What is Abseiling or Rappelling?

abseiling or rappelling down a rock face
••• The proper technique for abseiling down a rock face. Jarek Tuszynski

What is Abseiling?

The dictionary defines abseiling, or rappelling as it is called by many mountaineers, 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 done by inexperienced people without proper 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.

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 method extensively on that 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 off a mountain. 

Rappelling Gear

Abseiling requires a set of specialized equipment to be done safely. That gear includes ropes of course, with most climbers using the same rope that they go up the mountain when descending it 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 helpful items for keeping climbers safe too.

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. 

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 yourself 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 rock face. Occasionally they may use their feet to push off from the wall, allowing them to drop at an accelerated, but still controlled, rate. 

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. 

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 being used is safe and secure. 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.