by Brad

December 3, 2020

Cave Rappelling for Beginners

Cave rappelling is amongst the most inspiring activities. It can engage you forever but involves a fair degree of risk. I can recall my very first cave rappelling activity.

I was relatively young at that time. We did not have any idea what to expect in such an adventurous activity. Luckily for my friends and me, the local guides were very patient and helpful.

I like one thing most about my cave rappelling activity that it is so dark inside those caves. Secondly, the descent inside the cave takes longer than we think. You are surrounded by cave walls all the time when you go down there. It feels like a long elevator ride deep down there.

It was such a pleasant experience for me. I repeated that activity whenever I got another chance to visit the caves for rappelling. However, there are many things I wished I had known before.

I want you to be better prepared than I was for this activity for the very first time. That is why I am sharing such information with you.

Cave Rappelling Is Directly Related to Caving

It is necessary to understand that cave rappelling is not like traditional rappelling off a building or a cliff. It is a type of caving activity where you explore natural caves. It also requires coming back to the surface safely.

Top 5 Cave Rappelling Locations

You do not enter the cave from its standard opening. You are lowered into the cave vertically by using high-quality ropes. Cave rappelling in this way is quite challenging. Moreover, it is hazardous if it is not done systematically.

Several things can go wrong in a cave rappelling activity. However, I would like to assure you that not too many accidents happen. The reason is that most of such activity is done in a controlled environment under the supervision of professionals.

Still, there are certain inherent risks involved in cave rappelling. It would be best if you are aware of potentially dangerous situations. There are high chances of getting slippery surfaces.

The visibility inside the caves is reduced considerably. Moreover, there are risks of falling rocks and sudden flooding too.

All these situations can turn into nightmares. That is why I stress so much about taking an experienced person with you. You might consider taking the help of professional guides or your friends who have already experienced such situations.

Why Should You Try Out Cave Rappelling

It is an awe-inspiring experience to drop yourself into deep caverns. It is an altogether different experience to explore places where only a few people have gone. A splendid view is uncovered when your rappel down in a cave.

You will be surprised to see the hidden beauty deep inside the earth. The grandeur calls out to adventurous people to explore it. Once you rappel down into a cave, it is not the end of it all. There is a lot more to enjoy over there. You can explore the caverns on foot to unravel the beauty of nature.

Like other rappels, cave rappelling is done by using specific techniques, tools, and skills. You have to descend safely to the cave's depth and navigate obstacles. You need to thoroughly research the cave rappelling locations and choose the one that suits you.

It may look like an easy task if you have already done some rappelling outdoors. However, this is usually not the case. It is a new type of terrain with altogether different surroundings and challenges.

How to Cave Rappelling

In such a situation, you should be cautious to avoid danger. Do your homework to identify the training and gear required. You should always look for professional guidance if you are a beginner and new to this field.

It is a rare and once in a lifetime opportunity and must be well-planned. We are not blessed like Batman, who can dive off without worrying bout his safety. He is loaded with strength and abilities, which we are not. He can quickly float down by the side of skyscrapers and mountains, but we cannot.

How to Rappel Into a Cave

It is quite similar to traditional rappelling off the face of buildings and cliffs. But it is much more challenging than that.

First of all, grab the loose rope with your right hand. The said rope goes down to the cave bottom. No matter what, you should never leave this rope during descent as it is your brake hand.

If you want to decrease the descent speed, lower your right hand below your waist while holding the rope. The rope will be prevented from running through the ATC. Keep your hand a little low. At least, try keeping it at the same level if you cant keep it below your waist.

The speed will be increased if you raise your hand too much. It happens because the rope flows quickly through the ATC. You might have got a feeling that It can put you in some serious problems.

By now, you have understood that your right hand is your brake hand. Your left hand is required for guidance. The rope which is tied with anchors will be held by your left hand. Use your guide hand to put the rope through the ATC device. That is how you rappel.

Always keep your legs at a 90-degree angle to the cave wall. You can walk down slowly as you descend. Please take care of slippery surfaces while dropping as it may imbalance you.

Sometimes, there will be no cave walls. In that case, you can't keep your legs on any surface, and you rappel freely. You must watch out for obstacles to be safe, even if you are falling at a slower speed.

When you rappel freely without any wall support, you need extra friction. You will need specialized devices known as rappelling descenders. Many high-quality devices are available in the market.

