What Can Go Wrong Rappelling?

Rappelling is Dangerous: How to Stay Safe

A woman rappels off Cathedral Rock at Mount Buffalo in Australia.
Use a back-up belay on novice rappellers to keep them safe on the descent. Photograph copyright Bernard van Dierendon/Gketty

Rappelling, the act of descending by making a controlled slide down a climbing rope, is one of climbing’s most dangerous techniques since the climber relies exclusively on both his rappelling equipment and his anchors for total safety. When you lean back on your rappel rope and commit to going down, your safety is completely dependent on your equipment and your essential climbing skills.

Rappelling Causes Many Accidents

When you climb a route from the base of a cliff, your rope is attached to many points of protection, including bolts, cams, and pitons, which creates redundancy in case of a fall and keeps you relatively safe.

But when you rappel, you trust your life to an anchor system which has to be secure for you to be safe. Year after year rappelling accidents account for many climbing fatalities and injuries, making it statistically one of the most dangerous climbing activities you will learn and practice. If there is an upside to the danger of rappelling it is that most accidents occur as a result of the climber’s misjudgment and errors and can be avoided.

What Can Go Wrong Rappelling?

Rappelling is always dangerous and sometimes scary, especially when you trust your life to the anchors and the rope. When you rappel, lots of things can go wrong including:

Use the Buddy System to Double-Check

Many times you will be rappelling at the end of a long day of climbing when you’re tired and it’s getting dark or the weather is turning worse.

It’s at those times that you are most vulnerable to fatal mistakes. It’s at those times that you want to not only double-check all your rappel systems but to triple-check them. It’s also best at those times to remember that we always climb as a team. Use the buddy system, just like when you’re swimming or scuba diving, and check each other’s climbing harness and rappel set-up. Each of you should also eyeball the anchors, the climbing hardware, bolts, and slings on the anchors, and make sure the knot connecting your two ropes is tied correctly.