panorama of a rock climber abseiling off a climb
An abseil ( or ; from German abseilen, meaning 'to rope down'), also called a rappel after its French name, is a controlled descent off a vertical drop, such as a rock face, using a rope. "Abseil" is the normal term in the UK and "Rappel" in the USA.
This technique is used by climbers, mountaineers, cavers, canyoners, search and rescue and rope access technicians to descend cliffs or slopes when they are too steep and/or dangerous to descend without protection. Many climbers use this technique to protect established anchors from damage. Rope access technicians also use this as a method to access difficult-to-reach areas from above for various industrial applications like maintenance, construction, inspection and welding.
The origin of the abseil is attributed to Jean Charlet-Straton, a Chamonix guide who lived from 1840-1925. Charlet originally devised the technique of the abseil method of roping down during a failed solo attempt of Petit Dru in 1876. After many attempts, some of them solo, he managed to reach the summit of the Petit Dru in 1879 in the company of two other Chamonix guides, Prosper Payot and Frédéric Folliguet, whom he hired. During that ascent, Charlet perfected the abseil.
Early Dülfersitz or body rappel technique did not require a harness or any equipment
Latter double carabiner brake rappel technique used simple carabiner and sling as a harness
Another carabiner based rappel technique
figure 8 belay device was one of the earliest specialized rappel device, which often required gloves. Now used mostly by military as it allows greater speed of descent.
Modern rappeling technique used by climbers uses belay device
Cave rappels can be long and might have to be done using ropes with varying degrees of friction. That requires specialized break bar rack
- Ropes: Climbers often simply use their climbing ropes for abseiling. For many other applications, low-stretch rope (typically ~2% stretch when under the load of a typical bodyweight) called static rope is used to reduce bouncing and wear.
- Anchors: Abseiling anchors can be constructed from trees or boulders, using webbing and cordellete, or also with rock climbing equipment, such as nuts, hexes and spring-loaded camming devices. Some climbing areas have fixed anchors such as bolts or pitons for rappelling off of without having to leave other (more valuable) gear behind. Mountaineers may descend off an Abalakov thread and canyoners off a Deadman anchor.
- A descender: A friction device or friction hitch that allows rope to be played out in a controlled fashion, under load, with a minimal effort by the person controlling it. The speed at which the abseiler descends is controlled by applying greater or lesser force on the rope below the device or altering the angle at which the rope exits the device. Descenders can be task-designed or improvised from other equipment. Mechanical descenders include braking bars, the figure eight, the abseil rack, the "bobbin" (and its self-locking variant the "stop"), the gold tail, and the "sky genie" used by some window-washers and wildfire firefighters. Some improvised descenders include the Munter hitch, a carabiner wrap, the basic crossed-carabiner brake and the piton bar brake (sometimes called the carabiner and piton). There is an older, more uncomfortable, method of wrapping the rope around one's body for friction instead of using a descender, as in the Dulfersitz or Geneva methods used by climbers in the 1960s.
- A climbing harness: A harness fixed around the waist or whole body use to secure the descender. A comfortable climbing harness is important for descents that may take many hours.
- A safety back-up: These include the prusik, Klemheist knot, or autoblock knot, commonly referred to as an 'autoblock,'. They are used as a back-up in the case of the abseiler losing control. Typically a friction hitch is wrapped around the rope below the rappel device, using a short loop of smaller diameter cord or webbing, often called a 'prusik loop'. The prusik loop is then attached to the belay loop or leg loop of the harness.
- Helmets: Used to protect the head from bumps and falling rocks.
- Gloves: Used to protect hands from the rope and from colliding with the wall. They are mainly used by recreational abseilers, industrial access practitioners, adventure racers and military as opposed to climbers or mountaineers. There is some evidence that they can increase the risk of accident by becoming caught in the descender in certain situations.
- Boots or climbing shoes: Used to increase friction against the rock
- Knee-pads (and sometimes elbow-pads): These are popular in some applications to protect joints during crawls or hits.
