How do Rock Climbers Get Back Down? A Guide to Safely Rappelling

You know what they say, “what goes up, must come down.” In the case of you being a new rock climber, you’ll need to know the precise methods to get off the mountain, or there’s really no point in climbing it. No matter how much you love the mountains and cliffs, you’ll need to come down eventually. When it’s time to get to flatland, you’ll want your descent to be the most precise and straightforward method possible.

How do Rock Climbers Get Back Down? There are four methods by which rock climbers can descend:

  1. Rappelling
  2. Walking Off
  3. Lowering by Rope
  4. Downclimbing

Each should be taken at a slow and accurate pace to avoid any injuries or missteps.  You should learn the basics within the confines of an indoor gym or low-difficulty cliffs before working your way up to more dangerous mountains and steep drop-offs.

Climbing is such an invigorating sport which can connect you deeply to nature and also work core muscles in your body. The real important during your recreational climb is to know that you can get down with the least amount of hassle and danger possible. Look no further because this guide will offer you all the tricks, tips, wisdom, and resources you could ever dream of to descend into the world of climbing!

How do Rock Climbers Get Back Down?

Safety Warning: Climbing safely is your responsibility. No article or video can replace qualified instruction and experience.

Rappelling is considered the scariest part of the climb for even the most experienced climbers. It is undeniably nerve-inducing to trust a rope when you’re hanging off the side of a cliff.

“A 2017 report recorded 38 climbing-related deaths in North America in the previous year. On average, we see about 30 deaths per year, though it does fluctuate.”

I don’t want to sound like your mom here, but it’s a very avoidable death. So, don’t choose it by making careless mistakes or rushing to get out on your own. I promise you; it’s not worth it.  Even seasoned climbers make mistakes, and the repercussions are not small for your actions in the world of climbing. They equate to life or death, so you’ll need to quite skilled before even beginning on a real mountain.

I want to start by saying that no one should go out to a steep mountain and attempt rappelling for your very first climb. You want to start somewhere that does not have real consequences. 

As a newbie, all you have to do is fail to link one rope or chain one anchor adequately, and you will quickly fall to your death in the most stereotypical ‘rookie-mistake’ ever. This can be avoided.

Before attempting a high-stakes game, you need to practice in an indoor climbing gym and take classes from professionals. Learning the ropes (pun entirely intended) will be a matter of learning from the best and getting experience from those who know more than you.

I recommend getting a mentor or instructor to go out with you for your first few climbing sessions or take friends from the climbing gym as a fun activity to do together.

You should never climb alone. Have you seen 127 hours!? You don’t want to get trapped between rocks or fall and break your leg with no one there to get you help. I repeat – never climb mountains alone, I don’t care how ninja you think you are, you’re not too good for a team of support.

The best way to learn will be through practice and starting slow. Work your way up to the larger, steep mountains and don’t put yourself in risk’s way until you feel very comfortable with the skill of rock climbing.

What is Rappelling?

Rappelling is very nerve-wracking because you are relying on a rope device or carabiner. According to Rock and Ice, “The most common way to rappel is to thread the rope through a specialized belay/rappel device attached to your harness with a locking carabiner.”

Essentially, you are walking yourself down a mountain while being tied to a rope which is anchored to the top of the mountain. I will link some videos for those that require a visual representation, but the first step will be understanding your gear and how to use it.

Rappelling is the most common part of climbing that results in an accident; therefore, it is the most dangerous part of climbing. You need to practice the steps before you’re in the thick of it.

Head these warnings and show the sport the respect it deserves by taking it slow.

When to Use Rappelling

The times that you may truly require a rappel to descend the mountain include:

  • There are loose rocks that you’re fearful of climbing. If you try to grip it and a rock falls while you’re not tied to a rope, you could easily have a perilous fall.
  • There is someone injured on your team that cannot climb without the rappel or lowering.
  • You have no other trail or pathway to the bottom.
  • You want to minimize any overuse or damage on your anchor system.
  • Any situation that you can’t climb or walk out of–primarily in the many scenarios where you have no choice but to rappel if you ever want to see home again.

