Many people’s first (and perhaps, only) experience of abseiling has often been descending down the side of a building to raise funds for some charitable event, yet there is much more to it than that and it’s an essential skill to master if you are serious about rock climbing or mountaineering.
What Does it Entail?
Abseiling is the process of descending a cliff face or mountain crag using a rope or ropes. It is not a difficult skill to learn and, with proper instruction, it is a very safe activity. Quite often, people might learn the basics of how to abseil in an indoor climbing facility but your skills will ultimately be put to the test in an outdoor setting where you will need to know how to get down from a cliff face you’ve climbed safely.
In the majority of cases, an abseil is carried out using a belay device or a figure of eight descender which is usually backed up with a prussic loop which will lock up and hold the climber firmly in place should they lose control of the rope. It can also be performed using two ropes which allow the climber to pull the rope down once they’ve descended to the next belay or once they’ve reached the ground.
Because of abseil events involving jumping off buildings which you might have seen on television, you might think that abseiling involves one swift descent and a lot of jumping around but, when it comes to rock climbing, nothing could be further from the truth. There may be lots of jagged cliff edges to negotiate and a swift descent is rarely possible as it’s dangerous to the climber and can also damage the ropes so it is usually performed in stages taking great care to descend from one point to the next then setting a new anchor point and repeating this method, until you reach the ground.
Most rock climbing and mountaineering clubs will be able to offer abseiling courses which will vary in difficulty from beginners’ courses right through to advanced.
Initially, you’ll learn the basics of belaying and basic rope work and about knots, along with general safety techniques and how to choose the safest descent from a climb.
As you progress, you’ll be offered further instruction in how to rig up anchor points and how to configure a belay in order to assist another climber who may be in difficulty, how to ascend using a fixed rope with Prussik hitches and how to cope with emergencies. There are also advanced courses if you intend to become an instructor or to lead a group on an abseil. You’ll be taught all about risk assessment and how to co-ordinate an emergency response procedure.
Ultimately, abseiling courses will enable you to safely and confidently tackle any descent and coming down from a cliff or mountain top will become just as exhilarating as reaching the summit.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, there are further abseiling courses for tackling specific terrain such as ice and snow and your local climbing will club will be able to give you further information.