How Do Alpinists Get Down

Rock climbers and alpinists will either rappel, hike down, or be lowered from the top of a climb.

One of rock climbing’s biggest draws is soaking in an epic view after a full day adventure. And the same is true for alpinism, alpine climbing, and maybe even bouldering. You can feel a great sense of achievement from climbing.

But if you’ve only been rock climbing at indoor climbing gyms, then you might be confused how climbers are getting down. Are they calling in the chopper or base jumping and wingsuiting off the top? Maybe some of the sport climbers…

For the rest of us, a climbing route description will include how to get off the climb. The most common ways are rappelling/abseiling, lowering, or hiking off the top.

Let’s dive in to the different ways to get down after a full day of mountain climbing.

Walking Off

Hiking from the top of a climb, also known as walking off, is one of the most common ways for free solo climbers to get down. Since free soloing means a climber by themself with no ropes, they will simply take the long way home. Free solo climbers will do their homework ahead of time and verify that the route they are about to climb does have a walk off.

Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas, Nevada is known for tricky walk offs and descents

For us regular rock climbers, we can clip our approach shoes on to our harnesses or pack them in our backpacks. And then once we reach the top of our route, we simply change our shoes and begin our leisurely stroll back to the bottom.

After Alex Honnold made his free solo ascents of Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park and The Regular North West Face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, he completed the entire hike off barefoot. He tells a funny story in his book about rock climbing, Alone on the Wall, about all the hikers gawking at his bare feet while he was hiking. Not realizing that he had just climbed thousands of feet with no rope!

But not all areas have walk offs. Seneca Rocks, West Virginia and Devils Tower National Monument are both only accessible by technical rock climbing. The only way down is to rappel back down the route.

If you were to attempt a free solo climb at these areas, you would need to be prepared to down climb or bring rappel equipment to get back down to the bottom

Rappelling

Rappelling is one of the most common ways for rock climbers to get back down to the ground. But it’s more common in multi pitch than single pitch sport climbing.

Rappelling, also known as abseiling, is when the climber will secure the rope in a fixed anchor and then slide down the rope. Climbers usually rappel on their belay devices, like a Black Diamond ATC.

On rappel in Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

Rappelling is one of the easiest ways to get back down, but it is also prone to fatal accidents. There are specific precautions that climbers need to take before rappelling. To reach the ground safely, the climber needs a friction hitch backup or firefighters belay, the rope needs to be secured properly, and knots need to be tied to the end of the rope. The climber then needs to ensure they clipped into the belay device properly.

The first belay device you’ll get as a common will probably be a tube style device. These are great to have at first because they double as a rappel device. When you start outdoor climbing more, you won’t have to buy a second device for rappelling.

Receiving instruction from an AMGA professional guide is your best course of action if you want to learn more about rappelling.

Lowering

Lowering is very similar to rappelling, but the key difference is that the belayer is in control of the climber. When I rappel, I am in control of my descent. I can stop myself, control my speed, or increase the speed of my descent.

An advantage of lowering over rappelling is that the climber does not need to untie from the rope and set up a new device in order to return to the ground. Before the start of a climb, the climber and the belayer perform their buddy checks and the climber proceeds to climb. Once the climber reaches the top they are then ready to be lowered.

Lowering is most common after free climbing a pitch. Note: free climbers climb with a rope for their protection in case the climber falls, but they are not using the rope to assist their way up the wall. A free solo climber climbs with no rope and has no protection in the event of a fall.

Down Climbing

Many climbers will also down climb a route once they reach the top. This descending technique is more commonly used as a training technique in indoor gyms and for free solo climbers.

Down climbing means that once a climber reaches the top, they then proceed to climb the same route back down. If that seems confusing, think of it as walking back down the stairs. You can walk up stairs and then back down the same stairs. The same thing applies for this.

Because you are still climbing, down climbing is going to make your tired and you do have the potential to fall. If you are solo climbing, then down climbing will force you to climb the route twice.

I prefer down climbing with a rope attached and use it to get a better bang for my workout buck. But some climbing routes, like an overhanging route, will be tough for down climbing due to the forces of gravity pulling you outwards from the wall.

