Which is better: Rapeling or Lowering from the chains?

So it seems like there is a debate (however futile it may be) about whether or not you should rappel a route or you should lower. Seems to me like this isn’t a very productive use of time buy hey, if people want to talk about it, let’s talk about it.

Disclaimer: Do not ever top rope through fixed gear. This is selfish and should not be tolerated. 

The real issue here is that there are a few factors that should determine which of methods you should use. Among them I can see 3 obvious ones:

  • Safety of the person
  • Ease of use (speed, ability to clean, etc.)
  • Wear on the fixed protection or anchor

I don’t think that there is much more to be added to this pretty definite list of reasons. Obviously, one could consider the wear on their own equipment or perhaps the learning curve, but those to me are only minor issues that shouldn’t get in the way of the issue at hand. Once you become a rappelling or lowering master it isn’t about learning anymore and this should affect the thing you do after 10-20 times practicing.

Safety: the main concern

When we climb, I think most people would put safety first. That’s why we don’t think “oh, should i clip this bolt, or should i not and save the wear on the bolt so that it can last longer? I guess the fall wouldn’t kill me! hmmm… tough choice!”

We just clip the bolt. Why? Because when we are leading we want to be safe and use the fixed gear that is degraded as we climb on it.

Yes, hangers for bolts do wear out! And they should be inspected before clipping into them. But in the real world, most of us know that we can whip on these bolts without too much issue due to our use of aluminium carabiners on steel hangers. The hardness of the hanger is much stronger than our own gear and that’s why burrs accumulate on our draws and don’t really harm the hangar… that much. 

By that, obviously there is some wear. There always is! even if you never weight your gear, just the repetitive grinding does chip micro pieces of steel off the hangers. Not to mention the times when we try hard sport routes and whip constantly off the bolts.

In a similar fashion, we should recognize that rappelling is very dangerous in comparison with regular lowering. The sheer amount of rappelling accidents reported by the American Alpine Institute does include rappelling but doesn’t include lowering since it seems people do not fail to do this properly, in general. In fact, I cannot really find any statistic to back up that rappelling is safer than lowering, and I do believe that this is true due to the nature of the beast.

Rappelling is complex. There are a lot of things you must do right and have the knowledge to double check before doing something wrong. One of my good friends fell from a 30 meter route due to not clipping both strands. He was lucky but at the same time, this was due to rappelling being hard to check and complex and also easy to screw up. I don’t think i’ve ever had to tilt my head to check my lowering set up, but rappelling isn’t like this, as we all know. Furthermore, friction hitches are recommended but there is a huge number of people that seemingly can’t be bothered to add that to their system.

Conclusion to this point: yes, by all means, rappelling is more dangerous than lowering. If you want to comment and tell me why you think this isn’t true, then we can talk, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to think that rappelling is considered more dangerous all in all.

Of course, huge disclaimer: neither are really dangerous is well done. What i mean to convey is that one is easier to screw up compared to the other. However, this is if you have equal knowledge of both and in such can do both with ease.

Ease of use

Ondra! did you remember your atc?
Ondra! did you remember your atc?

Now this point will really be a toss up for both side since I don’t think anyone in the pro-rap camp will admit that rappelling is generally more time consuming and harder to do. But, let’s look at the facts:

  • Rappelling takes longer to set up and check than lowering
  • Rappelling is hard to use when the route traverses
  • Rappelling is hard to use when a route is overhung
  • I definately hate doing this when i know I have to clean gear on the way down
  • Auto-blocking knots have been known to slip and are not a great backup compared to a vigilant belay

Obviously, in my view, the pro-rap camp is probably of the opinion that the second should top rope the climb and clean on the way up. This isn’t a fair set up since leading, to me, is the essence of hard sport climbing. Obviously, cleaning on the way up lends itself well to some routes, but for the most part I think at a sport crag where everyone wants to lead, lowering is the modus operandi that should be preferred.

Perhaps yes, in a situation where the anchors look disheveled, rappelling would be a safer and better option to make it last. However, is it really that hard to bring up rap rings on your harness and replace the old ones? A quick link is 3 dollars and works well to back up a sketchy looking rap ring.

