Imagine a situation where you are at the top a cliff and you only have a rope– no harness, carabiners, or belay device. Maybe you dropped something, maybe your other equipment is damaged, maybe you went canyoneering and only packed a rope, no climbing gear? A 40 foot cliff lies between you and the rest of your route onward. How would you do it? Could you safely get down the cliff? Sure, you can try and tie a bowline around your waist and lower yourself hand over hand, but there are better, safer ways. Rappelling with a rope only-and without a harness-should really only be attempted in an emergency. Though it won’t be comfortable, and won’t be 100% safe, there are a few good ways to rappel with just a rope.
Read on to learn how to rappel with just a rope, no harness. This is a good skill to learn and practice now so that you will be prepared in case of an emergency.
How to Rappel Without a Harness:
This post will describe 2 different techniques that allow you to rappel with just a rope. I’ll describe the Dülfersitz rappel in detail. I’ll also include another option called the South African rappel. And if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation with a little more gear (some extra rope/webbing and carabiners), I included the Swiss Seat improvised harness instructions at the end.
Here are a few safety steps to help you get set up and started before you begin your improvised rappel.
First, Choose a Rope
Hopefully you brought a static rope with you. A dynamic rope isn’t used for rappelling, except in an emergency (which this is, right?). More stretch means more danger, and more pain when rappelling without a harness.
Next, Lower Your Gear
Since you will wrap the rope around your body, you don’t want anything bulky in your way. Lower your gear to the ground so that you won’t have anything bulky in the way to maneuver while you are descending.
Loop the Rope Around a Sturdy Anchor
Choose a thick, deeply rooted tree, large rock, solid boulder, etc. Make sure your object is solid and won’t budge and that the rope won’t be able to slip around it. After selecting a solid anchor, loop the middle of the rope around it- but don’t tie it. Coil the rope and toss both ends over the cliff. Check to make sure they are long enough and reach the bottom without getting stuck.
Now read on for the next steps in the different methods to rappel without a harness:
Dulfersitz Rappel Method
The Dulfersitz Rappel (also known as Classical Abseil, or Body Rappel) is a non-mechanical rappelling (abseiling) technique- meaning no gear or rappel devices.Though not recommended anymore, since rappel/belay devices are much more widely available, it was used frequently in the past. A harness coupled with a carabiner and belay device provides much more safety and consistency in the process, and is a lot more comfortable. For this method, the rope is wound around the body making an improvised “harness” and the speed of descent is controlled by the friction of the rope against the body.
Follow these next steps if you are right handed (if you rappel with your left hand as the “braking hand”, do the opposite side of the body)
1. Straddle both ropes coming from your anchor, facing uphill. Hold both ropes together and pull between your legs toward your back
2. Pass the ropes around your right hip/thigh to the front
3. Cross up across your chest and over your left shoulder
4. Loop around the back of your neck
5. Loop down your right arm
6. Hold the rope FIRMLY with your right hand
Walk backward to the edge of the cliff. If you have the space, take a few practice steps to get the feel for it before going over the edge. Continue to grip the rope firmly with your braking hand- your dominant hand. This is the downhill side of the rope, with your free hand on the uphill side of the rope used primarily for balance. Slowly let gravity pull you down while feeding the rope out as you go. Regulate how fast the rope passes through your dominant hand to control your speed. Don’t let go of the rope with your dominant hand. Nothing else will keep you from falling.
When you get to the ground and are safe and steady on your feet, pull on one end of your rope to retrieve it.
The Dülfersitz can be effective when performed correctly, but it is not as safe as other methods of rappel. The right hand must remain firmly on the rope at all times or else a fall is unavoidable. If you have another strand of rope available, a backup knot like a prusik will provide added protection. It is good to know how to do this type of rappel in case you do find yourself in an emergency situation. It would be worth practicing the Dülfersitz on a short rappel that is safe. I don’t recommend using this type of rappelling unless you absolutely have to.
The Dülfersitz rappel was named after an alpinist named Hans Dülfer who apparently died very young….(Note: okay I learned he actually died in World War I, not in a climbing accident. He actually came up with many climbing techniques and was very skilled).
South African Method
Another method that can be used to rappel without a harness is the South African Method. Similar to the Dülfersitz method, the rope is again wrapped around your body creating self friction in an attempt to slowly control your descent. This method hurts less, as the rope is wound in a way that it doesn’t cut into the body and cause quite as much rope burn.
1. Loop the rope around a sturdy anchor
2. Face towards the anchor (uphill). Take each line of rope underneath your armpits
3. Cross the ropes behind your back and bring to the front again under your armpits
4. Keep holding one side of the rope in each hand. Straddle the rope and pull both ends between your legs toward your back
5. Pull both ropes to the side toward your dominant “braking hand” to hold on tight for descending. You can wrap the rope around your wrist once, and then hold it tightly
6. Slowly walk backwards and get a feel for the movement of the rope through your “makeshift” harness before you start rappelling. Smoothly feed the rope through your braking hand to descend. Steady yourself with your left hand holding the uphill rope
Swiss Seat Rappelling Harness
If you don’t have a harness, but you have a short amount of webbing or rope, you can improvise and make your own harness using the Swiss Seat method. You’ll also need a carabiner for this method.
1.Place the middle of the rope around your waist and hold one end in each hand with the same amount of rope coming from each side
2. Pull the ropes around your waist and cross the ropes- pull one side under the other to make a half hitch. Repeat. You’ll attach the carabiner here later
3. Pull the ends of the ropes under your legs towards your back
4. Tuck each free end under the rope tied around your waist on each side
5. Tighten the harness by pulling down tightly on the free ropes
6. Attach the carabiner and tie a munter hitch to it in order to rappel
Advantages and Disadvantages to Each Method:
Dulfersitz: While this method is more common, it isn’t necessarily the best or safest method. It creates a tendency to cause the body to rotate and be less steady. It should probably be the last resort.
South African Method: This option offers more control to the rappeler. Though more complex to learn, the rope cuts less into the body and will cause fewer rope burns. It offers more support to the back and provides some resistance so it is slower to descend. Keep in mind however, that the South African method can only be used with 2 strands of a doubled rope.
Swiss Seat Rappelling Harness: While the Swiss Seat requires some more gear, it is definitely going to be the safest in an emergency situation because you have more than just a rope wrapped across the body and held tightly by one hand.
Try it Out!
These methods of rappelling will be very beneficial if you ever need to rappel without a harness. Learn and practice these methods on short, safe rappels now, in case of an emergency. It will always be better-safer and more comfortable- to use gear, but emergencies happen in the wild, and this is a great skill to have.
Have you ever needed to use any of these methods of rappelling without a harness?