Dropping into a deep cavern is awe inspiring. To explore places that very few people have and see the immense grandeur that is uncovered in cave rappelling is truly eye opening. There is hidden beauty deep within the earth that is calling out to the adventurer to explore it. Caving rappelling is a breathtaking experience but once you rappel in that is not the end of the journey. There is so much more that can be explored on foot in the caverns.
But as always with any rappel, cave rappelling requires certain techniques, skills, and tools to safely descend and navigate the depth of the cave and potential obstacles. Take time to do your homework to research where you may go cave rappelling. It may seem like a walk in the park if you have successfully performed rappels in the outdoors but this is new terrain with new conditions. When new challenges come up it is best to be cautious to avoid any danger. Study what training and gear will be needed and seek professional guidance if new to caving.
Cave rappelling is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity that requires careful planning and preparation. Not all of us can be blessed like Batman with the shear strength and abilities he has to dive off a building without any concern for his safety and float effortlessly down the side of a skyscrapers or mountainous object.
Cave Rappelling Descent
One significant difference that will be immediately encountered is the darkness. There may be little to no natural light. It is extremely recommended to bring a headlamp to provide illumination in the darkness. The path should be lit up to navigate safely to the base of the cave. I would also highly recommend some additional pieces of gear depending on the depth of the cave, if you will need to ascend back up the rappel rope or if you plan to go caving afterwards. That being said as you read through the different points provided about cave rappelling take into consideration the training and professional help that may be required to safely complete this task.
When rappelling a cave the motions and techniques are similar as shown in the following steps:
- With your right hand, grab the loose rope 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 all the way up the rope will run freely and will place whomever is rappelling in grave danger of falling.
- 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.
- Start to rappel, 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 rappel the easier it will be. The important thing is to control a steady pace as you descend until your feet are touching the ground.
One big difference that you may experience when rappelling in a cave is the absence of any walls to place your feet. Most likely the descent will be midair and may require specialized gear that can slow a descent and create some added friction so that control can be maintained while descending into the abyss…well hopefully it’s not that deep. Some recommended products that will added increased control and friction in the descent are:
- Petzel Pro I’D S Descender – This device is perfect to control the descent and has added features to brake and stop the descent automatically if something goes wrong.
- Petzl Stop Descender – This descender has a self-braking feature that can be activated to maintain your position on the rope.
These products are extremely recommended for deep cave descents or any in any rappel where more control is needed, whether recreationally or professionally.To learn more on both these products features and specific uses read Best Rappelling Descenders on the Market blog review.
Navigating the Dark Abyss
Once the rappel is completed and feet are firmly grounded on the base of the cave you have two choices:
- Ascend right back up the rappel rope or…
- Explore the new surroundings within the cave.
I for one would rather explore the cave. Sometimes a cave could be shallow and there may not be much to explore or see but if given the chance to wander a little deeper and do some caving I would say go for it. Step outside your norm and see the majesty of Mother Earth and the formations created within these caves.
When exploring any gave it is again good to have a great headlamp(with extra batteries, don’t want to get lost) to lead the way throughout the tunnels and crevices that are being explored. Also, wear warm clothing that is water resistant, if the cave conditions require such clothing. Caving can get really messy quickly depending on the terrain (is it wet or if there is any flowing water), temperature (cool to freezing}, or are you squeezing between tight, dirty spaces. Dress for the occasion. There are many accounts of caving where individuals were not dressed or prepared for the extreme cold or wet conditions and found themselves with hypothermia. Don”t risk it. Research the conditions and be dress appropriate for what can be expected.
Once when I was navigating an ice cave (which if you can find one in your vicinity I highly recommend doing it) there was a point that the cave ceiling was so low you had to lay down on the frozen surface. With my back on the frozen ice floor I placed my hands and feet on the ceiling and propelled myself to my next destination. I was really doing a horizontal rock climb while pushing myself along the rock. It was amazing! Not to mention all of the unique ice formations in the ice cave itself. I was dressed right for this caving opportunity, never felt cold, and had a blast.
