How To Rappel With Just A Rope

How To Rappel With Just A Rope

When in the outdoors exploring nature, you need to always be prepared. Imagine a scenario where you are at a top of a mountain or a cliff and you have to get down, but you only have one rope – no carabiners, no harness, and no other rappel device. A scenario like this might be unlikely, but knowing how to successfully descend in such an emergency situation, while putting your safety first, is crucial. So, how exactly are you going to rappel with just a rope?

There are three ways you can rappel with just a rope – the Dülfersitz rappel, the arm rappel, and the South African rappel method. All you need is a quality – preferably static – `rope and a sturdy anchor. These rappelling techniques are intended to be used only for emergency situations and should be handled with caution. Therefore, for your safety, it is highly recommended to train prior to using them. 

For more information on rappelling with a static rope, see our article: Tips for Setting Up A Top Rope Anchor With A Static Rope

Before trying to perform any of these techniques, you have to make sure you are holding a high-quality rope. Your rope needs to be sufficiently thick in order to be able to withstand the wear caused by friction, and long enough so that you can reach the ground safe and sound. Then you need to set up your rappel by properly anchoring your rope on a steady rock or tree. Once you have lowered any unnecessary weight, you can start rappelling your way down choosing from a Dülfersitz rappel, an arm rappel, or a South African rappel technique.

But deciding which one of these techniques is more appropriate depends on the specific circumstances you are facing. So, if you are wondering how to rappel with just a rope, it is critical to understand the key differences between these methods, evaluate the situation you are in and choose the best technique.

The Dülfersitz rappel method, which is named after the German climber Hans Dülfer, is best suited for rappelling along slopes where your legs can make contact with the terrain. Here, you double up your rope and wrap it along your groin, around your thigh, across your chest, and over your shoulder, in a “Z” form. So, you first need to run your rope over one leg and under the other one and then run it across your torso and behind your neck. Now you should pull it around the backside of your arm and grab it firmly with your hand. This hand will be your brake hand – make sure your brake hand and the leg with the rope running behind it are on the same side and don’t let go. Your other hand will be your guide hand. Once you are all set up, you can start descending. To gradually feed rope, pull your brake hand away from your body. With your legs push yourself off the terrain as you descend.

If you need to rappel with just a rope, the arm rappel is another option you have. This technique is more suitable for inclined terrain that might also be slippery due to loose rocks or even falling rain. To prepare your rappel, run your rope behind your back and under your armpits. This time it doesn’t need to be doubled-up. Then wrap it again around your arms so that the rope ends up resting in your palms. Here your guide hand will be the one on top and your break hand will be the one facing downwards. In this technique, the friction along your arms helps you control your speed while descending.

Finally, the South African rappel, which was first introduced by a South African mountaineering instructor named Andrew Friedemann, is used when a descent on a vertical or a significantly sloped terrain is required. To set it up, wrap the middle of your rope around your anchor and use both hands to hold the two strands to the height of your body. Then run the two strands under your arms, cross them behind your back and bring them around your torso again. Both strands should now be pulled between your legs and off to one side, where they should be wrapped around your break hand. With your guide hand grabbing both strands between your body and the anchor, you can start descending while leaning back into the rope and using your feet to bounce off the slope. In this case, friction is spread over a larger surface area, so your rappel will be less painful compared to the other two methods while allowing for some more control during your descent.

So now that you’ve learned how to rappel with just a rope, let’s take a look at when and why you should do so. 

How To Rappel With Just A Rope

Why Rappel With Just A Rope

As mentioned above, rappelling with just a rope is only for urgent situations. When you have the option to do otherwise, you should always stick to a more secure method with the use of a harness, carabiners, safety knots, and other equipment that will make your descent safe and comfortable.

Rappelling with just a rope should be treated exclusively as an emergency survival technique. If for some reason you need to rappel down a cliff or mountain – or even if you have to escape a tall building – and you don’t have all the needed gear, acquiring some basic knowledge and experience on this technique can literally prove to be a lifesaver.

Apart from the cases where you find yourself in an unexpected outdoor adventure and you need to make your way down to the bottom of a cliff safe and sound, knowing how to rappel with the use of only one rope can get you out of some difficult situations even within the urban landscape. Just imagine a scenario where you are trapped on a balcony or on the roof of a tall building, and escaping the building by normal means is not an option. Taking the stairs or the elevator down is impossible – let’s say due to a fire in the building, an earthquake, or any other existing danger. The possibilities are that you won’t have a complete climbing gear set on you in a moment like this. Knowing how to rappel with just a rope will significantly increase your chances of survival in such an emergency.

Safety Tips For Rappelling With Just A Rope

Although rappelling with just a rope cannot be considered as safe as traditional rappelling, following some basic instructions will undoubtedly make your descent a little more secure and comfortable. 

Before attempting to rappel with just a rope, have a look at these safety tips:

  • Make sure your rope is static, has a sufficient thickness and length, and no serious signs of wear
  • Choose a sturdy anchor
  • Remove any excess weight
  • Properly position the rope around yourself
  • Protect your skin with gloves or cloth if possible
  • Do not let go of your rope

A static rope allows for less stretch during descent, which means both less danger and less pain. An ideal thickness would be between 8 and 10 mm – you want your rope to be thick enough for you to rappel safely, but not too thick in order to avoid having it get in the way. Your rope should also be long enough for you to be able to reach the ground – you definitely do not want to get stuck somewhere in the middle of the descent. Another thing you should keep in mind is the fact that the high friction will cause wear on your rope, so it is also important that the rope is in good condition. 

A sturdy anchor (like a big boulder or trunk) should serve as your anchor, in order to eliminate the risk of falling. Before starting the rappel, lower any unnecessary weight to the ground – a backpack or any other equipment could become an obstacle during your descent. Make sure you have wrapped yourself with your rope in a way that will keep you safe and allow for some control over the speed of your descent. And if you happen to have some gloves or cloth on you, go ahead and use them to protect yourself from the – otherwise inevitable – rope burns.  

Final Thoughts

The use of a Dülfersitz rappel, an arm rappel, or a South African rappel technique can be very beneficial if you somehow find yourself in a situation where you need to rappel without a harness or any other gear. But all of these classic rappelling methods, in which you have just a rope in hand, are meant to be used only in emergencies.

However, emergencies do occur and you surely cannot foresee them. So it is important to always be prepared. And being able to rappel with just a rope can be regarded as a great skill to have in such a situation. So train. Make sure to learn and practice these techniques with a professional instructor. Be prepared for when you actually need to use them. And when out there rappelling with nothing but your rope, remember to stay mindful, follow all steps correctly and double-check everything, as there is no room for mistakes here. And don’t forget to always put your safety first!

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