As for cleaning the rappel, the ease of use is where the safety is really seen. If something is easy to do and easy to set up, there isn’t a reason for people to screw up. Furthermore, as rappelling is quite long, people often cut corners to speed the whole thing up which can cause huge screw ups. For example:

  • No friction hitch
  • No knots on the ends
  • Not double checking you are at the rope’s middle
  • Not double checking your system

So these little things take time, but really can save you. There are countless accidents where people rap off the end of their rope. You can’t lower off the end of your rope, unless you climbed a route and didn’t plan it right (lowering off a 45 meter route with a 60 m rope, for example) but let’s hope your belay had the good sense to see that coming.

Conclusion: In more cases than fewer, rappelling will be a hassle. There are only a few cases where I would choose rap over lower, and many where I would choose lower over rap. However, safety relies on consistency, and in such if you start being inconsistent this may lead to belayer mistakes or mistakes on your own part due to not having practiced enough both methods.

Wear on the fixed protection


This is where obviously the rappelling argument takes root. Rappelling is not really a damaging way to climb since there is no weighted friction in the system. In thus, due to the ability to be safe and do most of what lower can, people will shout from the rooftops that rappelling is better.

Now, I’m not going to argue that rappelling is worse, but i will say this:

  1. The amount of wear that a single lower provides to the rings is minimal
  2. rappelling will still amount to some wear

For the first point: yes, the lower does cause wear. Is it minimal? I think so! Because you are not jerking around, taking huge top rope falls and putting a lot of stress on the rings, i think there is not much of an issue here. Think about your draws: do they look worn after a season? you have probably top roped more on those than the rings have felt lowering in a year (most anchors, maybe not the classic climbs at some popular sport venues [which get checked more often and should be replaced by locals, visitors and developers to ensure their area doesn’t become shit]).

To continue on with this, due to this wear being minimal and the life span of rappel rings in general, I think this is acceptable. Due to the fact that the majority of climbs will see 1 ascent per day (hence, one lower) on average (maybe less, if you consider off seasons), lowering off rap rings should keep the rings in good shape for 20 odd years. Ten would be an acceptable number for a climb since these rings are not expensive.

On the other point, yes rappelling does cause some wear. Pulling the rope through and up, and then pulling the rope down will cause wear. Your rope weighs something and you are causing friction. Maybe much less, but who’s to say? I haven’t read a comparative study. How can i know if rappelling is a tenth as bad? a hundredth? half? Who’s to say.

I guess the crux of the argument here is: if you can avoid the extra wear, why not? Well, for two obviously good reasons above, safety and ease of use, I opt to add a bit of wear in exchange for those two reasons. I will replace rings that look bad and in such have contributed when I decided to take the easier, more wear driven road. That’s my commitment to safety and to ease of use.

So, in my view, this whole rappelling superiority is moot! There isn’t much of a debate in the first two points and in such we can logically arrive at the point that lowering is a valid and good way of cleaning a route or lowering off at the end of a climb.

Again, do not top rope through fixed gear. This causes higher, acute wear on the anchors and can be easily avoided. 

I think i have made my point and hope you can agree, even if you remain dedicated to rappelling. Rappelling is fine too, I don’t mean to try to convince others to switch if they prefer it, but really would like to stress that rappelling is valid and lowering is valid. That is all.


Safety first!




  1. Well written and all valid points. And frankly, I appreciate that you don’t arrive at the (in my opinion) erroneous conclusion that one method is vastly and always superior to the other. I think it pretty much comes down to time, place, circumstances, and preference.

    The one point I would add in favor of rappelling: if terrain, weather, or ambient noise is making communication with your belayer difficult, it’s almost always better to rappel. Even if you talked about the descent while you were both on the ground, sometimes the climber wants to or has to call an audible. I’d rather trade a bit of convenience for peace of mind and safety if I’m not sure my belayer can hear or understand me.

    Anyway, great article!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey thanks man. Good point. Yeah rapping has it’s place. I even know of accidents where rapping technique should have been used but lowering was used (or simu on grigris) to deadly results.

      Liked by 1 person

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