Remember, cave rappelling must be taken seriously. When descending into a cave dress appropriately for the terrain and conditions of the cave. Also, always have lots of lighting to provide increased visibility and safety.
How to Climb Up the Rappel Rope
You are at the base of a cave and just finished exploring the area. It is now time to ascend back up, most likely up the rappel rope. One of the most important techniques to learn is the Prusik knot, which is commonly used for ascending a rope. The Prusik knot is a friction hitch and allows a more controlled ascent. Additionally, tests have shown that the Prusik knot can carry a significant amount of weight and tension in comparison to other knots or methods. This is a clear cut choice to support personal weight.
Prior to tying a Prusik though, an Autoblock will be needed to safely hold a rappeller midair, freeing up their hands. This allows the rappeller to use their hands when tying the Prusik. The Autoblock is a precautionary step that is recommended to be tied prior to the rappel. To learn how to tie this hitch visit the Autoblock tutorial.
Now with the Autoblock safely in place, move the Autoblock up until it is fully engaged. Once engaged, both hands can safely be removed from the rope and used to tie the Prusik about a foot above the rappel device. The following steps teach how to tie the Prusik knot:
- Tie a double fishermans knot to join two cords (see fisherman’s knot below).
- Tie a second double fishermans knot with the other tail. The cords should now make one big circle.
- Pull the double fishermans knots together to create a barrel knot.
- Take the loop of the cord and place it under the rope.
- Wrap the cord around the rope three times. Be sure the wraps stay on the inside of the cord, with the doube fisherman’s at the bottom.
To properly tie the Prusik knot make sure to have additional cord on hand. Always be prepared for anything! By taking proper measures beforehand it will decrease the likelihood of any incident taking place when rappelling.
Now that you know how to tie the Prusik lets put all these techniques into action so that you can ascend up the rappel rope. This example is if you are rappelling on a double rope.
- Start by tying two friction hitches using the Prusik knot. Use two different soft nylon cords, 5mm or 6mm for best results. Both Prusiks will be tied on the rope above the waste, one above the other. Do not overlap.
- On the top Prusik attach the end of the cord to a locking carabiner. A 24 -inch sling will be attached to this locking carabiner and directly to the harness.
- The bottom Prusik attach the end of the cord to a locking carabiner. Attach two 24 inch slings. Once sling will be attached from the carabiner to the harness. The other sling will dangle and will be used as a foot sling.
- At this point place the foot in the dangling sling and stand. This will place your weight on the bottom friction hitch (Prusik). Slide the top Prusik up as high as you can.
- Now sit back in the harness (keep your foot resting in the sling), placing your body weight on the top friction hitch (Prusik). Slide the bottom friction hitch up until the foot resting in the sling’s knee is bent at a 90 degree angle.
- Stand up in the sling again and repeat the steps of moving the top and bottom hitches. The rope can be used to balance when standing but make sure to not grab and balance on the Prusik hitches. Only use the rope for balance, only make physical contact with the hitches when sliding them up.
- Continue to repeat the process until the summit is reached. You are moving the speed of a tortoise in this process but be confident in your abilities and take your time so no mistakes are made. This is a slow and awkward method but this basic step can be learned quickly and adapted promptly when the need arises.
Some Great Rappel Caves
If you are needing to find some great options for cave rappelling here are some choices:
- Stephen’s Gap – Alabama, USA
- Ellison’s Cave – Georgia, USA
- Sotano De Las Golondrinas (Cave of Swallows) – Mexico, yes this is a little more exotic.
For more information on their locations and the expected conditions or other great rappelling options please visit 50 Best Rappelling Places in the USA.
Cave rappelling will test your limits and everything that has been learned thus far from RappellingRocks.com, training and instruction provided by a climbing/rappelling professional, and practicing rappelling outdoors or indoors on vertical descents. Even though this is an extreme test on one’s capabilities, the accomplishment and excitement of cave rappelling is absolutely worth it.