4 Ways to Descend Cliffs and Mountains

Walk Off, Downclimbing, Rappelling, and Lowering

Martha Morris stands on the summit of a spire near Grand Junction, Colorado.
Okay, you've reached the summit! Now Mister Smart Guy, how are you going to get down?. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Nowhere is the old adage “What goes up must come down” truer than in climbing. We climb up and after we reach the top, whether it’s a mountain summit, top of a sandstone spire, or the end of a bolted sports route, we have to return to the ground, descending to the flat earth below. It’s important to remember that you are not off your day’s climb until you safely descend to the cliff base and then hike back to your car at the parking lot.

4 Ways to Descend

There are four basic ways to descend from the mountain: walking off; downclimbing; rappelling and lowering. Some complicated descents might include sections of trail for hiking down, downclimbing a brushy gully, and then making a rappel from a tree anchor to the base. Descending is dangerous. Check out the descent before climbing and always be cautious before committing to a descent route.

Walking Off is usually the Best Descent

Walking off, the least technical method of descent is usually the best option if available. You reach the cliff-top and find a trail that leads down the cliff base, usually around the edge of the cliff. Many cliffs and most mountains have a walk-off route that is usually quick and easy. Before you do a route, however, be sure to check your guidebook for descent information or better yet, read the info and then scope the descent route out yourself. Often times a walk-off descent might include scrambling down gullies and thrashing through bushes.

If you are descending from a big route, the descent route is usually a big deal too. This is especially true at adventure climbing areas like Yosemite Valley, Zion National Park, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Downclimbing

Many descent routes off the tops of cliffs and mountains require downclimbing steep sections of rock in gullies or broken faces.

Sometimes the terrain can be negotiated without the use of a rope for a safety belay, especially if the rock is solid. But if the rock surface is loose, blocky, and vegetated, you need to evaluate the descent and decide if it is prudent to tie in and use a climbing rope for safety. It’s important to always consider your personal safety because a slip may be fatal. Never downclimb any place where you don’t feel totally confident nor should you allow your climbing partner to coerce you into doing hairy moves without a rope. Depending on the steepness of the terrain, you can face either outward or face into the rock when you are downclimbing, The most experienced climber usually goes first unless you are belaying the downclimb in which case the weakest member descends, sometimes placing gear, while the better climber goes last. If the downclimbing descent becomes technical then it is usually best to find an anchor and rappel—it’s safer and quicker.

Rappelling

Rappelling, simply making a controlled slide down the rope, is usually the safest and fastest way to descend off cliff-tops. Before you do a route, you should figure out the rappel descent. Look at a topo in a guidebook and locate the rappel anchors on the cliff before you leave the ground.

Often you might rappel a nearby route rather than the one you just climbed. Remember too that you need to always check and then double-check all fixed rappel anchors. Make sure the bolts or pitons are sound and if you suspect them, back them up with your own gear. Check rappel slings since they are often worn by weather and weakened by sunlight. Do not just blindly trust whatever is in place. It’s a good idea to bring extra webbing or cord to add to existing rappel slings.

Lowering

Lowering, a descent when one climber lowers another one down a cliff with the climbing rope is the usually accepted method of descending off bolted sports routes. Lowering is quick and easy but stuff can go wrong. Since most lowering descents are less than half a rope length from the ground, make sure the rope is long enough and always tie a stopper knot on the free end so it won’t slip through the belayer’s device.