Essential Skills: Cleaning Sport Anchors

A quick, safe way to clean bolted anchors

Illustration by Chris Philpot

One of the best parts about sport climbing is its utter simplicity: Clip some bolts as you climb, and—well, that’s pretty much it. The most complicated part is cleaning the anchors; in other words, threading your rope through the rings or chains at the top so you can lower down, grab your draws, and not leave any gear behind. This procedure is potentially dangerous because you may have to untie from your harness and retie after threading—and mistakes happen. We learned the following technique from Rick Vance, technical information manager at Petzl, and we like it because it’s simple, clean, quick, and your partner never takes you off belay. You'll need two quickdraws and one extra locking carabiner.

When you get to the top, clip one quickdraw to each bolt or ring/chain, with the bottom biner gates facing in opposite directions. Clip your rope into the right-hand draw, and clip the left draw directly into your belay loop. (You may have to pull up on one of the draws to get your body close enough to the anchors.) Slowly sit back in your harness; the left draw should support all of your weight. Find a comfortable position to work on the anchor. (Fig. 1)

Have your partner keep you on belay throughout the process. Ask for some slack and pull a long bight of the rope that runs between your tie-in knot and the right-hand quickdraw, keeping the rope clipped through that draw. Tie an overhand or figure eight on the bight, and clip that knot back to your belay loop with a locking biner. (Fig. 2) Ask your belayer to take in any slack, but not so much that it pulls you up into the anchor. Now, as long as your belayer keeps you on, the knot clipped to your belay loop acts as a backup to the draw you’re clipped directly into.

Untie your tie-in knot (usually the figure eight follow-through) completely. Thread the end of the rope through the bottom of both chains or rings (the specifics will depend on each anchor’s setup and wear), then retie your figure eight follow-through on the tie-in points on your harness. Double check that the rope runs smoothly through both pieces of the anchor and that your knot is tied correctly and dressed properly. (Fig. 3)

Unclip the locking biner from your belay loop and untie the knot it was clipped to. Recheck that the rope is running through both pieces of the anchor and that your tie-in knot is correct and dressed. Have your belayer take in slack until you can pull up toward the anchor and test the system by weighting the rope without unclipping from the draw.

Once you’re 100 percent sure that you’re good to go, remind your belayer again to “take,” remove both draws, and clip them to your harness. Because you’re fully weighting the rope, the draws should be easy to unclip. Now you’re ready to be lowered and get your gear!

Note: Lowering off the anchors is a common practice, but keep in mind that the friction from dirty ropes wears anchors very quickly, especially in high-traffic areas. Always check the anchors for excess wear before you lower off, and consider rappelling instead of lowering to preserve the anchors and your rope.


To say "always" or "never" in high angle terrain (or in anything for that matter), is to put yourself in a position to fail. Adaptability is key, and some situations warrant an alternate approach. In my experience rappelling has been a lot more common than lowering, but I have done it where the pros of protecting my gear, the fixed gear, and the control that I have over my descent superseded other considerations. If I had a newer climber following, I may have them lower if it's going to be safer and more comfortable for them. As far as rappelling is concerned, the idea of cleaning with one hand while not paying attention to your friction device is crazy to me...CONDITIONAL BACKUPS are fast, easy, light, and really cheap insurance. For those that haven't seen the technique, Climbing Mag did a great video here; "What's funny about safety?" "Nothing's funny about safety!"

SuperGrover - 09/05/2014 3:32:42

Instructions for cleaning and rappeling off a sport route for Brightonk

jmicher - 08/30/2014 4:54:11

@JM, Agreed. I was almost killed during a miscommunication between me and my belayer at Summersville, she assumed I was rapping down and took me off belay o.O. I think the general issue here is the ethics of the local climbing area and safety. While everyone should be familiar with rapping or having someone second via TR to clean... safety always comes first. If someone had issues or freaks out I'd rather they lower and come down alive than attempt something that could get them injured. I personally like to Rapp and save wear on gear, because I know what a pita it is to remove and replace, but I'm also not obnoxious in requiring everyone to rap even on a crazy overhang route with a 15 ft roof. Know the local ethics and know your skills but when in doubt always always choose what's safest. My five cents.

CW - 08/30/2014 9:18:34

Some of the rap rings at Summersville Lake, WV are extremely worn out and badly need replaced. Lowering is an exception that can certainly be made but should never be the norm. Very surprised to see this article here.

Andre - 06/26/2014 2:00:10

elitism gets me down.... there is a time and place for every method. in some instances, lowering may be totally appropriate, in others rappelling might be more the go... but for those hardass heroes bagging the "noob" or the "gym bunny" or whoever you are bagging, maybe it would be more constructive to take the time to show and explain why to those people so that they might benefit from your experience, rather than bagging them for being precisely what you were yourself, once upon a time. be something bigger than derogatory and too cool for school.

marten ten broek - 06/06/2014 3:58:27

I agree with many of the comments here. Only lower off if the area and development is conducive to such, e.g. Owens River Gorge routes that have mussy hooks meant specifically for lowering off (which the guidebook also states). Even then, always check to ensure wear. Do not lower off on rings, chains, hangers, etc. Just spend the time to rappel in this case.

Shabadoo - 06/06/2014 1:09:49

In France, we use lowering for sport climbing. It is so common that I've never seen anybody rappelling a sport route (I started climbing 17 years ago), except people practicing rappelling for multi pitch routes. Different regions/countries, different habits. I think it is good to know and respect the local way to do things.

Gael - 06/06/2014 2:25:03

Iff you lower down on bolts because you are teaching novice climbers and thus want to use the route several times, use a safebiner clip this in the bold /chain. And use this to lower down on. Take it out on the end. And rapel down. I always use one biner for this and only for this. Simple and clean

Antoon Frijters - 06/05/2014 10:52:31

Thomas, it does give you extra protection if somehow the whole top anchor would be like a lead fall however. The other issue is making sure you are back on belay. I saw a near tragedy where poor communication was the issue with a belayer who assumed the climber was rappelling not lowering. So just stay on the whole time if lowering is the appropriate method which sometimes it is. Just remember to do all the toproping on draws, preferably lockers, and only the last person lowers. Usually as many stated below it's on steep climbs.

JM - 06/05/2014 8:57:42


IV11 - 06/05/2014 5:15:04

Does anyone have a link to a good description/instructional for how to rappel off of a route? If it's apparently the best option and way to do things.

Brightonk - 03/31/2014 9:46:33

What is the gain from your having your partner never taking you off belay? Why not just clip both quickdraws to your belay loop, so you're self-secured while cleaning the anchor?

Thomas - 12/10/2013 8:08:31

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