In the case that you do require a rappel, you’ll be beyond thankful to know what steps to take.

Proper Gear Required for Rappelling

The specific gear you will need to get started will include but is not limited to:

  1. Ropes – obviously, the most crucial part of this equation is to get strong ropes than stretchy ropes that are often more easily damaged by mountainous sharp edges. The rope length you should aim for (of course depending on how tall the gaps are in the mountain you’re seeking to climb) will be 200 feet (60 meters). The reason for the longer rope is that you’ll be folding it in half, so this will allow you to descend 100 feet (30 meters).

If you need two ropes to make it long enough, utilize the four rappel rope knot.

  • Rappel Device and Locking Carabiner – you want a device you can belay with, so you don’t have to purchase this separately. One I recommend is the Black Diamond ATCs. The carabiner is the looped link that will lock into place and attach you to the harness. It’s a screw opened mechanism that you have to unscrew and re-screw to remove yourself from the line.
  • Anchor – the anchor can include bolts, nuts, cams, and more but should have room for thick ropes and be able to attach to trees or rocks. You don’t know what kind of spot you’ll be trying to descend from, so you’ll want to be prepared with a highly efficient anchor.
  • The harness – this is what you will sit in and wear kind of like a thigh and waist belt. It will strap you in and snugly fit around your waist. You can improvise your own harness through rooms in a figure 8 sling.
  • Gloves – these aren’t required by any means, but I recommend them to keep your hands from rope burn on long descents. Rope burn usually happens from climbing too fast, so if you take your time, you may not need these.
  • Personal Anchor Tether – this is the link that will hold you close to the bolder and secure you while you’re tying the rest of your ropes. It’s basically a clip into any anchor you set-up on any mountain to hold you in place.

Another recommendation that is not required but utilized by many climbers is to tie a backup knot called the Prusik knot. The Prusik’s purpose is to lock into place and stop your rappel if you start to lose control. Pay close attention to the loop length and learn more about this hear to avoid careless mistakes – How to Tie a Prusik Knot.

The process to Set Up Rappel

The process to prepare yourself for a rappel is as follows:

  1. Thread the rope through the rappel anchor – learn to tie a variety of knots through this Rappelling video on 10 rappel knots.
  2. Tied stopper knots in the ends of the rope to close the system. If you don’t have these knots as stoppers on each end, you could just fall off and slide to injury or death. I repeat – tie knots on each end of the rope! 
  3. Next, be sure each end of the rope is touching the ground.
  4. You can rappel right off the belay loop, but I advise you to have a rappel extension. The perk of the extension is useful to not get caught in your clothes, and easier to control the brakes. Clip your rappel device to your tether and double clip it for security.
  5. Threading yourself will involve taking the two strands of ropes and pinch them together.
  6. Now take the pinched part of the doubled-up rope and push that center of rope through the tubes of your rappel device, clicking your locker your carabiner into the link.
  7. Backing up the rappel is a step that you’ll need to understand in case you lose control of the rope, you’ll want to tie your hitch around two brake strands. Test the hitch by sliding it up and slowly easing your weight onto it.

Never Underestimate the Double-Check

Every single time you go out climbing, I want you to double-check like it’s the bible of climbing and the most important step in your world. Double-checking saves lives. Period.

The safety check before beginning your descent will include:

  1. Double-check that your belay device is clipped through two points on your tether.
  2. Check it’s threaded correctly and that you have knots on each two ends of your rope to stop yourself.
  3. Confirm the two ends are touching the ground.  
  4. Check all carabiners are closed and secured. Unscrew and re-screw to their tightest ability.
  5. Check your surroundings and scout out any tree roots, rocks, or jagged things sticking out that may block your descent. It may require some maneuvering to get around it or step over it. Be aware of anything that may complicate your descent.
  6. Before you unclip yourself from the top anchor, test your full weight while still on the top of this cliff and be confident that everything feels secure. The last thing to do is to unclip your personal tether link that was anchored to the mountain and put that link through your belay loop to make the extension redundant. You are now ready to descend.

