Cave rappelling is one of the most engaging and inspiring activities, but it also comes with a degree of risk. I remember my first cave rappelling adventure – I was quite young, and I really didn’t know what to expect because none of my friends had done it before either. We were at Laurel Caverns Park in Pennsylvania, and fortunately for us, the local guides were very patient and welcoming.
The thing that struck me the most was how dark it could get inside the cave. Moreover, the descent takes quite a bit longer than you think, and because you have all these cave walls around you for reference, it sort of feels like a lengthy elevator ride downwards. It was a pleasant experience overall, and I went back again every chance I got to do it all over, but there are some things that I wish I knew beforehand. I want to share these things with you so that you might be better prepared than I was.
Cave rappelling is directly linked to caving.
It’s important to keep in mind that cave rappelling is not the same as rappelling conventionally off the face of a cliff or building. This is a form of caving or spelunking, as it often involves exploring a natural cave and then going back to the surface safely.
However, instead of entering the cave through a normal opening on the surface, cave rappelling involves lowering oneself into the cave mouth vertically with the help of high-quality rope and descenders. With new methods come new challenges, and sure enough, cave rappelling is quite dangerous if not done properly.
What can go wrong while cave rappelling? Quite a number of things, actually, but I’m happy to report that not too many accidents occur with this type of caving, particularly since most of the activity is often supervised by professionals. We should still take note of the reduced visibility, slippery surfaces, risk of falling rocks and sudden flooding. All of these could potentially spell danger, which is why I always recommend going with a more experienced friend or with a professional guide.
Do your research beforehand.
It’s always a good idea to go in prepared in these types of situations. Make sure to study up on the type of gear that you’ll need, the weather conditions for that particular day, the length of the descent itself, and how long it will take to go back up again.
Sometimes, you might just lower yourself to the base of the cave and then just ascend back up the rope. Other times, you will stay in the cave for a while and explore its surroundings. It all depends on the type of adventure that you’re looking for. No matter your choice, you will have to prepare properly for the descent and everything that follows. For now, let’s focus on the actual descent, as that seems to be the trickiest part and the one that causes the most anxiety.
How to rappel into a cave.
Cave rappelling is similar to conventional rappelling in some ways, but I’d say that it is actually a bit more challenging.
- The first thing you need to do is use your right hand to grab the loose rope going down to the bottom of the cave. This will be your brake hand, so never let go of the rope during the descent no matter what.
- If you need to slow down, make sure to lower your right hand just below your waist while still holding the rope. This will prevent the rope from running through the ATC device. Always keep your hand lowish, if not below your waist then at least at the same level. If you raise your hand too much, the rope will flow freely through the ATC and you will gain too much speed. I think I don’t need to tell you that this will put you in danger.
- Now that we’ve established that your right hand is the brake hand, your left hand will be used for guidance. You will hold the other end of the rope, the one that is secured with anchors, with your left hand.
- Feed the rope through the ATC with your guide hand. You are now rappelling.
- Keep your legs at a straight angle to the rock face or cave wall. This way, you will be able to walk down the wall slowly as you descend. Watch out for slippery surfaces, though! Sometimes, there will be no cave wall and you will just rappel freely.
- Always look around for obstacles even if you’re descending at a low speed.
If you do end up rappelling freely into a cave with no walls for support or balance, you will likely rely on specialized devices that will create extra friction. These are known as rappelling descenders, and there are many high-quality offerings on the market presently. Depending on where you go, part of the equipment might be provided to you by local guides or businesses. However, I always prefer to use my own gear, as I am comfortable with its usage levels and limitations.
How to explore a cave safely.
You’ve reached the cave floor, your descent was a success, and now you have a choice to make: you can either go back up to the surface or stay a while and explore the cave at least partially. Most of the time, you’ll choose to explore, and I get it: you’ve come this far, might as well see what’s down there, right?
While exploring a cave can be a memorable experience indeed, you should take a few precautions before committing to this adventure. One of the most important things is to have a good headlamp, preferably with extra batteries. Most caves are very dark, very humid, and very cold. You’ll need that light to see what’s in front of you and to spot landmarks so that you don’t risk getting lost. I’m assuming you’re exploring this cave by yourself. If you have a guide with you, the risks are considerably lower.
The next thing you need to take into account is the cold. Many climbers got hypothermia while caving just because they weren’t dressed properly for the job. Make sure that most of your gear is water-resistant, and that your shoes are as grippy as possible. There will be some mud, some sharp rocks, and some slippery surfaces. As long as your gear is up to par, though, there’s not too much to worry about. Just watch your step and take it slow. If you need any help picking your rappelling gear, just read up on my complete guide and you’ll have a better understanding of what’s needed.
Climbing up the rappel rope safely.
You’re done exploring and you want to head back up. Before you do so, there are a few precautions that you should take note of. First of all, you will need to tie up an Autoblock. This hitch will keep you safe midair while freeing up your hands. With your hands-free, you will be able to tie a Prusik knot – a friction hitch that is pretty much guaranteed to hold your weight as you ascend. If you need any help tying up the Prusik, just have a look at my “Popular Climber Knots” guide.
