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Learning to Rappel (Rock Rescue Academy)

I've been an active Search & Rescue volunteer since 2007 with the Coconino County Sheriff's SAR Team in northern Arizona.

I Walked Right Off A Cliff

I'm no fan of heights, but somehow I wasn't (too) nervous as I backed up off the edge of a long way down under the watchful eyes of my Search and Rescue teammates, some from above, others with the lovely view from below ... thinking to myself, are these the pants with the hole back there?

This was field session #1 of the Rock Rescue Academy, a series of classes for new recruits to our team's Technical Rescue group, which is a specially trained subset of General Ground/Wildnerness SAR. If, at the end of the academy, we each pass the proficiency test, we'll be official new techies, though still with a lot to learn.

I do want to stress that this is being written by a complete newbie -- a blank slate when it comes to anything and everything climbing and rock rescue-related -- so this will be an overview only and most definitely not meant to be in any way used to try these skills on your own. (How's that for a disclaimer?)

So here's what I got myself into in Rock Rescue session #1....

A First Rappel - Just keep walking backwards!

Easy for him to say. Trusting your neck, backside and the rest of your body to a rope, a descent device, and a harness while looking 100 feet down between your own two feet can sure give you the willies. But like this guy says, it's not quite as scary the second time around.

Rappelling Hazards

The Risks are Many: Beware and Be Aware

Rappelling is said to be one of the most dangerous aspects of rock climbing or rock rescue, which is why our team performs safety checks even on the most experienced members, some of whom have been at this for 25 years or more.

These are some of things one has to think about, check and re-check before even approaching the edge, let alone going over:

Improperly fastened harness: Make sure you've doubled back on your straps (if that's the type of harness you have), so the harness doesn't loosen while you're on the rope. Have someone check it over, looking at all buckles and attachment points.

Improperly tied knots: Obviously, they can come undone if done incorrectly. We were taught to use an overhand safety knot after tying the Figure 8 Follow-Through, and with other knots as well. A safety knot can be a simple overhand or a double overhand or Fisherman's knot. Safety knots should be snug up against the main knot.

Carabiners not locked: If it's not locked, the gate can come open. Always use locking Carabiners and don't buy them used.

Improperly rigged descent device: If not set up properly, there will not be enough friction, and the rope can come out. Always test the rappel system before approaching the edge or before unclipping from an anchor or safety line.

Damaged rope: Ropes should be checked each time they're put away and when taken out for use. We were told to feel for "squishy" spots, bumps, narrowing and fraying.

Rope too short: You don't want to get to the end of the rope and still be dangling far above the ground. Ropes are measured in meters, while routes are measured in feet, so don't come up short. Be sure to tie a knot (or two) at the end of the rope, so it won't slip right through your rappel device.

Soon after writing this, I came across a perfect example of how a rope that's too short can lead to disaster. See this report from Zion National Park: Injured Climber Rescued Following Fall

Falling rocks and gear: Always wear a helmet any time you're rappelling or on the ground below. Rocks can come dislodged and gear and ropes can be dropped. A Carabiner may not seem like much when you drop it on your foot. But having one hit your head when dropped from 100 feet up will do much more than sting.

Knots for rappelling

Knots for rappelling

Knots For Rappelling

The evening before our first field session, when my teammates kept telling me to walk off a cliff, we learned some knots.

And I must say, knot-tying is NOT my forte. I can't just watch someone do it and then do it myself. I have to very slowly go through the process, then repeat, repeat, repeat. In fact, a SAR-mate of mine said he had to practice each one at least 80 times before it became second nature.

The important knots we learned that first night were:

  • Figure 8
  • Figure 8 Follow-Through
  • Figure 8 on a bite
  • Butterfly
  • Bowline
  • Double Bowline
  • Fisherman's knot
  • Double Fisherman's
  • Clove hitch
  • Prusik
  • Water bend (with webbing)

Not only do I need to practice these knots, but I also need to figure out and remember when to use which. After rappelling several times the next day, though, I now know that the Figure 8 Follow-Through is very important when rappelling, not to mention in rock-climbing in general. This is the best knot to tie the rope to your harness because it's is the strongest climbing knot. And it's easy to check to make sure it is tied correctly, since both sides are exactly the same.

The picture above is a finished Figure 8 Follow-Through. You would use this knot on your belay line, and the loop would be around the loops of your harness. First, you tie the basic Figure 8, then thread the rope through your harness before retracing the original figure 8 with the loose end of the loop.

Our team requires that we back up our Figure 8s with a double overhand knot for safety purposes.