At some locations, local guides may also provide some of the equipment. However, I prefer using my gear because I am aware of its function and limitations.

Cave Rappelling

Cave Rappelling Descent

The movements and methods are comparable in cave rappelling. The steps are as follows:

  • 1) Using the right hand, hold the slack rope leading down to the cave. It is used to put a brake on your speed and is reinforced by your ATC device. Never leave the cord as this is your brake hand. To apply brakes while descending, lower your right hand beneath the waist. Keep grabbing the rope. Doing so stops the feeding of string from the ATC. If you move your hand up, it releases the rope freely. Doing this can put the person at the risk of falling speedily.
  • 2) The left hand is used as a guiding hand. It holds on to the rope tied to anchors.
  • 3) To start rappelling, use your guiding hand to release the rope to pass across the ATC.
  • 4) While coming down, ensure to put your legs at 90-degree to the cave wall. It enables you to move downwards slowly. It is also known as hopping down.
  • 5) Watch out for obstacles by turning your head regularly. Go down at a comfortable speed.
  • 6) The more you rappel, the quicker it is. That is how it works. Initially, you may feel a little tense and robotic, but you soon get the hang of it. Keep a stable pace until you touch the ground.
  • 7) In cave rappelling, the most significant difference is that there may not be any wall to put your feet. It is called a midair descent and is like a free fall. You will need specific gear to add friction to descend slowly. The device can maintain control of the speed at which you drop into the gorge.

Here are some of the suggested products to add friction and improve management while descending.

Petzl I'D Self-Braking Descender

This descender is ideal for controlling the descent speed. It has an inbuilt safety feature of applying the brakes automatically. It implies that in case of any eventuality, it works to stop the sudden descent.

Amazon's Choice

Petzl Stop Descender

This descending device also features a self-brake system. It is activated automatically to help you keep your position.

We highly recommend these descenders for deeper cave descents. They are useful in rappels where extra control is required.

How Can You Climb a Rappelling Rope

You reached the bottom of the cave. You have just completed exploring the cave area. Now it is time to go back up there, usually by the rappel. One of the essential techniques used in ascending is the Prusik. It is mostly used for climbing on ropes.

This knot facilitates a controlled ascent using its frictional hitch. This knot can handle a substantial weight. Comparatively, it is a better choice, at least to support your weight. You will need an Autoblock before tying a Prusik. It will safely keep the person midair, freeing up his hands.

The person can use his hands to tie the knot. Autoblock will be a preventive step, and It is suggested to be used before rappelling up. To understand to connect this hitch, read our autoblock guide.

After putting Autoblock properly, slide it upwards till it is properly engaged. Now you can remove both your hand from this rope. You can directly secure the hitch knot about one foot over the rappel.

Steps for Tying the Prusik Knot

  • 1) Use the double fisherman knot to link two cords. Please refer to the fisherman knot.
  • 2) Secure the second double fisherman knot on the other end. Both cords now have a single large round shape.
  • 3) Pull both the fisherman knots to make a barrel knot.
  • 4) Take the cord loop and put it below the rope carefully.
  • 5) Wrap this cord about the said rope 3 times. Ensure that it remains inside the cable and the double fisherman knot below.

Ensure to keep extra cord handy for tying the Prusik properly. It would help if you were mentally ready for anything. Take proper measures to decrease the chances of any eventuality.

After learning to tie Prusik knots, it is high time to put all the learning into a real act. Here is an example of ascending on two ropes.

  • 1) Tie 2 friction points with Prusik knots. For best results, use two soft nylon cords of 5 mm or 6 mm. Both Prusik knots will be secured above the waist. Ensure to keep them one over the other and don't overlap them.
  • 2) Attach the cord end on the upper Prusik knot to a locking carabiner. Attach a 24 inches long sling to it and the harness.
  • 3) Attach the cord end on the lower Prusik knot to the locking carabiner. Now attach two slings of 24 inches each. The first one is attached to the carabiner and harness. The second one dangles and works as a sling for your feet.
  • 4) Put your feet in the sling and put your weight on it by standing. It engages the bodyweight on the lower hitch. Slide the upper hitch to a maximum possible height.
  • 5) Now rest on the harness by keeping feet on that sling and putting the entire weight on the upper hitch. Slide the lower hitch upwards till the knee of the foot in the sling is at 90 degrees.
  • 6) Stand up and repeatedly do these steps of moving both the hitches one by one. You can use the rope for balance while standing. Do not do any balancing on the knots. Contact the Prusik cord physically only when sliding upwards.
  • 7) Repeat this until you reach the top.