Abseiling is used in a number of applications, including:
- Climbing - for returning to the base of a climb or to a point where one can try a new route.
- Recreational abseiling - abseiling for it's own sake.
- Canyoning - to descend tall waterfalls and/or cliffs.
- Caving and speleology - where underground pitches need to be accessed.
- Adventure racing - these events often include abseiling and other rope work.
- Industrial/commercial applications - abseiling techniques are used to access parts of structures or buildings so as to perform maintenance, cleaning or construction, e.g. steeplejacking, window cleaning, etc.
- Access to wildfires.
- Confined spaces access - eg. accessing ballast tanks, manholes
- Rescue applications - used to access injured people on or nearby cliffs.
- (Military) Uses - Tactical heliborne insertion of troops, including special forces, into the battlefield close to the objective, when proper landing zones are not available. More commonly used in urban warfare scenarios and is increasingly replaced by fast-roping. Typical examples include: insertion into urban environments, boarding of sea-going vessels and insertion of forces to seize and secure a landing zone in enemy territory (air assault).
Rescue-style (eared) figure eight descender and rope
Abseiling works by increasing the friction on the rope to the point where it can be held comfortably. The techniques range from wrapping the rope around the abseiler's body (eg. The Dülfersitz) or using a custom built device like a rack. Practitioners choose a technique based on speed, safety, weight and other circumstantial concerns.
- Australian rappel -- Used in the military. The abseiler descends facing downwards allowing them to see where they are going.
- Tandem or spider rappelling -- Used in climbing. Involves two climbers descending on the same belay device. This is useful in rescue situations when one of the climbers is incapacitated or the descent needs to be done quickly. The set-up is similar to a regular rappelling, with the incapacitated climber suspended from the descender (and backed up on the primary climbers harness).
- Simul-rappelling or simultaneously rappelling -- Used in climbing and canyoning. Two climbers descend simultaneously on the same length of rope, where one climber's weight counterbalances the other. Generally the technique is considered less safe than the regular rappelling; however, it's useful in case of emergencies, or for rapping off opposite sides of a fin or spire where there are no anchor points. This is common in places like the Needles of South Dakota's Black Hills.
- Counterbalance rappelling -- Used in climbing. This rescue technique is typically used by a leader to reach an injured second. The leader rappels off on one strand of rope, using the incapacitated second's weight on the other strand of the rope as a counterbalance.
- Releasable abseil - Used by guides. This safety technique allows a leader to descend with inexperienced abseilers. A rope (twice the length of the abseil) is set up by anchoring it with a munter mule hitch. The client descends on a single isolated strand of the rope. If the client becomes stuck halfway down the guide will be able to unlock the other strand and lower the client to the ground using the hitch as a belay device. This could be useful if the client panics, or gets clothing or hair entangled in the descender.
- Classical (non-mechanical methods), e.g. the Dülfersitz -- Used in emergencies. These technique are more dangerous than modern alternatives and used only in emergencies when no other option is available. They involve descending without aid of mechanical devices, by wrapping the rope around the body, and were used before the advent of harnesses and hardware.
- South African classical abseil (double-roped) - Used in emergencies. This is a type of classical abseil where the user has a spare hand.
- Fireman's Belay -- Safety backup. A partner stands on the ground below the abseil holding the rope(s). If the abseiler begins to fall they will be able to pull down on the rope to arrest the descent.
Safety and ecological issues
Abseiling can be dangerous, and presents risks, especially to unsupervised or inexperienced abseilers. According to German mountaineer Pit Schubert, about 25% of climbing deaths occur during abseiling, most commonly due to failing anchors. Other accident causes include abseiling beyond the end of the rope and falling rocks. Backing up the rope set-up with a friction knot (autoblock, Kleimheist, or prusik) such that the slipping of the rope is stopped even if the climber lets go of the control rope provides a measure of safety with regard to the control of the rate of descent.
Abseiling is prohibited or discouraged in some areas, due to the potential for environmental damage and/or conflict with climbers heading upwards, or the danger to people on the ground.
References and footnotes