Read enough canyon descriptions and you will eventually come across the term “free rappel”. Read enough discussion in the canyoneering forums, and you will run into all sorts of recommendations for doing “free rappels”. So what, exactly, IS a free rappel? And what do they charge for all the other rappels? (I know, not funny…)
A free rappel is one where the rappeller is unable to touch the wall at some point during the descent. Some rappels have short sections of this, while other rappels are completely free, from the anchor all the way to the ground. The last rappel in Pine Creek is a well-known example of a free rappel, going from a perched ledge 85′ or so to the rubble pile below.
Free rappels can be really cool or extremely painful, depending on how you approach them. Here, Three-Day Basic student Jeff Swanlund has extended his rappel device to just above his head and has hung his pack below him to reduce the forces yanking on his back and stomach muscles during his descent. Not only do these moves make the rappel a lot more comfortable, but I think they make for better pictures, too.
When free rapples are high enough, they can be a bit intimidating. The last rappel out of Heaps Canyon, for example, is a 287′ drop, free all the way, to a gorgeous Emerald Pool and its neighboring giant boulders. Not only do you have the sheer distance of the descent to get your attention, but you also have the luxury of all the onlooking hikers below watching. Sometimes kids yell friendly things like, “Don’t die!” or “What if his rope breaks?”
Despite all the hubbub, free rappels aren’t really any more difficult than “unfree” rappels; they’re just different. Like all rappelling, it’s important to set up your equipment correctly and be prepared to deal with friction and heat variables while descending. Once you learn the essential elements, you’ll be ready to be “free” anytime you have the chance.