Remember that while ascending, you move at the tortoise speed. Be confident in yourself and make no mistakes. It is a sluggish and challenging way of rappelling up.

After you learn these necessary steps, you can adapt them quickly as per your need and situation. Moreover, you can try some other unique tricks to rappel: Simul Rappel, waterfall rappelling, and the Australian Rappelling technique.

Top 5 Cave Rappelling Locations

Top 5 Cave Rappelling Locations

All caves do not offer features suitable for cave rappelling. In the US, there are about 45,000 caves in all. Some natural caves are not deep enough to enjoy this activity.

Here are top-five excellent cave ideas for you. These locations are affordable and relatively accessible.

1) Natural Bridge Caverns

These Caverns are located in San Antonio, Texas. They are named after a 60 feet natural limestone bridge situated nearby. The best part is their hidden passage tour. Here, several caverns are explored by visitors by using just their cool headlamps.

For rappelling, you are carried 160 feet down from a 22-inch shaft. After that, you are supposed to crawl at a depth of about 230 feet. This activity is both challenging and enjoyable. By the way, this place is inhabited by the largest bat colony in the world. Moreover, these are the most commercial caverns in the US.

2) Laurel Caverns Park

Laurel Caverns Park is the first cave location that comes to our mind. After all, it is the largest cave in Pennsylvania. It features about three miles of passages. Cave Rappelling activity here is specifically designed for beginners. It starts with a brief session about the instructions to be followed. They provide all the rappelling equipment.

An amount of $35 is charged per person for this class. But, there is an age restriction of a minimum of 12 years. First of all, the tour is started with a lighted section. Each student is allowed to rappel from a 40-feet cliff. Please note that you need not worry about the weather at all. It is so because all the rappelling cliffs are situated inside the caves.

How to cave rappelling for beginners

3) Ellison's Cave in Georgia

Ellison's cave is the twelfth largest cave in the US. They are considered the perfect cave-location for rappelling. It is also known as Fantastic Pit because it is the deepest and open cave in the continental US. Moreover, the cave is 12 miles long and 1063 feet deep.

Please note that this cave is not suitable for beginners. There have been incidents where two students from the University of Florida died in 2011 because of hypothermia.

These caves are ideal for experienced cavers. They possess the proper knowledge of rope climbing and rappelling. Usually, cavers and beginners are discouraged here.

Still, you can visit these caves but make sure to bring someone experienced with you. You must be extra vigilant if you intend to explore these cave passages.

4) Stephens Gap in Alabama

Stephens Gap is one of the most famous caves in the whole Southeast. You will be mesmerized by its breathtaking view from its walk-in entrance. Moreover, it has a 143-feet vertical pit. It is located in Jackson county, and several cavers, hikers, and photographers are attracted to this prime destination.

Please ensure to carry a free permit if you want to rappel through the keyhole here. The keyhole point is located exactly opposite the top opening of the cave where you first visit.

5) Moaning Caverns in California

If you are keen for a long descent, then Moaning Caverns are right for you. On arrival, you need to watch a brief video about basic instructions. It would help if you listened to those instructions carefully to learn what is allowed and what is not. 

You will be hooked to a harness and descended to the bottom. The latter part of the descent is challenging. You are dropped into the cave with a free-fall.

After reaching the cave bottom, you can either go for wine-tasting or caving. Whatever you choose, both the options are enjoyable in their unique way.

Conclusion

That was all about cave rappelling activity and how you can practice it as a beginner. It was a challenging activity for me too. Take all the required precautions. Try to start this activity in a controlled environment. If you follow the basic rules, you will be fine every single time.

Remember that this activity is not for faint-hearted people. But, the same is also valid for climbing and mountaineering. It involves a fair degree of risk. However, the result is gratifying.

If you intend to talk about your experiences, please get in touch. I will be more than happy to hear about your cave rappelling adventures.

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About the author 

Brad

Brad is a professional climber in the discipline of traditional climbing. He often jokes that he can get a book to read during the long climbs. Of course, it always goes well with a good cup of coffee. Drinking coffee is his safer hobby.

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