Abseiling Fundamentals for Beginners


Abseiling is a high intensity sport that requires significant attention to detail. The act of abseiling is to lower oneself in a controlled manner which can sound easy enough but in reality requires a broad understanding of how to use the right equipment, techniques, and even the types of knots to properly descend down a vertical drop such as a steep cliff.

The art of the abseil (more commonly known as the rappel) is attributed to Jean Charlot-Straton (from Chamonix, France) who used the abseil to safely descend the Petit Dru in 1879.  The term abseil is rooted back to German and means to rope down. Since its invention, the abseil has become extremely popular for recreational purposes such as rock climbing, mountaineering, caving and more.

Abseiling is not only used for recreation but has many uses professionally. Abseiling is used for rescue crews, public service units, and even the military for descending from helicopters or down places that otherwise would be reachable. The abseil is even used from window washers on higher rises, inspections and repairs for large landmarks, and more typically for basic construction.

As can be seen the abseil is a technique used universally and can even be mastered even by a beginner. It will require practice, training and guidance by a trained professional but the basic methods and techniques can be learned quickly.

Abseiling will create opportunity to conquer high vertical destinations that are typically unconquerable. It is a massive rush to perform an abseil and the sites that can bee seen are truly breathtaking but again abseiling is not all fun and games. There is so much more to abseiling than the scenery though; such as learning the right techniques, training, and what equipment to use to safely descend in a controlled manner. That being said lets learn how to abseil.

What is Abseiling?

Abseiling is somewhat similar to lowering, which is performed in rock climbing. In Lowering, you reach the top of your climb and with the help of a belay partner to assist you (the climber) down the mountain in a controlled manner. Pushing off a surface with your legs, almost like you are slightly jumping down in a vertical fashion. The belay partner slowly and steadily releases rope so that you gradually come down.

Both lowering and abseiling have some similar techniques and much of the same equipment; however, in abseiling the climber (which is you) will typically lower themselves down a descent such as a cave, cliff, etc. without the support of another partner. The lowering will be done in a controlled manner while using a friction break device. The friction break device sdetermine the speed of descent and provides greater control of the abseil.

That being said, where you are abseiling solo it is that much more important to be 100% aware of your surroundings, to check your equipment thoroughly, and be confident in your abilities. A rock climber’s belay partner is physically supporting the ascent and the descent of their buddies but in abseiling you are responsible for most of your actions. Now don’t think that no one else can come with you on your trips or help coach you, of course they can. It is highly recommended that you take someone with you that can spot your descent. What I want to emphasize is that in abseiling you are complete control of the equipment used to descend some vertical point until you reach the base of your destination.

This is a HUGE responsibility and having the ability to abseil brings you into an elite group of individuals. Abseiling again is used recreationally when caving, climbing, and canyoneering but it is also used by emergency crews such as firefighters, SWAT teams, and search and rescue. Even the military uses abseiling for descents from helicopters, “Get to the Chopper!’ Abseiling will enrich your life and open new doors of exotic destinations that can be reached when previously they were only dreams.

Getting Started

Alright, so now that you are starting to realize what abseiling is, let’s learn how to do it so your own adventure can begin.

What Abseiling Equipment is Needed?

Like most activities, the right tools and equipment are essential to successfully perform an abseil. A job can only be performed well with such tools. Don’t short change yourself when buying gear either because this could be the difference between life or death. Buy quality and buy new unless you are a professional and have a keen eye with spotting used gear that has little wear and can be safely purchased for personal use.

In abseiling, you must have the right equipment, the right experience, and the right vision because your physical well being depends on it. The lives of your loved ones may depend on it as well if you take them along on abseiling trips and lend your gear. Abseiling is an extreme sport and can be dangerous, if not properly prepared and equipped. On that note make sure that you do study the locations you abseil because each location may require different pieces of equipment specialized for the time or terrain or vertical that will be descended. You will have an experience like you never have had before when you take the time to study and purchase the gear essential to your rappel.

The Abseiling Equipment

Below are my recommendations on the most common pieces of equipment that you will need to safely abseil most routes that you will choose:

Climbing Harness – A harness provides support and security. It includes two leg loops and a waist belt. Adjust the belts so that the harness is snug. When worn correctly the harness should fit tightly to your waist and legs and will not be loose. A harness will include additional gear loops to be used for carabiners, chalk bag, etc. There is a belay loop in the front of the harness where you will attach your carabiner and then tie the rope to the carabiner for abseiling. Read my harness recommendation here: Best Rappelling Harness for Beginners.

