What's the difference between rappelling and abseiling between rocks

Rappelling and abseiling are two of the most common terms used in rock climbing. However, it can be confusing to try and differentiate the specifics of these two terms. In practice, they tend to mean very similar things. However, noting down the exact differences can seem difficult. The particular way that rappelling and abseiling are used can also seem confusing to beginners. Most climbing experts recognize the meaning of both rappelling and abseiling. In this article, we will break down the differences between rappelling and abseiling and go through the historical origins of both of these terms. You will be able to impress your friends with your clear understanding of what both rappelling and abseiling mean.

This Article Will Cover:

Is Rappelling and Abseiling the Same?
Why is it Called Abseiling?
Who Calls it Rappelling and Who Calls it Abseiling?
Which Terms are Used in Climbing Books?
Are There any Differences in Climbing Style?
Different Rappelling Climbing Styles
Different Abseiling Climbing Styles
The American Influence on Climbing
Rappelling and Abseiling Activity Differences
Closing Thoughts

Is Rappelling and Abseiling the Same?

Essentially, the word rappelling means to descend by a rope — the word abseiling means to descend a steep drop with some form of a mechanical friction device like for instance an ATC device. However, the classic term means to descend by wrapping one’s body around the rope. Both of these climbing styles have European origins. It is not exactly clear why the terms started being used differently; however, there is a notable history around the origin of both words.

An abseiler usually refers to someone who is experienced with mountaineering. The noun, rappel is a drumbeat pattern that calls for soldiers to gather. The verb rappelling can also be used to refer to calling back a hawk. Originally, the word is derived from the french, “rappeler” which means to ‘pull through’ or ‘recall’. In many ways, the word can be described as referring to have control of one’s descent through a pre-defined mechanism. The rope is usually controlled through a friction device. The literal meaning of the original French word is to withdraw or recall.

Why is it Called Abseiling?

The word abseiling has an interesting and notable history. By understanding the historical origins, we can better understand the meaning of the word in the modern era. The word is originally derived from the German word, “abseilen.” The definition of abseilen is to lower oneself on a rope. Therefore, this word makes perfect sense. In contrast to the literal translation of the French variant, this definition is far more fitting to the activity.   Abseiling was invented by a French explorer who realized he needed a way to get down from the Alps. Since then, Abseiling has grown, and it now encompasses a number of different activities. However, the core meaning of descending safely has remained the same.

What's the difference between rappelling and abseiling
Rappelling vs. abseiling…same same but different??

Who Calls it Rappelling and Who Calls it Abseiling?

The origins of the words rappelling and abseiling do not give the full story of why the usage differs. The use of the terms rappelling and abseiling can also be seen differently depending on the type of climbing that is being done. Some prefer to use rappelling, and others prefer to use abseiling. This leads to a separation of the terms based on the type of descent.

In general, the term Abseiling is preferred in the UK, and the term rappelling is preferred in the USA. Canada also prefers the term rappelling too, which is not too surprising considering that their variant of English is very similar to the USA. Most of Europe uses the term abseiling, and the term is especially popular in Germany. Therefore, some of the differences in the usage of the term can be attributed to specific regional preferences, rather than any changes in the specific activity.

 However, not all regions have a distinct choice on which term they prefer. In some countries, both rappelling and abseiling are used interchangeably. Some examples are France, New Zealand, and Australia. In these countries, both terms are fairly common, and there is no seemingly obvious preference. Cultural influences and local rock climbing communities can have an impact on which term is preferred within the cities of these countries. Both rappelling and abseiling will be heard in the rock climbing communities of these countries.

Which Terms are Used in Climbing Books?

One of the best sources of information for climbing is informational books. There are many climbing guides written in English. In general, the majority of these books use the word rappelling. However, abseiling is also commonly used. In climbing books, there does not seem to be a major difference in what these terms convey. They are used fairly interchangeably to describe the same activity. Rock climbing is full of specific lingo, and in many ways, it is a culture in its own right. This can explain why even climbing books do not have a definitive word which they use.

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 Are There any Differences in Climbing Style?

You may also be wondering if there is any significant difference in the climbing style of rappelling and abseiling. This is a difficult question to answer since the terms are used loosely and interchangeably. In general, there are no differences in climbing style. This means you can use both rappelling and abseiling to describe the same activity. You should not worry too much about which specific word to use. The common word you feel comfortable with is fine, and most people will understand what you are talking about. There are no differences in climbing styles.

Different Rappelling Climbing Styles

However, some people do use these terms to designate separate climbing styles. Usually, this is when the terms are combined with another word. An example is “Australian rappelling“; which is commonly used in the military. This is where the abseiler looks directly downwards to give them a clear view of where they are heading. Another example is “Simul-rappelling”; which is a common term used in both climbing and canoeing. It is when two climbers descend at the same time on the same rope. It is considered unsafer than the usual method, and therefore, it is mainly used in emergency situations.

US Army rappelling and abseiling
US Army personnel looking upwards, directing rappellers down safely.

Different Abseiling Climbing Styles

Additionally, the term abseiling can also be combined with specific terms to denote certain climbing styles. One example is “counterbalance abseiling.” This is a rescue technique that is used in climbing. The most common use of this technique is by a leader when rescuing a climber. The weight of the other climber is used as a counterbalance. Another technique is known as “Releasable abseiling.” This is a style that is mainly used by guides to assist inexperienced climbers who may get. The guide descends alongside the inexperienced climber. The maneuver is made safe through the use of a long rope.

The American Influence on Climbing

The usage of both rappelling and abseiling can be traced to the history of mountaineering. Abseiling was a popular word used when describing certain activities related to mountaineering. In fact, the word rappel, in contrast, was not even used for these activities up until 1944. Abseiling seemed to be the most accurate definition in terms of the context. However, rappelling started to gain prominence due to American influence.

The origins of European climbing and American climbing were fairly different. European mountaineers were seen as posh by Americans. In, America rock climbing was seen as a rebellious activity. One of the reasons for this was that rock climbing did not receive the same attention that mountaineering did. Nor did it get any government funding. It started as a niche activity, that fast gained prominence during the 1980s. The movement looked at mountaineering with derision, and instead created their own terms. This can explain why rappelling is the popular term in America.

Rappelling and AbseilingActivity Differences

Additionally, the type of climbing that was done in Europe and American had some differences, which can also explain the difference in uses for the words rappelling and abseiling. European mountaineers would consider abseiling as an important skill to have, but it was simply one skill, and others were also used. It was not done constantly on a mountain. This is in contrast to the American rock climbers who would descend from Yosemite Valley and other similar climbing locations. These locations had cliff walls which required constant lowering, which means they would be rappelling for the majority of the time. Overall, it does appear as though specific cultural differences have contributed to the regional differences in how the terms rappelling and abseiling are used.

Closing Thoughts

You should now be able to understand why these terms are both used in rock climbing. Although the climbing style is largely the same, some people do see noticeable differences between the two terms. The main differences between rappelling and abseiling are purely cultural and regional. However, in practical terms, they are largely the same for most people. The vast majority of people use the terms interchangeably, but by understanding their differences, you can now be able to distinguish why their usage can change depending on the context. It can also be crucial to understand the specific climbing styles which are attached to both rappelling and abseiling. If you do find yourself climbing in another country, you will now have a better understanding of whether you should use the word rappelling or abseiling.

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