Never take the double-check lightly. This could save your life or that of another member of your climbing team.

The Actual Rappelling Down the Mountain

When you’re ready to rappel, you can shout to your climbing partner, “On belay!” to confirm you’ll start rappelling.

Now, the entire time you’re rappelling, you will keep your hands on the brake stands, just like normal belaying. You’ll be sliding rope towards the top of the mountain, giving yourself more slack to descend.

Go slowly and take it step by step. 

There is no need to rush, and you will simply lean back into it, keeping your legs planted against the mountain and walking yourself down. Keep your hips about 2-3 feet away from the mountain wall so you can move down with your squatted stance. Keep your legs firmly planted on the wall so that you don’t slide sideways and hit your hip on the wall.

Here’s a great video guide to cleaning your anchors and setting your rappel up. The expert in this video says the most common issue is that “the belayer thinks I’m going to rappel; I think I’m going to be lowered. I go up, I clean the anchor, I lean back, and no one’s holding the other end of the rope.”

To this I say, be sure that you are communicating with your climbing crew, and all are on the same page. It’s not just about getting along; this is about life or death so please communicate clearly to your team so you can all achieve the same goal.

REI online says, “Try to keep your legs perpendicular to the wall, and your torso leaning slightly in as your feet walk you backwards down the wall.” 

Once you get to the bottom, you can unclip yourself from the tether and pull down your rope, continuing on to more adventures!

Visual Resources for The Process of Rappelling:

In case you’re like me and need a visual representation to understand the process, here are some resources which I think you’ll find very useful:

Advice on Your Rappelling Technique

The difficult part about rappelling is that you always have changing scenery, obstacles, and methods for getting down. It won’t be the same each time, which is half of the fun but also something to be wary of.

Since you may find yourself at all variations of angles and difficulty-levels, you’ll need to be skilled in moving over rough rocks, slick rocks, and everything in between.

Some general tips on technique that will make all the difference in your successful and safe journey are:

  1. Always use your eyes ahead of your body. You need to be aware of what’s around you and be looking for places to secure your hands and feet. They call them, ‘eyebrows,’ in the rock formations that you can slip your toes and fingers into for grip. Of course, you need to be aware of your body, but keep your sight at the forefront of your sensory focus.
  2. Use your legs more than your arms. When climbing up or down a mountain, your arms will get tired much faster than your legs will. Remember this at all times and balance out the exertion you’re placing on your body so you can last longer.
  3. Keep your heels down. This is when you’re climbing up or down, as you need to be in a squatted position with your ‘butt out,’ which will naturally push your heels downwards. Don’t try to balance on your toes the entire time, or you will wear your feet out faster and cause a misstep.
  4. Always wear a helmet. They save lives all the time and keep your head from becoming an egg. Don’t argue, just wear it.
  5. Don’t veer too far from busy trails. I understand wanting to find a mountainous plane that is far away from mankind and civilization, but you will be much safer by climbing where other climbers pass through. By using a busier trail, you know it is safer and established as an excellent path for climbers. If someone falls or you are disobeying the travel alone rule, then you’ll also have a higher chance of someone coming by and finding you. If you go off to the middle of nowhere alone and break an ankle, good luck to you because you chose to be on your own.

Three More Methods for Descending a Mountain

The other methods which are less dangerous to descend any high elevations will be: walking off, lowering, and downclimbing.

Here’s the breakdown of these three methods if you don’t require a rappel.

1. Walking Off – this is the simplest of all methods and the most unassuming. If you’re on a popular mountain that many hike, it is common for them to have set up a path that takes you back down the mountain on a standard hike.