Static Rope – To rappel you need a static rope preferably. A dynamic rope can be used but static rope is made specifically for rappelling. This rope is intended for caving, industrial use, or rappelling down a mountain side. The static rope should not be used for normal rock climbing though. The recommended rope for rock climbing would be a dynamic rope, which provides great spring if you happen to fall. It is important to note this unique difference so you have the right rope for the right job. Who knew there would be different choices? Read my rope recommendation here: Choosing the Right Rappelling Rope.

Rope Bag (see on Amazon)– A rope bag is equally important because it has a dual purpose: storing the rope and creating a simple tarp and mat where you can lay out your rope or tangle the loose ends above it once the abseil is setup. When used as a mat it keeps the rope out of the dirt or any other sediment. When in use the loose ends tangling down protected by this mat so no unnecessary abrasion takes place as the ends move around on the earth.

Carabiners (see on Amazon)– Carabiners are the butter to the bread. They are absolutely essential for the job and are multifunctional for abseiling. Carabiners are used to attach links, abseiling or other climbing devices, and even slings to ropes and cords. If you buy some, make sure that they are UIAA certified which is the most accepted climbing safety standard.

Slings (see on Amazon)– Slings are used as anchors from which you can abseil from. The anchor is made on something that is attached, such as a live tree with vibrant roots or a pultruding rock from the structure, etc. Avoid loose rocks, boulders, or any other object that in itself is not anchored one way or another to avoid unexpected movement of the object that you have attached to.

Cord and Cordelettes (see on Amazon) – Cords and Cordelettes are popularly used to create static equalization by connecting two or more anchor points. As you continue to learn and practice abseiling in areas with increased difficulty these pieces of equipment will become more and more important in your descents.

Helmet – ALWAYS wear a helmet when abseiling. Some of the most common injuries that occur in abseiling are from debris and rocks falling down and striking the climbers in the head. Debris can be loosened from the rope if swinging back and forth as the climber descends. Debris can also come loose from the climber pushing off the surface of the sheer rock cliff as they descend. In addition, a helmet can prevent serious injury if the climber abseiling falls or strikes against the surface of the rock. Read my helmet recommendation here: How to Choose a Climbing and Rappelling Helmet.

Chalk Bag (available on Amazon) – A good chalk bag is highly recommended. You can attach one to your harness gear loop to use in the event that your hands become too moist. Chalk keeps your hands dry and allows you to have a firm grip while rappelling. Along with the chalk bag you should get a chalk ball and chalk (both available on Amazon) to fill the ball.

Shoes (Men Shoes or Women Shoes) – Now it is important to wear the right shoes for the occasion. If you are playing basketball then wear basketball shoes, if you are hiking wear hiking shoes, and if you are abseiling use climbing shoes. Do not skimp on a good pair of shoes because it can make a significant difference whether someone is rock climbing up a mountain or abseiling down the mountain. I love a nice pair of rock climbing shoes because they are light weight, durable, and create a greater grip for any footholds when needed. Read my shoe recommendation here: How to Choose Rappelling Shoes.

Knife (available on Amazon) – Now anyone that goes out into the great outdoors should always carry a knife for any emergency. It’s no different than for abseiling. This carabiner contains a knife in case it is needed to cut something that may get snagged or removing any old, frayed slings/cords left behind by previous climbers.

Shorts or Pants – Yes there are specialty shorts and pants for outdoor climbing and abseiling use. They are great because of their durability but I haven’t seen too great of a difference between any. I would recommend just navigating online or go to your local outdoor retail store, such as an REI, to pick some up for your personal use. Read my recommendations on abseiling apparel here: 7 Tips on What to Wear Rappelling.

ATC and Lock Carabiner (see on Amazon) – The ATC, known as the Air Traffic Controller, is used to feed the rope through so that you can belay your rock climbing partner and be there to support them in case they slip or fall or to abseil yourself down in a controlled manner after reaching the peak. Hence the reason ATC stands for Air Traffic Controller because you are controlling your own descent is abseiling or you are in complete control of your partner’s ability to scale the mountain or when they descend if belaying. Sorry, this doesn’t mean you can work at an airport unless properly certified.

