Why do most pictures of rappelling and rock-climbing look the same? They both involve rocks and ropes. What exactly is the difference?

Rock climbing is a sport that involves climbing natural rock formations or artificial rock walls with or without rope. Rock climbers use rappelling in descent. The aim is to reach the summit or end point of a formation through free-climbing using your own strength.

Rappelling (also called abselling in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland) is controlled descent down a rock using ropes. The aim is to climb down a steep cliff or slope when it is too steep to descend without protection.

Comparison chart

Rappelling versus Rock Climbing comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartRappellingRock Climbing
Overview Rappelling is a controlled descent down a rock with the use of ropes. (It’s also called abselling in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland). A sport of climbing natural rock formations or artificial rock walls with or without rope. Rock climbers use rappelling in descent.
Aim To climb down a steep cliff or slope when it is too steep to descend without protection. To reach the summit or end point of a formation through free-climbing using one’s own strength.
Equipment Climibing ropes; climbing harness; anchors, hexes, nuts and camming devices; descender devices; Bachman knot; helmets; gloves; boots; knee-pads Rope, cord and webbing, Carabiners, quickdraws, harnesses; belay devices, rapellers or descender devices, Ascenders, Slings, Anchors, hexes, nuts and camming devices, helmet, gloves and climbing shoes.
Basic techniques Other than descending safely down the rope, rappelling but also incorporates a lot of other climbing skills including creating anchors, tying knots, rope management, rigging the rappel device, using safety back-up systems, and retrieving the rope. Bouldering, top roping, lead climbing, descending (rapelling).
Styles Australian rapelling; tandem or spider rapelling; simul; counter balance; non-mechanical methods. Aid climbing; free-climbing; bouldering; free soloing; sport climbing; solo aid; indoor climbing.
Competitions There are local rappelling challenges but not a world wide competition. Started in Europe in the 1970s. Based on short routes without using ropes, difficult routes using rope, speed climbing. There is world championship held every two years during Olympic 'off years'.
Dangers Though rappelling is (normally) one of the simple tasks in climbing, it is also one of the most dangerous . Many climbers have been lost by rappelling off the end of their rope. Bad gear, bad gear placements and falling.
A rappeller descending down the rope
A rappeller descending down the rope

Basic techniques

At its most basic, rock climbing involves climbing a route with one's own hands and feet and little more than a cushioned bouldering pad in the way of protection. This style of climbing is called bouldering, since the relevant routes are usually found on boulders no more than 10 to 15 feet tall. In top-roping, an anchor is set up at the summit of a route prior to the start of a climb. Rope is run through the anchor; one end attaches to the climber and the other to the belayer, who keeps the rope taut during the climb and prevents long falls. This is the safest form of climbing and used by most beginners. In lead climbing, one person, called the "leader", will climb from the ground up with rope directly attached (and not through a top anchor) while the other, called the "second", belays the leader. As they progress, the leader clips the rope through intermediate points of protection that limit the length of a potential fall. Rappelling techniques are used to descend.

A rock climber (top) and a belayer (bottom) to hold the rope taut
A rock climber (top) and a belayer (bottom) to hold the rope taut

In Rappelling, the climbing rope is anchored to a cliff with artificial anchors like cams and bolts or natural anchors like trees and boulders. Usually the rope is either doubled with the midpoint at the anchors or tied to another climbing rope. The climber then uses a rappel device which utilizes the friction of the rope through the device to control his descent as he literally slides down the fixed rope to a ledge or the cliff-base. After the climber slides to the bottom of the rope, he then retrieves the rope by pulling it through the anchor. The French word rappel, meaning “to recall,” comes from this retrieval.


Climbing technique involves any posture or movement of the hands, feet and body to ascend a rock formation. Aid climbing is climbing big walls where progress is accomplished by repeatedly placing and weighting gear which is used directly to aid ascent and enhance safety. Traditional climbing is climbing routes that do not have permanent anchors placed to protect climbers from falls while ascending. Gear is used to protect against falls but not to aid the ascent directly. Sport Climbing involves the use of protection or permanent anchors which are attached to the rock walls. Bouldering is climbing on short, low routes without the use of the safety rope or devices except for cushioned bouldering pads. Free climbing refers to climbs that only relies on the climber's own physical strength and skill to accomplish the climb. Anchors, ropes, and protection are used to back up the climber and are passive as opposed to active ascending aids. Free-soloing is climbing done by a single person without any rope or protection at all. Solo aid is free-soloing where protective gear is carried but rope is not used. Australian rappelling is where descent is done face down. Tandem of spider rappelling is where two climbers descend through the same belay device. Simul rappelling is where two separate rappellers on the two strands of the rope running through the anchors. Rappellers need to descend at the same speed as each other and should be anchored into each other. Non-mechanical rappelling is used only in emergencies where there is no other option where no devices are used and rope is simply wrapped around the body.


Rock equipment is used for safety only and not always to aid in the climb. Climbing rope is made of nylon fibers and able to stretch a bit under tension to prevent jerking a falling climber. The rope is usually 50 meters long. Rappellers also used climbing rope.


Although rock climbing is not an Olympic sport it is recognized as one, which means that in 2016 it can be suggested as a new Olympic competitive sport. Competition rock climbing started in Europe in 1970s. Competitions are based on either speed of climbing, climbing with or without rope, or distance covered on an increasingly difficult route. The World Championships take place even two years in individual countries, which may have different rules, on Olympic 'off years'. There are no official rappelling competitions but local competitions are held.


Rock climbing is an inherently dangerous sport and could result in serious injury or death. There is potential for bad gear placements, either from inexperience or just bad gear, that will pull in a fall. Falling rocks, objects or the climber above you are also dangers. Many rappellers are lost to rappelling off the end of the rope. To avoid rappelling off the end of your rope tie a knot at both ends of the rope. Other dangers include, failing anchors, rope getting cut, rope might get stuck when pulled, incorrect rigging of rappel device, rope-connecting knot can come untied.


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