What is Abseiling or Rappelling?

abseiling and rappelling
A climber abseiling down a snowy rock face.

Andre Schoenherr/Getty Images

What is Abseiling?

The dictionary defines abseiling – or rappelling as it is it is also known – as the act of sliding down a rope under controlled conditions in order to make a safe descent of a cliff face or other sheer surface. The term comes from the German word "abseilen," which translates as "top rope down."

Abseiling, or rappelling, can be a very dangerous activity, and should not be attempted by inexperienced   individuals without proper gear, guidance, and training from skilled climbers or climbing instructors. It is a technique used by people who are rock climbing, ice climbing, kloofing, canyoneering, and mountaineering to get down steep cliffs or even man-made objects, such as buildings or bridges in a safe, efficient manner. Still, there are definite dangers involved that all climbers should be aware of.

 

The Origins of Abseiling

This method of descending from a mountain can be traced back to an alpine guide by the name of Jean Charlet-Straton who led expeditions into the Alps from Chamonix, France. As legend has it, Charlet-Straton failed in an attempt to summit Petite Aiguille du Dru on the Mont Blanc Massif back in 1876. After finding himself stuck on the mountain, he had to improvise a method of getting back down safely. That involved using the abseil method. Three years later he would complete the successful summit of Petite Aiguille du Dru, and would use this newly-perfected method extensively throughout the climb.

Today, abseiling is considered an important basic skill that every climber should have in their skillset. It is not only useful in emergency situations, but is a common way of getting down a mountain. 

Rappelling Gear

Abseiling requires a set of specialized equipment to be done safely and securely. That gear includes ropes of course, with most climbers employing the same ropes that they use to go up the mountain while descending too. Other climbing gear used for rappelling down a face include anchors for supporting the rope, descenders that allow alpinists to feed out rope in a controlled manner, and a harness that fits around the climber and works conjunction with the descender to slowly lower the person back down the cliff.

Helmets and gloves are also recommended to help keep climbers safe as well.

Most of this gear is not specific to abseiling and is already part of the basic climbing kit. It may be used a bit differently on the descent, but its purpose is much the same while going up or down. 

The Evolution of Abseiling

Although the origin of abseiling revolved around climbers lowering themselves down a mountain for safety purposes, over the years it has evolved into a skill that is used in a number of other activities as well. For instance, canyoneers will employ rappelling as a method for entering narrow slot canyons safely, while spelunkers will do the same when entering vertical cave systems as well. It has even grown into its own sport with adventure seekers abseiling for the thrill of it alone. Additionally, military units have adapted the skill for quick insertion into challenging locations that might otherwise be difficult to reach.

 

There are a number of different techniques that can be used for rappelling, although the traditional method involves lowering oneself down a rock face feet first, while facing the wall. While descending, the rope is let out slowly and gradually, allowing the climber to safely work his or way down the wall. Occasionally a climber may use their feet to push off from the wall, allowing them to drop at an accelerated, but still controlled, rate. This is also useful for hopping over open chasms in a rock face where keeping your feet on the wall may not be practical or even possible.

Other repelling techniques include going face-first down the rope or even facing away from the wall altogether. These methods are meant for experienced abseilers who have plenty of training and experience under their belt however, and are definitely not for beginners. 

The Best Places in the World to Go Abseiling

Generally speaking, abseiling is not an activity that most people set out to independently of other adventurous outdoor activities. Instead, it is part of rock climbing, mountaineering, canyoneering, or similar sports. Still, there are some amazing places where repelling remains an active draw. Here are a few of them.

Table Mountain (South Africa)
Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain is a popular place for repellers thanks to its stunning views and easy access from the city center. Visitors can take part in one of the longest commercial abseil adventures in the world, dropping some 365 feet from top to bottom. Along the way, they'll get all of the training, equipment, and support they need to safely touch down. 

Waitomo (New Zealand) 
New Zealand's impressive Waitomo cave system has been called a "Lost World" and for good reason. These massive caverns can only be accessed by repelling into its depths, where visitors will find an underground ecosystem that is largely untouched by man. A company called Waitomo Adventures can lead you through this amazing place, giving beginner and expert abseilers all the advice they need along the way. 

Moab (Utah)
The hundreds of miles of canyons found near Moab, Utah are just begging to be explored and the best way to do that is to drop into that twisty maze of tunnels and gorges by abseiling. Wind Gate Adventures offers visitors a chance to go canyoneering in those slot canyons or choose to just go on a rappelling excursion instead. Either way, you'll get an entirely different perspective on the desert and the secrets it holds simply by learning to safely descend a rope into its hidden passages.

 

Khao Yai National Park (Thailand)
Experienced climbers looking for a new challenge may want to head to Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. Once there, they can join Sarika Adventure Point on a tour that takes climbers down five different waterfalls, putting their rappelling skills to the test along the way. The 230-foot drop off Song Pee Nong falls is especially exhilarating. 

El Capitan (Yosemite National Park)
El Capitan is quite possibly the most iconic rock climbing destination in the entire world, but it is also a mecca for abseilers too. El Cap's massive 3000-foot rock race is not for the faint of heart and this descent should only be made by the most experienced of climbers. Still, it is a thrilling, wild ride from top to bottom, in truly one of the most spectacular outdoor playgrounds on the planet – Yosemite National Park

Take Caution

As you can imagine, rappelling is a dangerous activity, and it is estimated that about 25% of all climbing deaths occur while the person is descending in this fashion. Because of this, anyone attempting the activity for the first time should do so with a trained and experienced guide who can show them the proper technique and ensure that all of the equipment is being used in a safe and secure fashion. If you are learning to rock climb or abseil for the first time, taking a proper course that teaches the skill is highly encouraged.

 

Rappelling is a common activity in adventure sports and adventure travel. It can be incredibly thrilling to do and it is a good skill to have in your quiver. It is also something that you can learn fairly quickly under the proper training and guidance.