At the end (and sometimes in the middle) of most climbs is the inevitable need to get back down to the ground safely. One of the first techniques belayers learn is how to lower a climber, yet there are many situations where lowering may not be an option; sometimes rappelling becomes necessary to get down. How we go about ‘rapping’ depends greatly on the situation and some methods and devices work better in some situations than others.

Which device works best for a particular rappel depends on the type of climb, the size of rope, the terrain, and the distance of the rappel. Let’s discuss the differences and nuances of using the standard double rope rappel, the less common single rope rappel, and the devices best suited for each.

Lowering vs Rappelling

There is an important distinction between the two methods involved for descending a route: lowering is when a belayer lowers a climber and rappelling is when a climber lowers themselves. When rappelling you are essentially controlling your own movement down a rope with the assistance of a belay device, but it is important to note that not every device used for belaying may be suitable for rappelling.

In a gym, a climber is always lowered to the floor by the belayer. Outdoors, depending on the anchor situation and style of route, a climber may be lowered to the ground or will rappel to get down. We’ll talk about those nuances next.

PETZL-LoweringVsRappelling 1
The climber on the left is being lowered by a belayer through a belay device. The climber on the right is lowering themself (rappelling) on two ropes. Images courtesy of Petzl.com

The Double Rope Rappel

The most common form of rappelling involves two lines (thus the “double rope”) going through the belay device, and as such your device needs to be made to accommodate both ropes with 2 slots.

Note: Usually this isn’t literally two ropes, most often this is a single rope that is doubled when it’s put through an anchor. Though on long multipitch routes (say 4+ pitches), it is not uncommon to tie two ropes together to lengthen a rappel.

In single pitch crags two anchors are often found at the top of routes. These anchors are usually equipped with chains or rings to pass a rope through when setting up a rappel. Tube style devices are perfect in this situation as they can accommodate two lines and are small and light so they can be easily carried while climbing.

A double rope rappel setup
A locking carabiner is used to attach a belay device with two slots for rappelling 2 ropes (or in this case, one rope doubled through an anchor.)

Many single pitch climbers end up purchasing a double rope tube device solely for rappelling and they use a separate device to belay (like a single rope brake assist device).

Rappelling on a MegaJul
A climber uses a belay device to rappel two ropes. The added metal loop on the Edelrid Mega Jul allows this device to also belay from above in guide mode

Multi-pitch Climbing

In the high world of multi-pitch or alpine climbing where you are often several rope lengths above the ground, tube devices are also well suited. The preferred style are called guide tubes and are made to handle belaying and rappelling with one or two ropes and also include an attachment point so they can be used during the climb to belay from above at the anchor. When the climbers are finished climbing, they pass the rope through an anchor and rap until they reach the next station, where the ropes are pulled and the process is repeated.

Plate belay devices can also serve all of these functions, and though they are a bit more finicky with rope handling, do a great job at conserving weight for long, remote alpine routes.

The Kong Gigi is a popular plate device with alpinists and some mountain guides because of it’s light weight and ability to belay, rappel, and work in guide mode.

The teeth of tube devices like the Wild Country Pro Lite help in adding friction in icy, wet conditions.

Ski Mountaineering

Ski mountaineering is another situation that can require a double rope rappel in order to safely navigate unskiable terrain. Tube devices designed with teeth in their slots can be helpful by providing a bit of extra friction on the usually thin and often wet or icy ropes carried by back country skiers and snowboarders.

Used mostly in canyoneering, figure 8 devices like the Grivel 2×8 work well for rappelling thick, stiff ropes.

Canyoneering

In the case of Canyoneering or caving, rappel ropes are often fed through bolted or glued rings or around boulders or spikes. The static ropes used in these cases are stiffer than dynamic ropes used in climbing and can get wet or muddy. A figure 8 style device is recommended for rapping these lines because their large opening gives ample room for the stiff rope to feed through and are less affected by water and muck.

TL;DR

When it comes to rappelling on two lines, we find that the majority of climbers own some form of tube device and tend to use the style that best compliments the situations they encounter most. Outdoor climbers who rappel often use a double rope tube device. Alpinists, ice climbers and guides often make the most use of guide tubes (or plates). The canyoneering crowd make the most use of figure 8s.

The Single Rope Rappel

A note on safety: Rappelling on a single line is an advanced skill and is a rarely used technique. Seek proper guidance and training to become familiar with these techniques before performing a single rope rappel.

Full Disclaimer

Usually rappelling a single line becomes necessary when there is a fixed anchor and a known action or type of work to do on a descent. Often there is no belayer involved in the entire process and the task at hand involves a person lowering themselves periodically and then reascending the rope. These types of rappels are often done on stiffer, static lines rather than dynamic ropes which tend to stretch when under weight.

The handle usually found on mechanically assisted belay devices allows for a smooth control over the speed of the rappel, since the device holds most of the weight of the climber rather than the climber’s hand.

SingleRap 2
A mechanical brake assisted device is useful for rappelling on a single strand
Rappelling on a Grigri
A route developer lowers on a single fixed line to brush some holds.

Route Setting and Developing

A common example of a single rope rappel would be when routesetting at a gym or developing and cleaning a route outdoors. Repeatedly lowering to check a sequence of moves or scrubbing some moss on a new route is often best accomplished using more specialty devices called descenders, which are made to be used hands free by trained professionals, but many find the use of a mechanically brake-assisted belay device useful here.

The Petzl GriGri is perhaps the most ubiquitous belay device out there today. It is used in route setting, gear hauling, belaying and like most mechanically assisted devices, is a great choice for single rope rappelling.

Big Wall and Aid Climbing

There are many instances for needing to rap down to previous anchors when climbing massive big wall routes. Retrieving left gear, back cleaning a pitch or freeing a stuck haul bag are all situations where utilizing a single fixed line saves time and hassle. While any rappel device will do in this situation, mechanically brake assisted devices really can’t be beat. Their ability to lower weight in a controlled manner by pulling on a handle makes for a smooth descent and they are easy to back up by simply tying an overhand below them when you stop mid rap to assess a stuck rope or pack up that portaledge.

Which Rappelling Method is Best

Each type of climbing brings with it a different set of needs when it comes to rappelling. When you know if you’re going down one rope or two, it makes the choice even easier.

If you’re heading into the alpine, the belay plate can’t be beat for its weight and ability to handle wet, cold ropes. Belaying can be finicky, but when you’re 30 miles out in the mountains and every ounce counts.

If you’re heading to the single pitch crag where the ethic it to clean and rap, you’ll need a tube device that can descend two ropes, which may or may not be the same device you choose to belay with. If your crag prefers the lower-off ethic, then you just read this article about rappelling to learn something new and to prepare you for other crags and anchor situations.

Multipitch climbers do best with a guide tube device that allows belaying two ropes both above and below the climber as well rappelling on two lines. Having one device to do everything saves you weight on the climb and money for cams.

Big wall and aid climbs benefit from having as many tools in the toolbox that you can haul up the big stone. Having both a guide tube and a mechanically brake-assisted device available is the proven method. Besides, if you do all the leading, then your partner is the one worried about hauling the extra weight.

If you want to do a deeper dive, head over to our look into each belay device type. You can also go to our belay device page to compare literally every belay device available today.