On Rappel!

Filed under: Things I’ve never done that I’ve always wanted to learn how to do.

Also filed under: Things I love about REI #537.

Rappelling. It’s a thing you do if you climb out in the world a lot (which I don’t). It’s a thing they raffle off for fundraisers. It’s a thing that looks kind of fun. It’s a thing I’ve never done. Until Sunday.

Because REI is super rad, learning how to rappel was as easy as signing up on a website and showing up.

Easy, but not simple. There were a lot of steps, mostly centered around teaching us how to not die rappelling carelessly.

How to not die rappelling carelessly, artificial top rope environment edition:

1. Climb up. Tension.
2. Set two anchors. Test them out.
3. Come off belay.
4. Set up the rappel rope. I finally used both holes in my ATC!
5. Make sure the rappel setup works.
6. Set up third hand.
7. Make sure the third hand works. Will it stop you?
8. Unset anchors. Your third hand’s got you!
9. Rappel down.
10. Profit!

It’s hard to explain what the rappel should look like, and what the third hand looks like. That’s what internet guides are for. Mostly, I’m documenting what we learned.

How do we set up all those anchors, not lose the rope, and tie a third hand? With knots! And maybe some hitches. And maybe learn about the difference between knots (which can exist on their own) and hitches (which require something else to exist) along the way. I won’t talk about them all here, but…

A knot I’ve never tied before but find super cute: The barrel knot. Great for keeping your rope from flying off at the end! Oh, and did I mention super cute? It’s super cute!

We learned a couple third hand hitches: The autoblock and the prusik. The idea is to make a hitch that allows the rope to slide if you position it so it’s loose, but cinch tight if you let go to stop you from falling. I’d never thought about using ropes in this manner and am all of a sudden finding knots and hitches super interesting. Also, I find the prusik very symmetrically pleasing.

I wish the word symmetric were a palindrome of symmetrical letters.

We also used a bunch of slings, and clipped all sorts of stuff to our harnesses. I say stuff and not gear here because even though it’s gear, it’s only a small and gentle subset of what you’d use for outdoor lead climbing. Still, it was nice to finally use a few of those loops on my harness.

Now I know how rappelling works! And I can say I’ve done my own non-careless setup and lowered myself without dying. :)


  1. Since you are the expert now (no, really, you are) (don’t fight it), I need to know something about climbing, rappelling, etc. How do you get the ropes back? I have never seen or heard this addressed before, and I assume it’s just some insider mountain climbing clique information. Seriously, after you climb Big Mountain, Some Random Place, USA, and you rappel back down, and your ropes are kind of hanging there, how do you you get them back off the mountain? I assume they are firmly affixed in some manner at the top, otherwise they wouldn’t really be doing their job. I’m sure there is something blindingly obvious I’m missing, but I truly am curious.

    • They don’t just hang there, you carry them back down! You can slip the end of a rope through the carabiners. (That’s why you tie things like barrel knots to prevent it.) I assume you can also unclip whatever it’s clipped into, but I have no idea how that would work without you falling to your death. Okay, now we’re well beyond the limits of my knowledge. I haven’t done any lead climbing, even indoors.

      • OK, I guess I always assumed the ropes were tied fast or anchored on the top end for some reason.

        • I see. Top rope or lead, the climber is tied in to one end of the rope. That rope goes through one or more anchored somethings, and on the other side of that something is a belayer taking up slack and preventing the climber from falling. This is all if the belayer is on the ground. I have no idea how multi-pitch works.

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