The definition of abseiling (also sometimes referred to as ‘rapelling’) is “the technique that is used for descending vertical cliff faces using harnesses ropes and safety equipment”.
However, the practice of abseiling has grown and expanded to a large degree over recent years and, where it was once the sole domain of experienced mountaineers and rock climbers, people from all walks of life have tried the activity.
Quite often, this has been related to sponsored fundraising events and, today, you’ll often see people abseiling down tall buildings or even their own office block with little or no previous experience, although supervised by an expert. Outdoor enthusiasts, looking for the next big adventure, even abseil or rappel down waterfalls. In essence, abseiling is the controlled sliding or scaling descent of a vertical structure.
Safety Back-up Procedures
Abseiling, because of its very nature, contains an element of risk. Therefore, it’s important to have safety equipment and a procedure in place before an abseil attempt is made. That is not enough on its own, however. You must also know how to use the equipment and the steps you must take to make it safe. Therefore, you must only attempt abseiling in the presence of a qualified instructor. You should also wear a helmet and it’s useful to also don a pair of elbow pads and knee pads and wear gloves.
Before you even consider safety equipment, you should ensure that the structure you are descending is perfectly safe and can withstand the activity. Depending on the type of structure, you could be at risk from loose rocks or loose bricks on buildings. The most common causes of serious accidents which occur whilst abseiling are anchor failure and abseiling off the end of the rope.
Firstly, you should check that all ropes, harnesses, karabiners, anchors and belay devices are all well maintained and in good working order.
The matter of fixing an anchor and attaching the ropes and other equipment are too detailed to go into here but assuming that you’ve learned how all the pieces of the jigsaw fit into place, then you should look at Figure 8 descenders as the most commonly used device for abseiling. Whichever device you choose, pick one with a safety locking mechanism in the event that you should lose your grip on the rope for whatever reason and make sure that the rope isn’t positioned over the ledge or cliff where it can be damaged by rocks or by any other jagged edges below.
Learn how to tie a prusik knot as this can be a very useful additional safety-back up tool but, in essence, it is used to attach a moving clamp to another rope and if something goes wrong, the knot will jam and will stop you from falling.
Some people prefer to use belay devices which aren’t specifically designed for abseiling but because they can create a lot of friction, it takes longer to descend, which some inexperienced abseilers prefer over a rapid descent.
If you’re struggling to maintain a grip on the rope while descending, you can simply halt your descent by turning the controlling rope under your thigh. Repeated turns will even lock off the belay device if you wish to stop for a while.
Basic Safety Advice
One of the biggest mistakes made when abseiling is to readily accept that the person who has gone before you safely means that it will be just as safe when it comes to your turn. Everybody’s attitude to abseiling is different and what’s ‘safe’ to some people can be as terrifying to others. Basically, run through a verbal checklist prior to your descent which should include the harness buckle, the abseil device, the anchor (have additional anchors for back-up) the knot in the end of the rope, that the rope isn’t tangled and that it fully reaches the ground or ledge and that the rope can be retrieved easily. If you can answer positively to all of those, then you’re ready to go.