Sunglasses – A good pair of active sports sunglasses is recommended in case you are abseiling in an area where there is a lot of direct sunlight. You don’t want to overstrain your eyes if you plan to be rappelling for an extensive period of time. Not to mention that the position of the sun could impact your visibility as you abseil. Bonus Gear: If you plan to do rock climbing as well because practically all of your abseiling equipment is meant for both sports, there is one additional piece of equipment that I would highly recommend.

Dynamic Rope – Like I stated before, dynamic rope is the type highly recommended for rock climbing to provide the best support for a climber in the chance that they slip and fall when climbing. Dynamic rope is intended for heavy use and has more elasticity than static rope. Read my dynamic rope recommendation here: Choosing the Right Rappelling Rope.

How to Tie Knots, Hitches, and Bends

The following are specific knots, hitches, and bends to become familiar with for abseiling. Each of their purposes are extremely imperative to abseil efficiently and safely. This is just a brief overview of the types of Knots, Hitches, and Bends available. For a more detailed explanation of their uses and to learn how to tie each knot, hitch, and bend for abseiling select the following link How to Tie Rappelling Knots, Hitches, and Bends to be redirected to a tutorial page.

Knots

  • Overhand Loop – The simplest knot that can be tied to form a loop.
  • Bowline – This knot is typically used to tie the rope around objects such as a rock or tree.
  • Figure Eight Loop – This is a standard climbers knot and is universally used to tie off the end of a rope or the bight, middle, of a rope.
  • Figure Eight Follow-Through – This is a standard climbers knot and is universally used to tie the rope to their harness. This knot can also be used to tie a rope around objects such as a rock or tree.

Hitches

A hitch is defined as a knot tied around another object like a rope or carabiner. The following are types of hitches to become familiar with in abseiling.

  • Stopper Knot – This knot is highly recommended for abseling and is a simple way to protect oneself from potential danger. It is a knot placed at the end of the rope to STOP one from abseiling off the end of the rope if they do not have enough length to complete the descent.
  • Klemheist Knot – This is a friction knot and can be used to ascend a rope. It is quick and simple to tie but recommended to be used with a sling if there is no other cord to use.
  • Autoblock – Much like the name, this knot is meant as a backup to your brake hand.
  • Prusik Knot – Commonly used for ascending a rope. Think cave abseiling, you get in a cave but now you need to get back out of it.

Bends

A bend is defined as two separate ropes or cords joined together by their ends. The following are types of bends to become familiar with in abseiling.

  • Double Fisherman’s Knot – This knot is commonly used to join nylon cord into a loop to make a cordelette (cordelette is a large sling that uses accessory cord and is created using the Double or Triple Fisherman’s Knot). This knot can also be used to securely join two ropes together in a double-rope rappel.
  • Triple Fisherman’s Knot – This knot has similar functionality to the Double Fisherman’s knot but has been tested to be slightly stronger.
  • Figure Eight Bend – This knot is commonly used to tie two separate ropes together because of its superior strength and ease to untie after use.

Setting Up and Abseiling

Checking Your Abseil Equipment

Prior to any planned abseil take time to do a thorough check on all of the equipment to make sure that you have what you need for your rappelling destination and that everything is in good working order. The last thing you want to do is arrive for the abseil and find out a piece of equipment is distressed and worn beyond use. There is an old saying, “Take care of your equipment and your equipment will take care of you.” This is 100% true when abseiling. Everything must be maintained in tip top shape so you can perform at a high level safely.

Passing this simple step to evaluate your equipment will endanger yourself and possibly others. It is always best to do a thorough scan in advanced. If anything looks frayed, extensively worn, or questionable then stay on the safe side and buy a new replacement. Abseiling is not an activity where you want to wear your equipment to the bone for obvious reasons.

Finding Locations to Abseil

Now select a mapped route to abseil. You can look online, at message boards or reach out to local climbing pros or climbing gyms to get ideas on great places to rappel in your area. This post 50 Best Rappelling Places in the USA specifies great routes that have already been mapped out that can be abseiled. Just make sure that you understand what the expected difficulty level will be of the rappel so you can match it to your skill level. Don’t try to show off and do something that requires significant training and expertise, stay within your comfort level or go with trained professionals that can support you in the abseil. Once a selection is made you are ready to abseil.

Setting up the Abseil

These instructions are not a one-size fits all. With each abseil the scenario, equipment, and techniques will be different. This is just a broad level overview to help build confidence, gain knowledge, and know how to prepare for a general descent. Take every measure to properly train and prepare for your abseil.

