Rappelling Vs Abseiling – What’s The Difference?

Rappel vs Abseil? When you started to consider trying rock climbing as a hobby, you probably imagined yourself scaling up the side of a cliff with ease and grace – but did you ever think about how you would get down again?

Some rock climbers say rappelling, some say abseiling - but what exactly is the difference between the two? Check out here to find out the answer!

Rock climbers do not actually climb their way back down. There is a special technique that helps make this process so much easier and way less risky – rappelling. 

Or…is it abseiling?

You have probably heard both the terms ‘rappelling’ and ‘abseiling’ being thrown around when referring to descaling a climbing wall, but what exactly do these terms mean and what is the difference between them?

Today, we are going to be looking at rappelling and abseiling, what they are and how they are different (if at all). This way, you can use your rock climbing terms with confidence and feel a little less foolish when out on a climb.

So with all that said, let’s take a look at rappel vs abseil. 

What Is Rappelling? 

Rappelling refers to the act of descending a rocky surface on a rope that is attached to an anchor. It is often credited to a man named Jean Charlet Straton who got stuck descending a mountain in the French Alps.

Charlet-Straton spent years perfecting this technique until it was quickly caught on by other climbers. 

It is a climbing technique used by lots of climbers to get back down a mountain or cliff instead of having to climb all the way back down.

It is way easier than having to downclimb as when downclimbing, you can’t see where the holds are beneath you. Plus, you are usually already tired from ascending so you are more likely to lose your grip and fall.  

Rappelling is not just associated with rock climbing. Spelunkers often use this technique to lower themselves down into caves and even the military use rappelling to descend from high places. 

How Do You Rappel While Climbing?

It is a very basic technique that involves passing the climbing ropes through the top anchor and through the belay device that is attached to both your and your partner’s harness.

As you lean back and face the rock while your partner on the ground feeds the rope through their belay deceive, one bit at a time. This will slowly lower you to the ground. 

Sometimes, if the grade of the cliff is not perfectly straight, you will have to use your feet to push away from the face. This will make it appear like you are taking long, slow jumps down the cliff face. 

It is possible to rappel without a harness and just use a piece of rope, but this method can be unsafe so we do not recommend that you try it unless you are experienced climbers.

When rappelling, make sure you have your instructor near and that you follow their instructions as closely as possible. This is for your own safety.

Rappelling vs Abseiling - What’s The Difference?

What Is Abseiling?

So now you are probably thinking – wait a second? What you have just described as rappelling is actually abseiling! 

This is because abseiling is the exact same thing as rappelling. Despite the two different names, both refer to the same technique of descaling a rocky surface.

Both involve passing ropes through the top anchor and belay devices, both require a second person to feed through the rope, and both sometimes require you to push away from the cliff face with your feet or hands.

There is no difference between the two – abseiling and rappelling are one and the same. 

This can cause a lot of confusion, but when it comes to technique and practice, abseiling and rappelling both use the same steps and require the same equipment. 

The only difference between the two is the name. 

The Difference Between Rappelling vs Abseiling 

When it comes to the terms rappelling and abseiling, although they refer to the same technique, the main difference between the two is where you hear each name being said. 

Rappelling and abseiling are both forms of descending by means of ropes. However, there are differences between them. Abseiling involves descending by means of a rope while rappelling involves descending by means of another person who holds onto the end of the rope.

Rappelling is the more commonly used name for this technique in the United States and Canada. Abseiling is more commonly used in the United Kingdom and Europe.

Things get even more complicated in places like Australia and New Zealand where the two names are used interchangeably all the time. 

It’s just another language difference between the US and UK. For example, we say gas but they say petrol.

We say french fries but they say chips, we say chips but they say crisps. We say rappelling and they say abseiling – it is as simple as that! 

This is why there is often a lot of mix-up between the names. In person, you will likely only hear a single name being used but when you go online,

where you can talk to people in other countries freely, they may use the name they often use in their country – leading to much confusion on both sides. 

So while both names refer to the same thing, they are just used in different areas around the globe. 

The terms also have different origins and linguistic meanings. 

Well, the term ‘to abseil’ is of German origin and comes from the term ‘abseilen’ which translates to ‘to rope down’.

On the other hand, the origin of the term ‘to rappel’ is of French origin and comes from the term ‘rappeler’ which translates into ‘to pull through’. 

Abseil comes from the French word “abaisir,” meaning “to pull away” or “to drag off.” This verb was used by the Romans to describe how they pulled up ropes during military siege operations. In English, the verb means “to descend quickly or suddenly.”