Base Jumping

Dean Potter popularized one form of free solo climbing in a Reel Rock climbing documentary known as “free base”. The idea was to combine free soloing and base jumping. You could still get the speed and thrill of solo climbing, but still have a back up plan just in case you fell.

I read in an interview that Dean came up with this mostly as a joke. And I have not seen any evidence that free solo climbers regularly participate in this. It would be really annoying to climb a long route with a parachute backpack attached. And you would also need to fall off a tall enough route where you had time to pull a parachute and fall safely.

But nevertheless, it looks pretty dang cool. And many members of the climbing community transition to base jumping.

Check out this video of free base in action.

How Do Climbers Get Down From El Capitan?

The most common way for rock climbers to get down from El Capitan is to walk off and take the hiking trail back down to the valley. But if climbers don’t reach the top, then they will need to take the many,many rappels back down to the bottom.

After free solo climber Alex Honnold reached the top of El Cap in his movie, he had his friends and support crew meet him at the top with a pair of hiking shoes so he could hike back down to the bottom.

How Do Climbers Get Down From Everest?

Descending Mount Everest will follow the same trail as the ascent. There are a few alternative descents, but these are left to the ultra professionals. The route on Everest is filled with crevasses and exposed knife ridges that can be fatal to fall on.

Getting down from Mt. Everest is a complicated endeavor. Many climbers don’t even reach the top of Everest due to a variety of factors. The altitude causes issues with your breathing. The weather can change in an instant. And the insane crowds means traffic jams on the way up and on the descent.

Many accidents happen on the way down. Whether that’s from running out of supplemental oxygen, poor decision making due to fatigue, or just bad luck. Stay on your toes while descending because you’re still not out of the woods yet.

Lowering versus Rappelling

Lowering and rappelling are the two most common ways to get down from a single pitch sport climb and they are very similar. But there are few key differences:

Lowering

  • Belayer is in control of the climbers descent using the belay device
  • The rope is moving through the metal lowering rings
  • Climber does not need to untie once reaching the top

Rappelling

  • Climber is in control of their descent using their rappel device
  • The rope does not move through the fixed anchor points
  • Climber needs to untie and set up their personal anchor system

Nowadays, it’s generally recommended to lower off of a sport climb due to the risk reduction. Some critics of this will say that this will cause the permanent anchors to wear faster and need replacement sooner. Some route developers don’t have a problem with this and prefer climbers to lower anyway.

Check in with the ethics of your climbers area to see what the consensus is for lowering vs rappelling off of a route.

What are climbing ropes secured to?

At the top of a climb, or at a belay station on a multi pitch climb, the ropes will be attached to anchors. These anchors will be made of either traditional climbing gear or bolted rings.

Once the first climber, or leader, sets up the anchor, the second climber, aka follower, then climbs up. Then the pair can proceed to the next anchor, or rappel back down to the ground.

Properly setting up anchors and securing the ropes takes time to learn and you need to practice regularly. Work on your skills on the ground rather than on the middle of a climb.

What equipment do you need to get down from climbing?

  • Personal Anchor or PAS
  • Rope
  • Rappel device
  • Hiking or approach shoes

Depending on your style of climbing and your descent method of choice, your gear is going to vary. If I am out sport climbing, I am going to most likely be lowered to the ground. That means I’ll need some locking carabiners, quickdraws, and a personal anchor system.

However, a free solo climber will be forced to down climb or hike off the top. All of these choices are left up to the individual rock climber and the style of the climb

Frequently Asked Questions

How do climbers get their ropes back?

After getting down from a climb, most climbers will just pull one side of the rope through the anchors and the rope will then fall to the ground.

How do free solo climbers get down?

Since free solo climbers climb without a rope, they need to down climb or walk off the climb once they reach the top of the formation.

How do alpinists get down without ropes?

Alpinists will have to hike back down, but it can be very dangerous to traverse snow fields without a rope.

How do rock climbers get back down?

Rock climbers get down by either lowering, rappelling, down climbing, or hiking off of the climb.

Do climbers have to leave gear in order to get down?

Climbers usually don’t have to leave gear to get down unless there is an emergency.

How does a free climber get down?

Free climbers rappel or lower down a route, but free climbing is different than free solo climbing where you do not use a rope and will need to walk off the top of the climb.

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