Abseil vs Rappel: What are the Differences and Similarities?

Abseil vs rappel

If someone started to rappel or learn appealing and exciting aspects of this action-packed pursuit, they might be confused in the beginning.

There are so many methods of doing it.

You can use several types of gear, and you can select several places for rappelling.

But beginners often wonder what are the differences and similarities between abseil vs. rappel?

And we are answering this topic.

The term rappelling and its closely associated counterpart, abseiling, can be easily confused by many. 

You might be wondering if both these terms are any different from each other.

If they are different, what is their origin?

Why do we call it by two names when both the words point to almost the same thing?

I intend to address your curiosity in this regard in my article today.

Still, I would attempt to reply to your queries right away.

My honest opinion is that it is the same thing to rappel and to abseil.

People refer to these terms based on their location.

People prefer to call it rappelling in the US, whereas it is known as abseiling in the UK.

There are two different things here – learning about the history of abseiling and what precisely abseiling means.

I will try to clarify the difference between the two things next.

Ultimately both activities mean the same thing.

They are related to a specific sports activity, including a set of actions to lower your body using ropes and some equipment to control the speed of going down.

rappel vs abseil

If you know about such procedures, it is highly likely that you already know about abseiling and rappelling.

Furthermore, if you belong to the UK, you will be conversant with the term abseiling.

On the other hand, people from the US are familiar with the term rappelling.

There is nothing more to it, literally.

Is Rappelling Less Popular than Abseiling?

Rappelling is mostly prevalent in the US.

However, it is called abseiling in the United Kingdom and large parts of Europe.

You can manage to refer to this activity as rappelling in the United Kingdom and anywhere else in the world.

People will quickly understand what you are referring to in such a case.

However, climbers would prefer to call it abseiling as far as possible.

It is a fascinating subject. I have studied its nuances to find out if climbers use the word rappelling more or abseiling more.

Although these terms are straightway linked to people’s backgrounds, I have seen the US people saying it as abseiling in place of rappelling and the other way round.

I feel that this behavior is related to the location of learning this activity.

It is also related to their individual experiences and the country of origin of their trainers.

I never thought that today morning I would be talking about semantics.

Still, I will try my best to explain it to you.

In my view, these two terms have nothing to do with English.

Both these words are adopted from foreign languages.

  • Abseiling is derived from the German word “abseilen,” which is translated as roping down;
  • The rappelling word originated from the French language, roughly translated as pulling through or recalling;
  • The more thought-provoking part here is that people use both terms in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It makes it challenging to understand which of the two terms is used more at a global level;

Hence, we will find the solution by checking our books.

We can find out which of these two words is more prevalent in the English language.

It was found that English literature gives preference to the term rappelling instead of the abseiling name.

It appears that the other variant is used 65% less often, making it less prevalent.

If you take part in rappelling or abseiling activity at several places globally, and you don’t know which of the two terms to use, it is quite simple to decide.

Use the rappelling word if you are in the US, and the abseiling word can be used if you are in the United Kingdom area.

Ultimately, no one cares about which name you use for your climbing activity. It is just a bit of simple advice which you can follow quickly. 

Which Term Was Used First?

If you delve deeper into their history, abseiling originated far earlier than its closely related cousin, rappelling.

The abseiling procedure is credited to Mr. Jean Charlet Straton

Mr. Jean Charlet Straton

He was a Chamonix guide in the 1840-1925 period.

He tried several times in 1876 to scale a peak but could not do so on his own.

Finally, he was helped by two other hired Chamonix guides and reached the Petit Dru peak of Aiguille du Dru in 1879.

His companions were Mr. Prosper Pay and Frdric Folliguet.

It seems that he excelled in the abseiling procedure while trying to conquer this summit.

After many years, in 1944, Mr. Roger Frison Roche gave the rappelling reference to abseiling.

Perhaps the rappelling word was fixed then.

Although it was a dramatic alteration of the term, Roger attributed the technique to its original creator to give the due credit.

Why Do People Use Two Different Terms Globally?

We need to understand it from a historical perspective and learn more about the past of rock climbing and mountaineering.

Although we use both these activities on both sides of the world, they were quite popular in the US and Europe earlier.

Mountaineering was popularised by braveheart climber Antoine de Ville, lord of Beaupr and Vomjulien.

He scaled Mont-Aiguille in 1942 and became the first mountaineer to do so.

Here, you might be wondering how it matters in explaining abseiling.

Please lend me your ears a little more time.

The History of Mountaineering Is Linked to Abseiling

Presently we consider mountaineering as an attainable goal even though it is challenging.

However, climbing mountains was filled with fear and respect for long periods of human history.

It was challenging to dare into the mountaineering activity without any robust gear or protective clothing of today’s world.

Due to mixed feelings of respect and fear, many ancient folk tales became deep-rooted.

People started believing that Gods lived in those mountains.

Mount Olympus is the most famous example of the old Greek religion.

People thought that Mount Olympus was home to 12 Olympian Gods.

The popularity of mountain climbing increased manifold after many climbers started conquering the summits in Europe.

The government also began providing grants and similar incentives.

Abseil vs rappel

They encouraged brave people to climb to peaks where no man has even gone.

All this brought more respect for mountain climbers.

Their hard work was appreciated all over the world.

Nevertheless, mountaineering was not easy in those days.

It took several years of tireless efforts for human beings to reach the world’s tallest peaks. 

Western climbers arrived in the Himalayan region in the late 19th century.

The world’s tallest peak Mount Everest was conquered in 1953.

By 1980, mountaineering or alpinism became a commercial and recreational sport.

Enter Rock Climbing

It may be impossible to find the entire history of rock climbing.

If we consider ancient cave paintings depicting climbing illustrations, we may have started doing so in 400 BC.

I can bet that we used to scale cliffs much earlier.

Today, rock climbing activities are taken as a sports activity.

But in ancient times, it was not done for enjoyment or bragging but mainly for survival.

Have you ever thought about whether or not rappelling is a sport?

Mountaineering implies the art of climbing mountains.

In contrast, rock climbing refers to a more specific activity.

But not much prestige was associated with it.

Rappelling vs Abseiling

This disparity between the two streams widened in the late 19th century.

The reason was that Mountaineers did not use to focus on reaching the peak but were only concerned with the climbing process.

Rock climbing got the status of a serious sport in Italy and Great Britain.

Georg Winkler conquered the Dolomites in Saxony in 1887, and hence it got popularised in Italy.

In 1886, WP Hasket scaled the Napes Needle in Great Britain, and he became the Father Of Rock Climbing.

Rock Climbing In the US

In the US, rock climbing became quite distinct from mountaineering.

People considered it a hobby sport to get an adventurous high irrespective of their backgrounds or skill levels.

On the other hand, it was considered a refined activity in Europe that calls for higher skills and strength.

It resulted in a gap between the two, even though they were based on similar principles.

These semantic dissimilarities were quite expected and made sense.

It would have been strange if people used the same words for this sporty activity in the US and Europe.

The contrast and the rift existed because of the cultural differences and the unique nature of rock climbing.

Final Thoughts about Abseil vs. Rappel

Both abseiling and rappelling are the same activities.

Still, they have different backgrounds and appeared at differing times in the human history of rock climbing and mountaineering.

Hopefully, I could shed light on the subject to avoid any confusion.

If you want to add anything to this topic, please reach out and share your insights.