Walking off is what they call it in the climbing world when you simply utilize a trail back down to the base of the mountain. Be sure to check your map and be sure it is a proper trail and not leading you to get lost. Sometimes walking off is not a clear path, and it may involve some thrashing through bushes, sliding down slopes, and finding your own path. There will usually be a path though in places like Yosemite, Black Canyon, or Zion National Park.

  • Lowering – this is the process when a climber helps to lower another climber through ropes. It is very commonly utilized and is different from rappelling because the person may not be climbing with steps down the mountain; they may just literally be lowered while they hang.

It is a simple method, but things can still go wrong. Do the same double-check procedure listed above for rappelling and be certain your rope is long enough. Always double knot the ends so they won’t slip through any belayer’s device.

3. Downclimbing – This is where you may have to almost rock-climb down the mountain. Ropes are always recommended for this as well, but you may not be able to walk it or hang, you may have to physically climb it downwards.

You can face outwards or face the rock when you’re downclimbing, and usually, the strongest climber should go first to assist others in making it down the mountain safely. Rappelling can sometimes be safer than downclimbing, and you’ll need to read the situation carefully. Here’s a video guide for tips on downclimbing step-by-step.

Any slip while climbing could be fatal, so please take your moves slowly and thoughtfully. There is no rush, and there is nowhere that you could possibly need to be that is more important than your safety. Appointments can wait, people can wait, so take your time.

Tips to Make Your Descent as Safe as Possible

Even though risks can’t entirely be eliminated, they can certainly be reduced. To mitigate the amount of risk you’re taking on during your climb, tips that can make your climb even safer are:

Walk off – just because you’re excited about your new rappelling skills doesn’t mean that you should always opt for rappelling. Read the situation and realize that if there is an option to simply walk off, you should take it. Hiking is much less dangerous, and you’ll be limiting the room for error and exposure to more mistakes.

Be sure you’re setting it up correctly – I would recommend starting with some training and courses to have professional instructors helping you with your knot skills. Until they say you are a top-notch knot-maker, you shouldn’t attempt dangerous heights. Be sure each side is knotted and create equal force on each side, so nothing slips through the anchor.

Close the system – this is a crucial attribute to rappelling safely or rappelling at all. Utilize some of these knot methods to create a quality rappelling knot. If you have a multi-pitch rappel setting, meaning multiple climbers or descents, then the right knot, in combination with saddlebags, will lower your risk of the ropes getting tangled. It will also secure your closed-loop system = security.

Utilize the backup & extension cords – many climbers don’t utilize these things and after injuries, wish they had. Back up your entire system and add friction to your hitch that will make your devices more reliable. You can use the autoblock hitch, Prusik hitch mentioned earlier, and never forget your  

Don’t get cocky – this is something that happens over time, which is why many climbing accidents happen by those that are the most experienced. When you get comfortable in something, you can overly confident. This abundance of confidence and inner-certainty is what will lead you to make a stupid mistake. Don’t think you’re too cool for school because that’s the mentality that leads to serious undervaluing and complacency.

Before You Get Out There

Before hitting the actual mountains, start in a gym with a team of experts that can guide you. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes and slip and fall. Fall in the gym where you have the pleasure of landing on cushioned mats, not rocks.

Mistakes are just the nature of the game for any new hobby one endeavors to train on, and you will not (in all likely probability) be an expert overnight. You’ll need to take this initial time to learn about knots, build your upper-body strength, and train in endurance.

Here is an excellent guide for Cross Training before Rock Climbing or Bouldering that will help get your body ready for higher stakes. Do not make the mistake of thinking that climbing is solely physical. You will also need to strengthen the mind and mentally be prepared for the challenge.

Rock climbing is an incredibly exhilarating outdoor activity that will make you a more fit and focused individual. It really brings people together as a team sport, and it is easy to make friends in a community of physically-active and like-minded people.

Take your time and enjoy the process.

As Chris Sharma says, “With climbing you can go to the most beautiful places on the planet and practice. Anywhere there is rock, you can climb.”

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