Abseiling Basics & Best Practices

Basic methods and safety guidelines for better abseiling.

After summiting that awesome multi-pitch, it’s easy to feel like the challenge is over and all that remains are a few simple abseils to the ground. Longing for that ice-filled Nalgene you left at the base and thinking the hardest part (climbing) is done, your situational awareness and risk perception change, distracting you from the necessary tasks. But small mistakes can be fatal. In fact, a huge proportion of climbing-related deaths happen during abseils.

Abseiling at Grootkloof, Magaliesberg

Research your options. Is there a walk-off? Walking off eliminates the risk of human error. If you must abseil, research: Where are the abseil anchors? What are the anchors, and what condition are they in? Will you need one rope or two? Is there loose rock? Is the terrain overhanging or traversing?


Always carry the following items for abseiling:

  • • Descent-control device, like an ATC, with a guide-mode option (our favourite is the DMM Pivot)
  • • 1 meter of 5mm or 6mm cordelette to use as a “third hand” prusik
  • Personal anchor system for clipping in at stations
  • Helmets are always advised

Setting Up:

1. Threading the rope

If abseiling with one rope, thread one end of your rope through the anchor and pull it through until the middle mark is at your anchor. If your rope lacks a middle mark, thread one end, marry it to the other, and then pull the rope through, coiling as you go, putting the midpoint at the anchor. If abseiling multiple times, mark the middle with tape or chalk.

For double-rope abseils, have two ropes similar in diameter. Thread the thinner rope through the anchor (this will make the ropes easier to pull) and tie the ropes together. We recommend the flat overhand. This low-profile knot keeps the rope flat, making it less likely to stick while pulling.

To safeguard against the deadly consequences of abseiling off the end of the ropes, tie a stopper knot in the end of each rope. These stopper knots will jam in your abseil device, halting your abseil.

2. Setting up your abseil device with a prusik backup

Once the ropes are rigged and you can see that the ends touch the ground or reach past the next abseil station, attach your device to your harness as you would to belay. Most devices work and thread similarly, but the nuances can vary. Don’t assume they are all the same. Always use a large locking carabiner and attach the device to your harness belay loop, which is specially designed to keep the device properly oriented. As a precaution, attach a back-up prusik on the rope below your abseil device – there are a few different ways to tie a prusik, including the three-wrap, French method (sometimes called an ‘auto-block’) and Klemheist hitch. If you lose control of the abseil, the prusik will lock, stopping your abseil. Construct your prusik from a loop of four-to-six millimetre nylon cord. Wrap the prusik around both strands of rope and clip the prusik to the leg loop on the same side as your brake hand. When you are done, the prusik should not be long enough to reach up and touch your device. The loop length is critical: if the loop is too long, it can ride up and jam into your belay device, causing it to fail. Some climbers prefer to extend the device from their belay loop with a 30cm sling and attach the prusik to their belay loop – this helps prevent the prusik from reaching the belay device.

The extended abseil
• Attach a short sling to your belay loop with a girth hitch and clip your device to it.
• Attach the French prusik to the rope below the device and clip that to your belay loop

Now that your abseil is rigged, it is important to double-check that:
• The anchor is solid
• The rope is properly threaded through the anchor
• The rope is correctly threaded through your belay/abseil device
• The locking carabiner is clipped into your belay loop and is locked
• The rope reaches the ground or the next abseil station, and a stopper knot is tied in each end
• You remember which side of the rope you’ll pull on to retrieve it (if you are using two ropes tied together)
NB: Before you unclip your tether from the anchor, get up close to the anchor and fully weight your abseil device, just to make sure everything is rigged correctly.

Abseil Technique

The basic idea for abseiling is to lower yourself on a rope from a specific point. You must have your dominant hand operate as the brake hand (as you would for a regular belay), while the other hand keeps a relaxed grip on the rope above the abseil device, holding you upright. Your brake hand simultaneously keeps tension on the rope while sliding the backup prusik down the rope.

The most awkward moment of an abseil is typically right at the start when you step off the ledge. It often helps to plant your feet right at the edge, work your centre of gravity down until your device and brake hand are near the lip, then swoop clear in a short bound. After establishing yourself on the wall, assume a position similar to sitting on a chair: knees bent and back straight.