Once the Autoblock is fully engaged, tie a Prusik about a foot above the rappel device. I’m going to assume that you’re planning an ascent on a double rope. Here are the main steps that you need to take to reach the top safely:
- Use the Prusik knot to tie two friction hitches. You will need two separate nylon cords for this, and each should be either 5mm or 6mm thick. Make sure to not overlap these Prusiks, and to tie them on the rope above the waist.
- The end of the cord from the top Prusik needs to be attached to a locking carabiner. Then use a 24-inch sling and attach it to this carabiner and onto the harness.
- With the bottom Prusik, take the end of the cord and also attach it to a locking carabiner. You will need two 24-inch slings now, one of which goes from the carabiner to the harness while the other will serve as a foot support.
- You can now use this foot sling for support. When you’ll stand on it, you’ll transfer your weight on the bottom Prusik. Do this, and slide the top Prusik as high as you can.
- While keeping your foot on the sling, rest back in your harness and slide the bottom friction hitch up. Do this until the leg in the sling bends 90-degrees at the knee.
- While standing in the sling, keep moving the top and bottom hitches in order to ascend. You can do this until you reach the top, but keep in mind that it will be a slow process.
It’s hard for me to decide whether the ascent is more difficult than the descent or vice versa. They both require practice to master, but taking your time and being careful will go a long way towards making sure that everything goes smoothly. And since I know that following the guideline above can be tricky without a visual representation, I decided to attach a video that shows exactly how to ascend a climbing rope. I hope it will prove useful to you.
What are some good cave rappelling locations?
While there are more than 45,000 caves scattered across the United States, not all of them have the required features for cave rappelling, and some might not even be deep enough to be worth the trouble. However, I do have some wonderful suggestions for you, most of which are easily accessible and quite affordable to explore.
1. Cave Rappelling at Laurel Caverns Park.
The first place that comes to mind is Laurel Caverns Park in Pennsylvania. This place is actually home to the largest cave in the state, and it boasts more than three miles of passages. Cave Rappelling at Laurel Caverns Park is an activity designed for beginners, and so it kicks off with an instruction session. The best part is that all of the equipment is provided on-site, so you don’t really have to bring anything with you.
The class will set you back just $35 per person, but all participants need to be at least 12 years old. The tour starts with a lighted section of the cave and focuses on a 40-foot cliff that each student is allowed to rappel from. All of the rappelling cliffs at Laurel Caverns are inside the caves themselves, so you don’t have to worry about the weather.
2. Natural Bridge Caverns.
Natural Bridge Caverns are located in San Antonio, Texas. The name comes from the nearby natural limestone bridge, which measures no less than 60 feet. However, what we’re interested in is the Hidden Passages Tour, whi.ch allows you to explore a series of caverns solely using the light of your headlamp
There is a rappel involved as well, a 160-foot one down a 22-inch shaft. You will then need to crawl no less than 230 feet below the surface, which definitely sounds challenging but also fun. This place is the home of the largest bat colony in the entire world. Furthermore, Natural Bridge Caverns represents the largest commercial caverns in the United States.
3. Cave Rappelling at Moaning Caverns, California.
You can also go cave rappelling at Moaning Caverns provided that you’re ready for a relatively long descent. Once you reach the premises, you’ll have to watch a short instructional video and listen carefully to what you’re allowed to do and what you shouldn’t be doing while rappelling. Then you’ll just hook up into your harness and begin your descent.
The descent itself has two parts, the first one is a bit less challenging while the second is basically a free-fall drop into the cave itself. Once you reach the bottom, you can either go spelunking or go wine tasting. Doesn’t matter what you choose, really, because both of these activities are rewarding in their own ways.
4. Ellison’s Cave in Georgia.
Officially the 12th deepest cave in the United States, Ellison’s Cave is also a perfect cave rappelling destination. it has the deepest unobstructed pit in the continental US, which is named Fantastic Pit. Moreover, the cave stretches more than 12 miles in length, as well as 1063 feet vertically.
However, it’s worth noting that this cave is not well-suited for beginners. It’s mostly explored by experienced cavers that have extensive knowledge of single rope climbing and rappelling. Moreover, spelunkers and beginners are discouraged from tackling this cave. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go, just be extremely careful and bring someone experienced with you. There have been a few incidents involving these caves in the past, including two students from the University of Florida who died of hypothermia back in 2011.
Take Ellison’s Cave seriously if you plan to explore its passageways and pits!
5. Stephens Gap in Alabama.
You can definitely go cave rappelling in Alabama as long as you stop by Stephens Gap. This is one of the most popular caves in the entire Southeast, and I can definitely understand why. It offers a breathtaking view from its walk-in entrance, but it also boasts a 143-foot pit.
The cave is located in Jackson County, and it is a prime destination for cavers, hikers, and photographers from all over the US. If you would like to visit this place and rappel through the keyhole at Stephens Gap, make sure that you get a free permit beforehand. The keyhole that I’m talking about can be found on the opposite side of where you will first encounter the top opening of the cave.
This is pretty much all you need to know about cave rappelling and how to practice it as a beginner. It wasn’t easy for me at first either, but as long as you take all the necessary precautions and you perform this activity in a controlled setting, you will be fine every single time.
Cave rappelling is not for the faint of heart, but then again, neither is climbing or mountaineering. It’s a relatively risky activity that has the potential to be incredibly rewarding. If you have anything that you would like to share about your own cave rappelling adventures, don’t hesitate to get in touch.