Rigging to lower from a sport climb is faster, more efficient, and safer than setting up a rappel. Here’s the why and the how!
Faster and More Efficient
When one rigs to lower one only needs to pull up enough rope to pass a bight through the fixed anchor and tie a bight knot that can be clipped to one’s belay loop. If one chooses to set up a rappel instead one needs to pull up at least half the rope (if the rope has an accurate middle mark) or the entire rope up (if the rope does not have an accurate middle mark). This is not only faster than setting a rappel, but safer!
As mentioned the fact that you do not need to locate the middle of the rope when being lowered leads to a reduction in risk. There are many examples of accidents that resulted from the two ends of a rope not being even during a rappel. When rigging to lower you also have the benefit of still being on belay. If you have led the route prior to rigging the lower the rope will still be traveling through quick draws below offering some protection against an unexpected slip. Finally this method keeps the climber attached to the rope in some form through out the process eliminating the risk of dropping the rope (it happens!).
The process isn’t too complicated but there are a few considerations and options.
- The first of which is whether or not to tether into the anchor during the process. The best practice depends on the situation, more specifically, the stance. When you arrive at the anchor if there is a decent stance you can omit tethering into the anchor and doing so reduces clutter and speeds the process. If the unexpected slip occurs at this stage your rope is still through the anchor. If you have passed a bight through the anchor some security can be obtained by keeping tension on the bight as you bring it down to your belay loop and tie the bight knot. However if the stance is small and insecure it would be best to tether into the anchor so you can rig to lower more comfortably. While there are a few appropriate tether systems out there one of the best options is the CAMP USA Swing Dynamic Belay Lanyard.
- Pull up some slack and thread a bight through the fixed rings on the anchor. Continue to lengthen this bight until it reaches your belay loop and pull it about 8 inches past (below) your belay loop.
- Tie a bight knot here. There are a couple bight knots you could use to attach the rope back to your climbing rope. An overhand on a bight works, but is harder to untie then a figure-eight on a bight. I often tie a figure 8 on a bight with an extra wrap or two around the two strands. This makes a secure bight knot that is very easy to untie after it has been loaded (sometimes called a figure-9).
- After the bight knot is tied connect it to your belay loop with a locking carabiner. Some climbers might chose to add a second reversed/opposed carabiner (locking or not). If only using a single locking carabiner make sure it is locked and properly orientated when you call for “take” and weight the new attachment. Best practice here is to get a little closer to the anchor so when your belayer “takes” you can weight the new attachment and verify everything looks correct the next step.
- Untie your original tie in knot and pull the long tail through the anchor.
- Remove the quick-draws (or whatever your top-rope anchor was), weight the rope, and ask to be lowered. Watch that you don’t get tripped up on the long tail coming from the backside of the bight knot! Once you are on the ground remove the locking carabiner and bight knot and retrieve your rope by pulling from the belayer side (less rope to pull). Move on to the next climb or head to happy hour (depending on time of day).
Close Your System!
One important caveat to this system, and almost all climbing systems, is to be sure to “close your system”. Essentially this means during your partner check (before anyone starts climbing) you ensure that the unused end of the rope either has a stopper knot tied near the end, is secured around a ground anchor, or tied into your partner. In order to explain the avoidable accident we are preventing I’ll share this simple example. You successfully lead a 35 meter tall route without realizing you are climbing on a 60 meter rope. After rigging to lower your belayer lower’s you and when you are about 10 meters from the ground the unsecured end of the climbing rope slips through the belayer’s brake hand and belay device and you fall to the ground. As unavoidable as this sounds it happens every single year! Close your system!
“I heard lowering through anchors is discouraged as it wears out the fixed gear?”
Professional mountain guides and climbing institutions around the country are actively trying to correct this common public misconception. It stems from the very real and modern ethic that active top-roping through fixed gear is discouraged. Over time, depending on the fixed hardware, this can lead to pre-mature wear on the fixed anchor. It’s easy enough if you plan on top-roping for a bit to use your own carabiners to save some wear on the fixed anchor. Only the last climber will lower through the fixed gear, and modern stainless steel rappel rings and “mussey hooks” can handle this type of use for many years to come. The gains in efficiency and reduction in rappelling accidents justify this technique, and the organizations that promote education and conservation are the same organizations promoting this technique, namely groups like the American Mountain Guide Association, The Access Fund, and The American Alpine Club. There may be some areas where locals are still resisting this modern technique. It’s possible their routes have more aluminum fixed anchors or they don’t have an organizing body that works to keep anchors updated like the Rumney Climbers Association. In those areas it’s best to check with local climbers on accepted practices, but hopefully these areas can be updated to better support lowering as an option.
All this said there are times where rappelling will be a better choice. The American Alpine Club created this video which covers the steps to rig a rappel from a sport anchor instead.
Rigging to lower from a sport climb is definitely faster and arguably safer than setting up a rappel. I hope this post has you thinking critically about your process while climbing and that it was clean and concise. At the end of the day double and triple check what ever system you are using especially during transitions and climb on!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
Disclaimer: Climbing is dangerous. Practice new skills at ground level and under the guidance of a qualified guide, instructor, or mentor. Climb at your own risk. Affiliate links above help support this blog.