Allister Fenton abseiling at Northcliff

Keep any loose clothing and hair clear of the abseil system. Abseil cautiously in one steady flow rather than bounding. Go slowly – jumping down the rope may look cool, but it places force on the gear and makes it easy to lose control. Also take care when abseiling with a backpack on, as the added weight could flip you upside down. You may wish to clip your backpack onto your belay loop below your abseil device, as this way you can maintain your centre of gravity. If you are the first to abseil off a set of anchors, you may have to deal with tangles of rope hung up on ledges or bushes or snagged on flakes. Never abseil past any snags – always deal with it from above. Stop and lock off the rope anytime you see a knot or tangles in the rope below you. Pull up the rope and undo the tangle or flip the rope free of the snag. If you need to let go with one or both hands to set an anchor, pendulum, or straighten out the ropes, let the backup prusik take your weight, then wrap the ropes around your leg three times or tie a knot underneath you.

Stay on abseil until you are either on safe ground or anchored to the next belay/abseil station. Either way, once you are disconnected from the abseil rope, make sure there are no knots or gear on the rope and yell, “Rope free!”so your partner knows they can begin their abseil. If possible, move to the side so you’re out of the fall zone should the abseiler above knock loose some rock or drop something.

Pulling the Rope

At the end of the abseil you’ll need to pull and retrieve your ropes. Ideally, they’ll pull smoothly, but abseil ropes getting stuck is a common and frustrating malady, usually caused by friction from the ropes binding at the anchor, running over bulges, twisting around before you abseil, or snagging on shrubs and flakes as they falls downwards. Make things easier on yourself by arranging the ropes in the proper pull order. If the ropes are different diameters, set up the knot so you pull the thickest rope down. A thick rope, besides being easier to grip, will stretch less, transmitting more of your pulling energy to the right cause.

Anchor friction is the easiest culprit to banish. Avoid running the rope directly over nylon slings or rope. Nylon on nylon generates tremendous friction and, even if the ropes do pull, they will saw partly through the abseil slings, leaving them dangerously weak for the next team, if they even survive the first abseil at all. Rather attach maillons to the slings or leave carabiners with opposing gates. Friction of the ropes running over bulges is harder to avoid. One solution is to lengthen the anchor slings with additional slings so the rope hangs below the friction causing bulge. Alternately, split the long abseils into short ones – less rope equals less friction, and less rope to abandon if it jams.

As you abseil, direct the ropes away from bulges or grooves that can bind or snare the rope and make sure the ropes don’t cross over one another. As a final measure, have the first person down the ropes test-pull them from below before the last person abseils. Pulling the rope back and forth a few times through the anchor from the lower abseil station (or ground) will tell you how easily the rope will pull and allows potential problems to be sorted out before the last person leaves the top stance. It’s the duty of the last person down to deal with potential snag areas. Once everyone is off abseil and safely anchored, untie the stopper knots in the rope ends, make sure the ropes aren’t twisted, and pull down the ropes. Try doing this in nice fluent motion rather than a stop-start motion. This will reduce the chance of the rope getting stuck.

If the ropes don’t pull, make sure you are tugging on the correct side of the rope. If you aren’t certain, give the other side a pull. Whip and flip the rope around. If you are on a broad ledge, walk out, belayed or tethered in if necessary, and try pulling from a different angle. A last resort is to clamp the pull-side with an ascender or prusik and apply full body weight. Bounce vigorously but make sure you are well anchored! If your ropes still won’t pull, you’ll need to hike up and free them, or, if you are on a multi-pitch climb, abandon them, cut off what rope you can reach and use this to continue the descent, via a series of very short abseils. The scariest scenario would be to climb up the rope (with ascenders or prusiks) to check out and sort the problem. Sometimes this is the only alternative, if you are still high off the ground and/or need a full-length rope to continue your abseils (make sure you’re anchored to the lower anchor if possible).

Be safe and happy adventuring!


One comment

  1. Pulling the rope can be very dangerous if the ground is not very steep as the rope can dislodge rocks. So first one down should check the descent and make sure that rocks and debris are removed.

    When pulling the rope do not stand underneath it. It can fall on you and injury you.

    When abseiling with inexperienced people use the extended method as mentioned above and apply their abseil devices to the rope before you go down.

    If on the ground move away from the cliff face to improve the pull angle. This reduced friction and rope wear and also keeps the rope away from the rock face where small stones and rocks may be dislodged.

    If very windy make short abseils to limit rope being blown away and getting stuck. Also make saddle bags or weight the rope when lowering it to abseil so that it does not blow around.

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