on it. When it comes to climbing related injuries and deaths, the majority of them have something to do with rappelling. Perhaps someone forgot to tie stopper knots at the end of their rope and ended up sliding right off. Or maybe they lost their grip on the rope due to fatigue, sweat, or rain and didn’t have proper safety measures in place to protect them from a devastating fall. Whatever the case…why would someone take the risk, especially if they have a partner who could lower them?

There are many reasons why rappelling is preferred over other options. Sometimes it isn’t possible to get down into a canyon any other way, and top down belaying is rarely a possibility in these situations. For those of us who climb outdoors, rappelling is usually the best way to get back to the ground after cleaning an anchor too. While it’s possible to be lowered like normal, chances are you had to thread your rope through the bolts in order to get your anchor back. The friction of the rope on the bolts will wear out your gear a lot faster, whereas when you rappel, the rope doesn’t slide around. This alone is reason enough for me to rappel down, so I don’t risk damaging the core or sheath of my rope.

Gear You’ll Need

climbing gear piled up on the ground

Whether you’re rappelling normally or you plan to simul rappel, many of these principles will apply. To begin, I never climb without a personal anchor system (PAS), especially once I started climbing outside more than inside. It’s a vital piece of safety equipment that you can’t do without, and I would personally recommend getting one if you haven’t already. You can make your own using a sling and carabiners, but I like like using my daisy chain because of how easy it is to adjust the length when I’m on the wall.

You’ll also need a rope (obviously), but there are some things to consider when it comes to picking the right one. If you’re rappelling after sending a route, you’ll likely be on the same rope that you climbed up on. This should be a dynamic rope that will stretch if you fall, and if it’s not…we need to question your life choices before you don’t have a life anymore.

While you can rappel on any rope, static ropes tend to be better for it. Since the process of rappelling can be a little jerky, every time you stop feeding out slack on a dynamic rope, you’ll end up bouncing. This usually isn’t a huge issue, and most people find it easier to just use the rope that they climbed up on instead of hauling a static line up with them.

The rope will go through your belay device, which is how it will stay connected to your harness. I’ve seen a number of climbers rappel from their GriGri, or other assisted braking device, but I like to stick with my trusty ATC because of how secure and easy to use it is.

Finally, you’ll need to have an accessory cord or hollow block to fashion into a third hand. We’ll talk more about these later, but for now, all you need to know is that this is a very important backup mechanism to make sure you stay safe even if you let go of the rope.

Step by Step

Establish an Anchor Point

man building a rock climbing anchor

Whether you need to get back to the ground after climbing a route, or you’re at a high point and need to rappel into a canyon or gorge, you need an anchor point to secure your rope. As someone who purely rock climbs, I typically use the bolts, chains, and carabiners built into the crag as my anchor point for rappelling. Obviously, you’re more than welcome to use whatever type of anchor you would like, whether it’s something pre-established or something you’ve built yourself.

Secure Yourself and Prep the Rope

rope dangling from a climbing anchor

In most scenarios, this is where your PAS will come into play. If you’re cleaning the anchor, you should already have it attached to a bolt, chain link, or D ring so that you can take the weight off of your rope. Once you’ve done this, clean your anchor like normal so you can retrieve all of your gear. I like to make a clove hitch with a section of the rope and attach it to my harness so I don’t accidentally drop it while I’m working – dropping your rope is arguably the worst thing you can do, leaving you stranded unless your partner is able to access the top of the crag and drop the rope back down to you.

Once you’ve cleaned the anchor, slide your rope through the D rings (or whatever provides an opening big enough for your rope to fit) and drop both ends of the rope to the ground after tying a stopper knot on each end. The midpoint of the rope should be resting on the anchor so each end has an equal length.

Pull Out Your Belay Device

I’m going to walk you through this under the assumption that you’ll be using an ATC, since that’s what I personally recommend, and it tends to be the most widely used device for this activity. Any tube style belay device will do the trick, though, and I suggest you use one with teeth to add more friction to the rope as you descend.

Now that you’ve got your rope in place, take both ends and slide them through both sides of your ATC. It should look exactly like it does when you belay, except you’re using both sides instead of one. Normally you would clip it to your harness with a carabiner, but I suggest you use an extended rappel by clipping your belay device to a loop in your PAS. This will keep all of the moving parts away from loose clothing, and makes the system more manageable to control. You could rappel from here; however, there’s one more thing that I strongly suggest you do before you come off of your PAS.

Make a Third Hand

A third hand is a safety mechanism that attaches to your rope, usually under your belay device. There are a number of different autoblockers you can use, but the one that I like the most is the prusik knot (if you want to learn how to make one, check out the video above). Even though a third hand isn’t necessary, think of rappelling in terms of belaying yourself – if you let go of the brake, you’ll fall until you hit the ground. The prusik knot will tighten when weighted, so if you happen to fall for any reason, it will stop you from experiencing an uncontrolled descent.

Take Off Your PAS and Descend

Always weight your new system before coming off of your old one, so you don’t find out you made a mistake the hard way. Once you’ve determined that your rappel will safely hold you, now you can undo your PAS and start the process of descending.

Keep your feet against the wall and walk yourself down as you let out slack in the rope. Make sure you have one hand on your prusik, and the other hand below it on the rope, sliding them down one at a time for a nice and easy lower. It’ll be a little jerky, but that’s to be expected, so don’t be concerned if it isn’t as smooth as you might have thought it would be. Do this until you get back to the ground, and give yourself a pat on the back for a successful rappel!

Final Thoughts

man doing anchor work while rock climbing

Now you know the essence of rappelling, but there are still a couple more things worth mentioning to make sure nothing bad happens. First, always tie stopper knots at each end of the rope so you don’t accidentally rappel off the edges and fall the rest of the way to the ground, especially if you’re coming down a multipitch. Whether you use a barrel knot, a figure 8, or something else doesn’t matter as long as it won’t come undone by itself.

Also, try your hardest not to get stuck while you’re on your rappel. What do I mean by this? Well, there are a couple of different scenarios that might pop up from time to time.

First, it’s possible to get stuck if your third hand tightens. The knots that are recommended for rappelling are amazing because they move easily until they’re weighted, at which point they tighten up enough to catch your fall. A great, life saving system that you’ll appreciate until you have to try and unweight the knot in order to make it slide again. If you’re next to the rock face, you might be able to pull yourself up enough to loosen your prusik; if you’re rappelling in the open air, it’ll be more of a struggle. Twisting the knot tends to help break it up a little bit, but honestly, my best tip for you is to just…not fall.

This next one is a little embarrassing for me to share, but I feel it’s worth mentioning in case it happens to you. When I first started rappelling, I got stuck after clipping my PAS into a bolt partway down the route. Because my PAS was weighted, I had no way to unclip it from the bolt, and I couldn’t get any upward motion on my rappel – I couldn’t go up, and I couldn’t go down. It was a relatively stressful couple of minutes as my partner and I tried to figure out how to get me down, and thankfully we were able to manage without needing to call for help.

Needless to say, when it comes to rappelling, try not to weight anything if you don’t have a way to unweight it. You’ll save yourself a lot of headache if you can manage to do that.

Want to learn more about rock climbing? Check out our guide here!

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Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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