Rappel, on the other hand, comes from the French word rappeler, meaning “to pull back.” This verb was used to describe the method of lowering someone down a cliff face.

So while their definitions mean very similar things, their place of origin is very different. 

But which name came first?

Well, logically, it would have been abseiling. 

History of Abseiling

Long before rock climbing became the popular sport and recreational activity it is today, it is deeply rooted in the European activity of mountaineering.

Mountaineering refers to climbing mountains which back hundreds of years ago, was very difficult to do without the proper equipment or clothing. 

As time passed and it became easier and easier to scale mountains, Europeans quickly began to scale more mountains all over the world – Mont Blanc, the Eiger, the Matterhorn, the Andes, the Himalayas. 

History of Rock Climbing

Rock climbing has its roots in the ancient art of mountain climbing. It is believed that the earliest evidence of rock climbing dates back to the third millennium BC.

In those days, people climbed mountains using natural routes. They did not need ropes or harnesses because they were able to climb with nothing but their bare hands and feet. 

In fact, some of these early climbers could even climb upside-down. 

However, this type of climbing was dangerous and many died trying to reach the top. 

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that rock climbing really took off. 

During this period, the invention of the pulley system made climbing safer and easier than ever before. 

With the help of pulleys, people were now able to climb high cliffs safely and easily. 

This new technology allowed for the development of the modern sport of rock climbing.

Today, rock climbing is one of the most popular sports in the world. People from all walks of life participate in rock climbing competitions. 

Rappelling in Descent

When Jean Charlet-Straton first used the rappelling technique to descale Petit Dru in the Alps, it was probably first referred to as abseiling due to the literal translation.

The word ‘rappelling’ was not ever recorded until 1944 so without any further evidence, we have to assume that abseiling came first and rappelling came after. 

The term ‘rappelling’ began to grow in popularity as rock climbing began to gain traction in the US. While Europe had mountaineering, the US took note and created something different – rock climbing.

In Yosemite Valley in the 1980s, pioneers of rock climbing began scaling sheer vertical cliffs with their fingers and toes. This started the sport we would now know today as rock climbing.

A lot of terms from mountaineering translated over to rock climbing but not all of them – and abseiling was one of them. Instead, people in the US preferred to use the term rappelling.

Standard Minimum Climbing Equipment

A comprehensive checklist of the rock climbing equipment you may need.

  • Climbing ropes
  • Harness
  • Belay device
  • Carabiners
  • Quickdraws
  • Climbing cams
  • Climbing helmet
  • Climbing shoes

Is Abseiling More Popular Than Rappelling?

Abseiling is preferred over rappeling in the United Kingdom. Rappelling is a much older term than abseiling, and it was used by British soldiers during World War II.

Abseiling is also a much newer term than rappelling. Both terms are equally acceptable.

Abseiling is roping down a cliff while rappelling is pulling yourself back up a cliff. Both verbs come from foreign languages.

Abseil is the worldwide preferred term. Rappel is used less than half as much. In the US, people call it “rappelling”. In the UK, people call it “abseiling”.

What are the different types of rappelling?

The different types of rappelling are:

  • Standard rappel
  • Australian rappel
  • Hanging rappel
  • Military rappel
  • Simul-rappel
  • Fireman’s belay
  • Tandem rappel

Conclusion of Abseil vs Rappel

So – what is the difference between abseiling and rappelling? 

The difference is a mix of cultural differences and geographical divides. 

Both abseiling and rappelling refer to the same rock climbing technique of descaling a wall using climbing ropes pulled through a top anchor and two sets of belay devices attached to two different harnesses.

They are not separate techniques or use different equipment; it is the same technique that is called by two different names. 

The difference between the two is where the terms are most commonly used. Rock climbers in the US use the term rappelling, while in Europe,

rock climbers use the more traditional name abseiling as it has the oldest history there and has roots related to the traditional European activity of mountaineering. 

Also, both terms have very different roots. Rappelling is the younger word with French origin while abseiling is older and has a Germanic meaning. 

You could also argue that abseiling is probably also used more often in mountaineering instead of rock climbing due to the activity’s European roots. 

But other than that, both terms mean the exact same thing when it comes to rock climbing. 

So we hope that clears up the terms abseiling and rappelling for you. It is easy to get confused, especially when reading about rock climbing online as some websites alternate between the two names.

However, now that you know that both abseiling and rappelling refer to the exact same technique, you should be able to understand other rock climbing sources a lot better.

Kevin Macey
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