How to Rappel Down a Cliff

How to Rappel Down a Cliff
Safety first! Before you learn to rappel you must fully understand and accept the risks involved. Hanging over the side of a cliff on a rope is an inherently dangerous undertaking. Done with care and preparation under the instruction of someone experienced in rappelling, however, this can be a rewarding adventure. Rappelling does require a certain level of physical fitness due to the fact that most locations require travel on foot to access the site, often through rough, steep terrain while carrying the necessary gear.


Difficulty: Moderately Challenging

Steps to safe rappelling

Things You’ll Need:
  • Rope
  • Harness
  • Helmet
  • Gloves
  • Webbing/anchor
  • Carabiners
  • Rappel device
  • Safety device
Step 1
Choose a rope of correct material and length. This is essential. Ropes for climbing and rappelling come in both "static" and "dynamic" styles. Dynamic is the rope of choice for climbing because it can arrest a fall, so most climbers also use this rope for rappelling rather than carrying two ropes. If not also climbing, then a static rope is better suited for rappelling only. Also, the diameter of the rope is important. Rope in the 10- to 11-mm diameter range works best for rappelling because the larger diameter creates more friction through the rappel device, which slows the descent and makes it safer.
Step 2
Fit a harness correctly to each individual. A loose harness can cause serious injury or death in the event the person rappelling flips upside down. The harness should also be tried on over the clothing that will be worn while rappelling and simulate sitting in the harness to ensure comfort.
Step 3
Wear a helmet and gloves. Gloves will stave off the heat created by friction on the rope and the helmet will protect the head from falling objects from above or in the event the participant slams against the rock.
Step 4
Attach the rope correctly to an anchor at the top of the rappel. This is one of the most important steps in the safety of the rappel. Quite often the anchor consists of wrapping multiple loops of tubular webbing around a well-rooted tree or large rock, then attaching the rope to the webbing via locking carabiners. The rope is typically tied in a "figure 8," a knot that must be learned early in rappelling training.
Step 5
Connecting the rope to the harness is also usually accomplished via two locking carabiners, with the locks facing opposing directions as another precaution. Familiarity with your harness and the correct way to connect these carabiners is essential to maintaining the correct seated posture in the harness as you descend.
Step 6
Slowing your descent is accomplished through the use of a rappel device. The type of device used is affected by the length of the rappel and whether or not it is a "free" rappel or if contact with the wall will be maintained throughout the descent. The reason for this is the difference in speed which determines the difference in the heat created. Very popular devices are aluminum "figure 8's" or "ATC's" though sometimes "rappel racks" are used. Aluminum is used because of its light weight and for more rapid dissipation of the heat created. The choice of rappel device is mostly personal preference and will require trying all under varying conditions. The rappel rack is usually used for longer rappels or any rappel with a relatively long, free rappel.
Step 7
Adding a backup safety device is a good idea. Many people while rappelling entrust their safety to a second person on the ground who controls one end of the rope. This person is called the belayer. Adding a device such as a "prussic rope," a small diameter rope attached to the harness via another carabiner, wound in a particular fashion around the rappel rope and held in the guide hand; this will tighten on the rope and slow or stop an uncontrolled descent should the rappeller fall. When rappelling, one hand is called the guide hand, usually the person's dominant hand, and the other is the brake hand, used to control the rope by holding it behind your back. Pulling this hand farther behind and closer to the back slows or stops descent.
Step 8
Stepping over the side of an exposed wall for the first time is the hardest part of learning to rappel. It can be quite intimidating or horrifying if the person attempting it has even a moderate fear of heights. Once you take this step be sure and keep your feet below waist level and go slowly. Try to control the adrenaline in your heart and brain so you can concentrate carefully on every instruction given and then follow through on these instructions to ensure safety.

Tips & Warnings

When looking for someone to learn from, don't just take their word for their skills. Find people you know and trust that can attest to their qualifications, or go through a professional shop that has been in business for several years.
Rappelling and activities associated with it, such as hiking in to gain access, can be inherently dangerous. Learn and understand all safety equipment and their proper uses before attempting this sport.

Article Written By David Sims

David Sims has been contributing articles to several venues since 2001. His work has been published in local papers such as The Ebbtide and South County Sun along with monthly newsletters for Central Basin Audubon Society. Sims also contributes trip reports and reviews to,,,, and his own website.

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