How To Tie A Figure 8 Follow-Through - A Gotta-Know Knot For Rappelling

We were instructed to add an overhand "safety knot" with the leftover tail after doing the follow-through. That's not done in this video, but there's enough "tail" remaining to do so.

Learn to Tie Knots of All Kinds

Rappelling Equipment

Gear & Devices

Ropes: The standard length of ropes used for rappelling is 200 feet (60 meters). Doubled back on itself, this will allow for a 100-foot rappel. According to, "The thicker the rope's diameter, the better it is for rappelling. Thicker ropes, those from 10mm to 11mm in diameter, have more friction when they feed through your rappel device and are less likely to be cut than skinny ropes. As a general rule, do not tie a thick cord to a thin cord (7mm to 9mm) for a rappel since the joining knot can work itself loose."

Anchors: A rappel anchor attaches the entire system to the rock, snow or ice that will be descended, and strong enough to absorb the rappeller's weight and any additional force that may be applied. Anchors may be artificial, manufactured devices or they can be natural objects. Trees are commonly used as rappel anchors, because they are large and sturdy, and the anchor can be placed high on the trunk to make the transition over the edge easier. But one must use care when anchoring to a tree--not only can repeated use of a single tree damage the bark and ultimately the tree, but the tree bark can damage the rope as well. Ideally, a rappel anchor will enable the person rappelling to get into the correct body position and put weight on the rope before going over the edge.

Carabiners: These are a gated connecting devices, usually made from aluminum, for attaching a rope to a fixed anchor, and to tie in to protection points and the belay device. Carabiners are either non-locking or locking, and hinged to snap shut when released. You should use only locking Carabiners for rappelling. Carabiners are built to withstand a high shock force, yet are light enough for climbers to carry and operate with one hand.

Descent Device: This gear connects directly to a locking Carabiner and then to the harness. The descent device allows you to control the amount of friction on the rope as well as your speed. There are a number of different types of descenders, including but not limited to the two we used for training--Figure 8s (ours with "ears") and rappel racks--and now the Conterra SCARAB, which is, in my opinion, superior to the others. (See video demonstrations below.)

Seat Harness: A harness is worn around the waist and upper legs, with many types and styles available. We were told to go with a commercially sewn seat harness, so I bought a Black Diamond SA harness for women for about $80. The life of the harness is said to be about 3 years but can be shorter or longer depending on how frequently it's used and under what conditions. Falls, abrasion, heat, sunlight and corrosives such as chlorine bleach will shorten the lifespan of the harness. Make sure to test the harness for comfort before purchase by hanging in it if possible.

Helmet: Head protection is a must, not only to protect you from trauma in case you fall or slam into the rock, but in the event a falling rock, piece of gear or other object hits you from above. Helmets should be UIAA and CE approved.

Boots: While I saw a few people rappelling in sneakers, we were advised to wear sturdy boots. I wore my Vasque hiking boots, which worked just fine.

Gloves: You'll want to protect your hands both from the rock wall and the rope. The descending device and the rope can get very hot from friction. Gloves that allow dexterity are your best bet. I bought a pair of leather, finger-tipless gloves, Metolius brand, at a local climbing gym for about $30.

The Rescue 8 Rappelling Device - With "Ears"

This video shows how one sets up a Rescue 8 and then ties off. Tying off is what you do in order to remain at a complete stop while on the rope, so you can be hands-free and stationary. This may be necessary, for example, in order to tend to a rescue-ee or simply to rest before continuing down or ascending.

Setting Up A Brake Rack for Rappelling

After trying both the Rescue 8 and two types of racks, one a personal rack and the other for heavier loads, I must say I liked the racks better. Some say that the braking action with the Rescue 8, where you put your braking hand (your right if you're right-handed) down behind, you feels more natural than raising your hand to brake with a rack, but I felt I had more control with the rack.


Learn To Communicate With Your Partners

On Belay!: This is what the one rappelling needs to know: Am I on belay? Belaying is the act of controlling the rope being fed out to a climber, so a falling climber will not fall far. So if you're the one rappelling, "On belay" is your line.

Belay On!: This is the answer the one doing the belaying will give, if and when they are ready. The rappeller should never proceed to the edge until they hear "Belay on!"

Rappelling!: Said by the one doing the rappelling, meaning, "I'm coming down the rope now. Assist me if necessary."

Rappel On!: As the one rappelling, you'll want to wait for this response from the belayer before actually going over the edge. This is confirmation that the belayer knows you're going down and is ready to assist.

Belay Off!: Once you, the rappeller, reach solid ground and undo your belay line from your harness, you can call, "Belay off!" as loud as needed to be heard.

