March 24, 2022

The Complete Guide to Cliff Rappelling and How It Works

by Roger

Cliff rappelling is a special type of descent technique used on cliffs. It’s achieved by sliding down on a fixed climbing rope. Normally, the rope is attached to the cliff by cams and bolts that act as anchors, and sometimes natural anchors are applicable. Furthermore, the rope is doubled at the middle or attached to another climbing rope passed through a rappel device. This device controls the rope movement and the descent. 

Cliff rappelling, therefore, involves a rope attached to an anchor on the cliff, harnesses that fit around your waist, and a rappel device.

When getting down, the harness is your seat, and the rappel device connects to it to ensure you are connected to the rope. 

Table of Contents

What is Cliff Rappelling and Why Would You Do It?

In general, rappelling down a cliff is to descend from the top of a cliff using a rope attached by bolts to anchors at the top of the clip, harnesses, and a rappel device that controls the ropes.

Climbers, therefore, descend by sliding down on a rope. 

Usually, once you get to the top of a climb, there are three moves on the chessboard: rappelling down, getting lower, or walking off. Since a walk-off is not ideal, it’s either you rappel or get lowered.

You will have to consider rappelling if you are on a multi-pitch cliff. There may be fixed rappel stations in such incidents, or you may need to attach your own by using rappelling gear and anchor knots.

The other activity wherein rappelling comes in handy is canyoning and biner block rappelling. It is one way that exposes you to steep climbs that cannot be walked through.

You need to rappel through this hard point to get to the bottom of the cliff. Apart from the rough terrain, waterfalls, and rapids, rappelling down a waterfall is not far different from rappelling off a cliff. 

How to Pick the Right Location for Your First Rappel?

As easy as it may seem, rappelling is a hard skill to master. Weeks and weeks of practice should be in order.

Again, if it’s going to be your first, you have to choose less steep paths. Ensure you know how the path is set out. The bolts, the rappelling ropes, and even the real height.

Your climbing gym’s outdoor climbing wall will be perfect for a start. For caution, ensure crash pads are fitted on the route’s surface. One of the best places for cliff rappelling in the USA is cliff rappelling on Hocking Hills.

The Complete Guide to Cliff Rappelling and How It Works

How to Put Your Rappelling Gear on Correctly?

When rappelling, there are different sets of gear to be used. First, there is a choice of helmets. They come in handy when falling objects frequent your path.

Fusion Climb Meka II Climbing and Zipline Safety Helmet - Orange, 6.25-Inch H x 10.3-Inch L x 8.25-Inch W
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Fusion Climb Meka II Climbing and Zipline Safety Helmet - Orange, 6.25-Inch H x 10.3-Inch L x 8.25-Inch W
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Now, we understand that’s too much of different types of helmets to choose from. Before you buy a climbing helmet, read our guides on how to choose a climbing helmet, and how to attach a climbing helmet to a backpack so you don’t lose it.

When putting it on the line, make sure the climbing helmet fits snugly but not too tightly. Secondly, your hands will be in contact with the rope.

Therefore, friction can be avoided by wearing rappelling gloves. They should be snug-fitting and also allow you to fold your hands freely. 

Petzl CORDEX PLUS Gloves - Lightweight, Breathable Leather Belay Gloves for Climbing and Rappelling - Tan - M
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Petzl CORDEX PLUS Gloves - Lightweight, Breathable Leather Belay Gloves for Climbing and Rappelling - Tan - M
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  • PROTECTION WHERE YOU NEED IT MOST: A double layer of leather provides enhanced protection in high-traffic areas (fingertips, between thumb and forefinger) help prolong the CORDEX PLUS's lifespan. Extra padding in the palm of the glove helps prevent protect against heat generated during multiple rappels.
  • EASE OF USE: Simple, yet durable velcrohook-and-loop closure. Carabiner hole for easy storage and/or racking. No break-in period. Easy on and off.

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Lastly, you have to wear proper climbing shoes. If you are a beginner, buy neutral climbing shoes. When donned correctly, the shoe should tightly fit without hurting your feet. Again, it should also curl the toe region slightly but not too tightly to hurt your toe.

Climb X Rave Strap Climbing Shoe 2019 (Red, Numeric_9_Point_5)
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Climb X Rave Strap Climbing Shoe 2019 (Red, Numeric_9_Point_5)
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Not to forget, you need to tie knots in the rope. These are then attached to the rappelling harness, worn on your waist to function as a seat. You can read our article on the potential differences between rappelling vs climbing harnesses.

