The definition of abseiling is fairly simple. The term comes from the German word abseilen, meaning ‘to rope down’. Abseiling was invented by Jean Charlet Straton, a mountain guide from Chamonix, France. During a solo attempt at climbing the 3,700m high Petit Dru mountain in the French Alps, Straton realised he needed a safe way to get back down and abseiling was born.
The activity has since grown massively though, encompassing all manner of different approaches and abseiling techniques.
Also known as rappelling, abseiling is a vital skill for mountain climbers but is also useful in other sports too. Snowboarders, skiers and even downhill mountain bikers often use abseiling to get to those tough to reach spots at the top of epic backcountry runs.
Plenty of jobs also rely on good abseiling knowledge from oil rig workers and tree surgeons to the military, who like nothing better than jumping out of helicopters or running down walls face first, firing machine guns as they abseil:
On top of that abseiling is a big charity and stag do activity. You can abseil down plenty of iconic buildings in London and around the UK and throughout the world offering you the chance to abseil off their dizzying heights and raise money for a good cause at the same time.
To abseil the first thing you need is a rope secured at the top of where you want to abseil down and check that the area below you is clear. That rope is then run through a friction device which is attached to a harness around your waist.
The next bit is the hardest bit, you have to lean out backwards over the drop and slowly begin to lower yourself down, using one hand to slow down and the other to hold on to the rope above you.
As you move carefully downwards, the friction device slows the rope a bit making it easier to control your descent but basically you are under your own power, abseiling at a speed that you feel comfortable with. But be careful though, cos messing up the speed can make you look like a bit of a prat:
As you descend you need to watch out for anything sticking out from whatever you are abseiling down that you might get caught on and be on the look out for any loose debris that might fall on you too. You also need to keep checking the landing to make sure you won’t land on anyone or hurt yourself when you get to the bottom.
Abseiling can be very dangerous if done badly but if you’ve done a bit of abseiling training and have enough experience you can start having fun like this:
If you don’t feel comfortable abseiling on your own you can also try it with an experienced abseiler who can control your descent for you by belaying. There are a wide variety of abseiling courses in the UK that offer chances to do this.
When you are being belayed someone else stands, usually at the bottom of the descent, with a friction device attached to their harness and the rope is tied onto your harness. Your belayer will then feed the rope gradually through the device, controlling your speed for you so all you have to do is make sure you don’t get caught on anything. Getting someone else to belay you is a great way to build up confidence in abseiling and is usually the way that people get to abseil for the first time.
Abseiling on your own and being belayed are the two most basic forms of abseiling but there are actually loads of different abseiling techniques for roping down steep drops, including going headfirst, tandem, upside down and even abseiling without a harness.
Depending on the location and type of abseiling you are doing there are lots of different pieces of abseiling kit you might need, but most types of abseiling require the same three key items.
Firstly a good climbing rope is essential. It goes without saying that this needs to be long enough to actually make it to the bottom of where you want to abseil down and should be in good condition.
A decent rope can set you back over £100 but when you remember that you are literally going to be trusting your life to it, it doesn’t seem like such a big investment.
A strong climbing harness is also going to be vital for most types of abseiling. It’s important to note that harnesses vary depending on size, weight and gender so it’s best to pop down your local climbing wall or outdoor shop and get some tips on fitting one properly before you splash out the cash.
When you’re abseiling this is going to be taking your full wait so it is important to make sure that it is both safe and comfortable to use. You should normally be able to pick up a good starter harness for under £50.
The final must have piece of abseiling equipment is a friction/belay device. This small piece of metal will be helping you to control the speed of the rope as you descend by using the friction of the rope against itself.
There is a wide range of ingeniously designed belay devices out there each with their own special way of keeping you safe, so it’s important to try your chosen model out before splashing the cash to make sure it works for you. Prices for belay devices also vary widely depending on their complexity but you should be able to grab a good basic model for under £20.
There are loads of places that offer abseiling courses in the UK where you can get your first taste of the sport. If you’re just looking to try it out for the first time, a nearby outdoor activities centre or high ropes course might be a good place to start but if you want to learn abseil for yourself then a climbing wall is the place to go.
Most climbing centres throughout the UK will run some kind of abseiling training as part of their basic induction training to allow you to use their wall. This sort of course will just teach you the basics but it’s often pretty cheap and in some cases even free. This is normally not a formal qualification but just allows you to climb at the wall you train at.
Even though you will now know how to belay you will usually have to do a short test at any new wall you go to proving that you can tie on properly, abseil under control at a safe speed and have good awareness of the people and hazards around you.
There are plenty of great climbing and abseiling centres in the UK to check out and we can even boast about having the tallest permanent abseil tower in the world, based at the national Abseil Centre in Northampton.
For those who prefer a stunning natural view for their abseiling, outdoor climbing is largely unregulated. There is very little to stop you grabbing a rope and abseiling down any nearby cliff but this is a pretty stupid idea without some proper abseiling training or experience.
Many people learn to abseil and belay with mates who already know what they’re doing but it is still a great idea to get some practice and training in at a climbing wall with professionals before you take it outside. But when you do you can enjoy the natural beauty of spots like Snowdonia or the Peak District from a brand new point of view.
Once you’ve had training and got some experience under your belt the world is basically your abseiling oyster. There are tonnes of epic spots for you to abseil around the world from the likes of the ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower in London’s Olympic Park to the breathtaking descent of Table Mountain in South Africa or the insane cave systems or New Zealand just begging to be explored.