Off Belay!: This is the response you should hear from the belayer, confirming.

Rappel Off!: Once you've unrigged your descender and the rappel line is free, this will be your next shout.

Off Rappel!: And this will be the response from the belayer. Now everyone involved should know you are off rope and the next person can rig up.

For a longer list of "rope calls," visit the REI Rock Climbing page.

Rappelling Basics & Technique

Some things to keep in mind before, during and after walking off a cliff are:

  • Keep loose clothing, hair, helmet straps, and other equipment away from the rappel device. If something gets caught, you can be trapped or lose control.
  • Always keep your brake hand on the rope. If you let go, you're goin' down. Fast.
  • Keep your upper body upright. If you lean forward, you make it much harder to see where you're going, not to mention risk getting clothing or hair stuck in the belay device.
  • Go slow, keep your feet on the rock if possible, and take small steps. Slow and controlled is better than zipping down the line, even though the fast way down may look cool on tv. Slow going also reduces the stress on your equipment.
  • Look down and watch where you're going. I didn't do this and ended up in a bush.
  • Try to stay in the fall line. If you stray to the side, you may swing and slam into the rock if you lose your footing.
  • Keep your legs spread and your knees slightly bent.
  • Keep your feet just below the level of your rear end.

Read About Rappelling

Obviously, there's no substitute for real-world practice and instruction from someone who knows what he or she is doing. For me, though, reading about the equipment and skills helps a lot, too. I like to understand the dynamics of what's going on, rather than just going through the motions but not really knowing why I'm doing what and how the system works.

Why Am I Doing This?

Training for technical rescue

Honestly, at this point, I'm not really interested in recreational climbing. But see this picture here. This is why I want to learn high-angle, rock rescue. --->>>

If I do qualify for the tech team, I probably won't be sent over the edge during an actual rescue for quite some time (who knows, though?), but I'll be happy to be able to help on technical missions, even if it means just humping heavy gear to the site. At least I'll understand the basics and, over time, can continue to practice and perfect the skills, as well as add to them.

The Technical Rescue team has its own meeting once a month, in addition to our General SAR meeting later on, and also has a special monthly training session. Members are expected to practice their skills on their own time too, to stay sharp. An actual mission definitely isn't the time to try to remember when to do what and how.

Additional Rock (or Rope) Rescue Training Sessions

The following week, we learned how to get back up on our own once we'd rappelled down. After an exhausting morning of ascending cliffs, we moved on to learning how to set up anchor systems.

After that, we learned about raising systems, patient packaging and how to perform as a litter attendant.

  • Rock Rescue Academy Part 2: Learning To Ascend & Rig Anchors
    That's what they told us in Search and Rescue training. Our instructors -- my experienced teammates -- told those of us who are new to high-angle rescue that we should never go over a cliff edge we can't get back up on our own. They said we can...
  • Rock Rescue Academy Part 3: Raising Systems
    Much of the time, technical rescue involves falls, with rescuers descending to the victim and then raising or lowering that person in a litter or harness. In this next phase of our SAR Rock Rescue Academy training, new technical team members...
  • Rock Rescue Academy Part 4: Learning To Belay
    If something goes wrong after you've gone over the cliff edge, it sure is nice to have a belay to keep you from going down, fast. In this article, as with the others in my Rock Rescue Academy series, I'm writing from the perspective of one who's...

Me, rappelling with a brake rack and a conditional self-belay

Me, rappelling with a brake rack and a conditional self-belay

Me, rappelling with a brake rack and a conditional self-belay

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Questions Or Comments on Rappelling or Rock Rescue?

Jen withFlash on January 20, 2013:

Wow! Kudos to you!! Awesome what you're doing. I wouldn't be quite that bold!!

anonymous on November 24, 2011:

Great content expressed clearly.

Bahrns on November 04, 2011:

amazing lens. very informative.

David Bynon from Prescott, Arizona on November 04, 2011:

Looks like a lot of fun. Kind of like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane... something we should all do at least once in out life, eh?

NidhiRajat on November 04, 2011:

amazing work

Paul from Liverpool, England on November 04, 2011:

Well, I read the whole lens and there's more chance of me cleaning an elephant with my tongue than jumping off a cliff!

airblastparts on November 04, 2011:

Great fun but not easy to get use to, I have stated doing some bouldering training.

desa999 lm on November 02, 2011:

Really good comprehensive lens. The last time I did this was when I was in the scouts, and we had great fun.