From the point of the abseil you will need to find a good anchor to use. This could be a strong, adult tree (never abseil from a dead tree), a large rock mass that is still attached to the rest of the formation (never abseil from a rock mass that is broken free/loose), or something man made. There are many routes that have bolt hangers and chains already set that make your job easier, these steps will address these bolted and mapped routes.

Do a thorough check of the bolt hangers by looking for rusting, attempt to wiggle it to see if the bolt hanger moves, and check the links for extensive wear. Climbers will sometimes run their ropes directly through these links which YOU SHOULD AVOID DOING! These components are not meant to have rope run through them and are unable to endure the friction caused by a moving rope over time. These are the steps you will follow instead:

  • Make sure there are at least two anchors (bolt hangers), preferably three. The third may be another anchor that you would set using a spider sling, etc.
  • Connect two quickdraws, one to each bolt hanger. Both quickdraws must face opposite directions to provide optimal safety when the rope is added.
  • Now place the rope through the opposite end of the bolt hangers on the quickdraws. Prior to adding the rope it is highly recommended to look over the rope and check for any abrasions, strings, knots etc. If it’s all good proceed to add the rope.
  • Run the rope all the way through the quickdraws until you get to the middle mark of the rope.
  • Now tie a Stopper Knot to each end of the rope. This makes sure that you STOP and don’t abseil off the rope ends.
  • Now shout “ROPE!” and toss the ends of the rope down the descent. This is to make any other climbers aware that a rope is coming over the edge so they can move if needed. This is very similar to the golf term “FORE!” when you hit a ball close to other golfers. No one wants to get hurt and you don’t want to cause the injury.
  • Attach a locking carabiner to your belay loop and clip in the ATC, if you haven’t done so already.
  • Grab both strands of the rope and double it over. Slide it through the ATC and clip the loop that you slid through the ATC with your locking carabiner.
  • Lock the carabiner.
  • DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING. Check your locking carabiner, the knots, and hitches to make sure that everything is secure prior to your descent. Check that both ends of the rope are on the ground and that they are in fact knotted at each end.
  • Now examine that the rope is not running over any sharp or obtrusive edges that may cut into the rope as you abseil.

Abseiling Down

  • It is highly recommended to have a spotter as your abseil buddy on the ground. This spotter can guide you down and around any unforeseen obstacles.
  • With your right hand, grab the loose ropes leading to the ground. This will be the break and is supported by the ATC. Never ever let go of the rope with the break hand. To break as you descend lower the right hand below the waist while holding the rope, it will stop the rope from running through the ATC. If the right hand is raised  up the rope will run freely and will place whomever is abseiling in grave danger of falling. Do not raise your right hand.
  • Your left hand will be the guide hand and will hold on the other end of the rope that has been secured to the anchors.
  • As you descend shout “On Abseil!”
  • Start to abseil, use your guide hand to feed the rope through the ATC.
  • While lowering yourself, keep your legs perpendicular to the wall you are descending. This will allow you to use your feet to slowly walk or hop down the wall.
  • Go at your own speed and turn your head to check for any obstacles.
  • Going at your own pace, it may feel robotic and tense at first but the more you abseil the easier it will be. The important thing is to control a steady pace as you descend.
  • Once you reach the ground pull the ropes out of the ATC. As a formality tell your spotter “Off Abseil.” You have now officially abseiled all by yourself
  • Now hike back to the top and continue to abseil. Practice makes perfect.
  • The final step will be to untie the end knots on your rope and pull one strand all the way out until the rope is free from the quickdraws at the top.

Abseiling Conclusion

So those are the basics of abseiling and a broad overview of the equipment and techniques that you will need to perform a controlled abseil. If this is your first time or you are fairly new with abseiling, please find a professional that can instruct you on the abseil. If you don’t know anyone with advanced experience I would do a general search online to locate either a clinic or certified instructor that can assist training you the basics of abseiling and perfecting the proper techniques needed to abseil.

It is always better to take time to train and practice so that you are prepared and confident in your abilities. Proper preparation will allow you to completely soak in the experience as you descend natural beauty and enjoy the great outdoors.

Good luck on your new adventure and HAPPY ABSEILING!

Jacob

I love the great outdoors. I've tried to write the go-to info for all the Rappelling enthusiasts out there. Whether you finished your climb or hiked and rappelled down you will find tips, tutorials, and additional resources to help you. I live in Idaho with my wife and three kids and the great outdoors is our playground.

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