The process of memorizing all the different climbing terms can sometimes feel like learning a new language. All of you have always heard rappelling and abseiling used interchangeably, but have you ever known that those two are completely different from each other. So we did some research for all of you and jotted it down here so that it can help you.
How does rappelling differ from abseiling? Abseiling and rappelling are the same thing. Both involve lowering yourself via a piece of rope in a controlled manner. It is primarily their usage and history that separates the two terms.
Both rappelling and abseiling involve using a rope or cord, plus some kind of control device, to lower yourself down. These terms will be familiar to anyone who has experience in climbing. North Americaners tend to refer to the activity as rappelling, whereas the British and people from Europe tend to refer to it as abseiling. After reviewing the history of climbing, we conducted some research on the words’ origins and why they differ. The results are below.
According to our previous statement, the only real difference between these two words is their varying popularity across the globe.
In the United States and Canada, the word rappelling is nearly exclusively used, but any experienced climber will recognize the word abseiling for what it is. When referring to the act of lowering oneself to the ground by means of a piece of rope in the UK and Europe, specifically Germany abseiling is a common term.
Nevertheless, other places do not show a clear distinction between the two. It is sometimes used interchangeably in Australia, New Zealand, and France, for example. There are still a number of English climbing books that use the term abseiling rather than rappelling.
Overall, don’t worry too much about which version of the word you will use. What matters most is that you know what you’re doing; as long as you’ve got proper form, it doesn’t matter what you call it.
Both words have European roots, which makes sense since that’s where mountaineering originated. Originally, abseiling comes from the German word abseilen, which means lowering on a rope. The term was probably used during the earliest days of mountaineering, which was born in Europe during the 1800s.
As stated above, rappel is a French word. The definition of rappel differs from its German counterpart in a strange way. The literal translation (according to Google Translate) of rappel is to recall or withdraw. As a result, rappelling was used to describe the lowering of oneself from a mountain, or withdrawing from a climb.
However, the definitions do not explain why one word can be more common than another depending on where you are in the world. Our explanation for why this happened can be found below, along with my hypothesis on why the two words exist.
Mountaineering: Where it all Started
Ancient people didn’t ascend mountains or cliff faces. The summits of mountains were often left untouched for thousands of years because they were considered dangerous and sacred places. The Greeks and other cultures believed that the tops of mountains belonged to gods. Because of this, the inhabitants of those societies avoided those summits.
After the enlightenment took hold of Europe in the 1500s, the secular nature of society began to gain prominence. The first ascent of Mount Blanc (the highest mountain in the Alps) was made in 1786 by two climbers named Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Pacard. Even today, mountain climbing history considers this moment to be among the most significant.
As the century progressed, mountaineering and alpinism became popular in Europe. In the early 20th century, famous mountains like The Eiger and The Matterhorn were climbed, government grants were given, and alpinism societies began keeping formal records of which peaks were climbed. The fervor spread to distant ranges, such as the Himalayas and the Andes.
The invention of rappelling took place during this mountaineering heyday. Among the very first people credited with abseiling were Jean Charlet-Straton, a Chamonix mountain guide from 1840-1925 who lived from 1840 to 1925. Several attempts at the un-summited peak of Petit Dru were made by Charlet-Straton in the late 1870’s, with his final success coming in 1879. The first time Charlet-Straton lowered himself via rope was on these expeditions, a skill that became common among alpinists soon after.
As I understand it, in this early period there was an active use of the term abseiling to describe what Charlet-Straton was doing. Prior to 1944, the word ‘rappel’ had never been used for anything related to mountaineering. Roger Frischon-Roche may have been the first person to describe what Charlet-Straton invented as ‘rappelling,’ but I’ll admit that my source is not entirely reliable.
When did the word rappelling become popular? When abseiling was such a literal definition, why was it used at all? In order to know why, we must first understand what was going on across the Atlantic ocean when mountaineering began in Europe.
Climbing in America: A Cultural Revolution
While mountaineering continued to flourish in Europe until 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary became the first person to summit Mount Everest, climbing in America took an entirely different path.
Rock climbing was born of a cultural revolt and a tiny campsite in Yosemite Valley, and it would soon spread across the nation. Rock climbing is the act of scaling sheer vertical walls with the aid of fingertips and toes. Climbing was pioneered by legendary figures like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, and Jim Bridwell, but it did not gain mainstream validity until it was brought into the mainstream in the 1980s.
The sport of rock climbing lacked much of the prestige of mountaineering in its early days. Although top mountaineers received government funding, long expeditions, and social recognition, climbing was considered a fringe activity. As a result, climbing took on a rebellious nature; climbers rejected the posh and pomp of European Alpinism, instead deciding to create their own sport- and a whole new language to go with it. The list of climbing terms goes on and on, including stemming, free climbing, beta, and dyno.
The language differences between the two parties are likely caused by this cultural rift, but there is no hard evidence to support this. According to many mountaineers, rock climbing was more of a hobby to be approached with utmost discipline. They looked down on hardcore rock climbers, who used the sport for an adrenaline rush. The general perception of mountaineers was that they were pretentious and arrogant.
It seems logical to me that this is where the two terms would diverge. Americans and other climbers had to rappel constantly, lowering themselves from Yosemite Valley cliff faces and other places. While mountaineers rarely rappell, it remains an important part of alpinists’ skill set.
The confusion between abseiling and rappelling, we believe, is mainly due to cultural differences and geographical distances. Due to such a cultural difference and two distinct activities being practiced internationally, an alternative terminology is logical. Mountaineers abandoned the language of abseiling, choosing instead to use the much more recently coined term ‘rappel’ to describe what they were doing in opposition to mountaineering and its pompous attitude.
Thus ends our discussion! The process of researching this took a lot of time, and we had to make some assumptions along the way, but that’s my conclusion as to why some parts of the world abseil, while others rappel. The choice of terminology really comes down to personal preference, as we mentioned above.
To know more about the differences, check out this video!
Frequently Asked Questions ( FAQs)
What are the different types of rappelling?
The different types of rappelling are:
How to practise rappel?
To know how to practise rappelling, you need to check out this article!
What is the difference between abseiling and rappelling?
Abseiling and rappelling are the same thing. Both involve lowering yourself via a piece of rope in a controlled manner. It is primarily their usage and history that separates the two terms.
What does abseiling means?
Assaulting a rock face or another near-vertical surface with the use of a rope that is doubled and placed around the body at a higher point is abseiling.