Bob from Kansas City on November 02, 2011:

Nice lens, I'll be following your adventurers. :) I rappelled a long time ago in the Army and it was a blast. We used the Rescue 8 and I liked the feeling of control I had, but since I've never tried it using a rack I can't compare. The feeling you get the first time you start to lean back into the descent is awesome! :)

DavidCzajka on October 27, 2011:

I have tried this twice once on a training course and then tried it on some 5000 feet of mountain :P it was freaking

Jennifer_Glennon on October 27, 2011:

I have always been afraid of heights but this does interest me. Perhaps one day, I will get up the nerve.

paydayadvanceuk on October 25, 2011:

Awesome lens!

writer_villa on October 24, 2011:

Great lens!

pheonix76 from WNY on October 23, 2011:

Such an informative and practical lens. Thanks for writing about and sharing your SAR experiences with us!

TapIn2U on October 23, 2011:

This is amazing! I've always been scared of heights and I'm not sure I'd ever overcome it. I want to give rock climbing a try and see if I could survive it. Thanks for the instructional videos. Fantastic lens! Sundae ;-)

NidhiRajat on October 22, 2011:

very informative lens...........

misterumbe on October 19, 2011:

@anonymous: really great and useful

anonymous on October 19, 2011:

Great Lens !

ErHawkns7100 on October 17, 2011:

Definitely on my bucket list.

anonymous on October 17, 2011:

returning reader!

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on October 17, 2011:

Very interesting introduction to rappelling. I think it would be a useful skill for anyone who hikes and backpacks to have. One never knows when there might be an accident or other emergency that might require someone to use rappelling to save a life. Thanks for this great information!

Lee Hansen from Vermont on October 17, 2011:

Wow. I am even more impressed with folks who do rock rescue now that I see all that the training entails. You are brave, lady ... and strong! I won't be rock climbing but I do have 3 nieces who love this stuff ... blessed by an awestruck angel.

iwrite4cash on October 16, 2011:

Great lens! I have not been rappelling yet, I hope to do so one day!

BillSimmons on October 15, 2011:

Great lens! I'm a frequent rock climber & rappeller.

timelapselove on October 14, 2011:

cool lens... education is a great way to overcome fears.

GrowlinRock on October 12, 2011:

i've only ever abbed off anything using my stitch plate - hmmm maybe i should get a figure 8 - great page

anonymous on October 11, 2011:

nice lens, glad I browsed upon this today, gave you a 'thumbs up'.

mintril on October 10, 2011:

Your disclaimer is quite a good warning to non professionals and lens filled with a lot of info to mountaineering. :)

aqenter on October 10, 2011:

I have done rapelling just a few times...back in my younger days. Very fun, but I need to get in better shape at this point.

agoofyidea on October 10, 2011:

You are training for such an important reason. I am proud of you and glad there are people out there who want to rescue others. Great lens.

jonessc on October 10, 2011:

I did a little rappelling in the Corps. I'd love to start again. Great lens!

KimGiancaterino on August 13, 2011:

Excellent job ... I'm dizzy just from looking at the photographs!

Nathalie Roy from France (Canadian expat) on February 14, 2011:

Blessed by the resident ''rock climbing'' angel!! Personally I love doing rappel even if I find it a little bit scarier than climbing. But we have to get down somehow....

C A Chancellor from US/TN on November 06, 2010:

Rappelling looks like such an amazing experience! You're so brave to try it -- I've always wanted to but don't have the nerve.

anonymous on March 22, 2010:

Wow Deb, what an inspiring site. You are a cool person who is featured on Cool People on Squidoo. I just lensrolled this 20 times, and I'm going to get it featured on a few lens. Very good resource of information. Oh and 5 Stars and a Fave. ~ Good wishes!

Susie x

anonymous on June 09, 2009:

I haven't rappelled for 30 years (when I was in ROTC in college) and I really miss it. That was the most fun I ever had... and I'm scared to death of heights!

Loren Gross from Jacksonville, Florida on May 21, 2009:

It is not as easy as it looks. One time was enough for me. Be safe and God bless.

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on May 17, 2009:

For a moment I thought you said "Learning to Rap" and I thought I'd better learn how to do this. But rappelling is of better use to me. Excellent lens

Mihaela Vrban from Croatia on May 12, 2009:

This is excellent! And you just gave me an idea for a lens! :) Thumbs up, Deb!

ctavias0ffering1 on May 12, 2009:

I could never do this, well, maybe when I was younger LOL I'm in complete admiration 5* and a sprinkling of Angel Dust

cjsysreform on May 12, 2009:

Ooh, I love that glossary of rappel-speak! I think I'll start saying "on belay!" to confirm my participation in things, like how some people use "game on" or "all systems go."

anonymous on May 11, 2009:

I'm proud of you, girl! You'll make it.