The climbing harness needs to be comfortable around the waist region. If you are a beginner, learn how to put on a climbing harness.

Petzl SELENA Women's Harness - Rock Climbing Harness for the Gym, Crag, or Multi-Pitch Routes - Violet - M
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Petzl SELENA Women's Harness - Rock Climbing Harness for the Gym, Crag, or Multi-Pitch Routes - Violet - M
  • UNRESTRICTED MOVEMENT: Designed for sport climbing, the SELENA harness is comfortable for both indoor and outdoor climbing. Elasticized leg loops remain snug without user intervention, and the waistbelt is flexible and slimmer in front to give excellent freedom of movement
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Black Diamond Mens Momentum Rock Climbing Harness, Anthracite, X-Small
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Black Diamond Mens Momentum Rock Climbing Harness, Anthracite, X-Small
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Safety Precautions You Need to Take for Cliff Rappelling

Cliff rappel safety precautions: what not to do while rappelling off a cliff and how not to die while doing cliff rappels.

The safety precautions for cliff rappels determine the kind of outcome you will get.

Knowing what not to do while rappelling off a cliff and knowing the right gear and how to use it properly is not to be taken lightly. 

  • The rope you will use must always get to the anchors and lower to the rappelling device at the bottom of the route. 
  • Secondly, your clothing should not be too loose. Avoid wearing long-sleeved shirts and necklaces.
  • On the other hand, your helmet should be fastened. Besides, make sure you tie your hair as it may get stuck in the rappelling device. Your harness should fit correctly and double back. 
  • Examine the surroundings for excessive wind, heat stress, weather hazards, or other climbers.
  • Inspect all of the carabiners and other attachments to verify they’re latched, not cross-loaded, and not in danger of malfunctioning.
  • Examine and double-check that all knots are properly tied.
  • Take a rappelling course.

Step by Step Guide to How to Rappel Down a Cliff

Rappelling off a cliff involves subsequent phases that determine the next stage. For instance, there are six phases, which you can follow to learn how to rappel down a cliff.

Phase 1

Insert the end of the rappelling rope through the rappelling anchor, couple it to the remaining, then draw all the ends through till the rope reaches the midway mark. Launch the rope over the cliff after tying the ends with a rappelling knot. 

Phase 2

Don the harnesses by slipping into the foot loops, drawing the belt through the clip, and folding the web backward. Constantly fold back your web through your waist belt since failing to do so may cause the harnesses to fail when weighted.

Phase 3

By following the tour rappel device instructions, thread a rope bight into it. It should be done near a climbing anchor. Using a tube device, send the beam through the tube. With the 8-figure knot, push the bight over the large opening and loop it over the small opening. Ensure the side of the rope on the cliff is in line with your powerful hand. 

Black Diamond ATC-XP Belay Device (Blue)
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Black Diamond ATC-XP Belay Device (Blue)
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Phase 4

You will tie the eight system opening, or rope’s bight, to the locking carabiner by clipping your locking carabiner to the harness’s belay loop. The gate should be tightened and locked.

Black Diamond Gridlock Screwgate Locking Carabiner, Black/Red, One Size
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Phase 5 

As you hold the rope against your leg near your hip, grasp it with your powerful hand on the downhill side of the rappelling device. Place the other hand above the rappelling device and read how a belay device is made.

Phase 6 

Let the rope flow easily through the rappelling device mechanism as you lay back against the rope. In order to control the speed with the brake hand, hold it close to you for lower speeds and far from you for higher speeds. The brake hand should never be released while rappelling. If you slide down the rope, do not jump on it as it will exert more pressure on the anchors.

How to Scramble Back Up the Cliffs If You Get Too Far Down the Mountain

Getting far down the mountain is normal, and so is the failure of tracing your way back. Of course, if you can figure out how you got down, you can retrace your way up.

If not, you need not panic. You have to see if there is a way for you to make a full descent, then find the proper route to get to the top by making observations from the base. 

Still, you can take your time without making descent and moving on the path while inspecting the possibilities of a way up.

If you are far above and the route to the top requires risky maneuverability that you are in no shape to give, try finding other routes or descent and recalculate your steps.

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Last Updated on September 28, 2022 by Roger

About the author


Roger was born into a family of climbers. As the youngest of his siblings, he was also the most ardent climber of them. Small and agile, he practiced climbing all day. Today, Roger teaches children how to climb the large rock walls safely.

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