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.


32 comments

Previous Comments

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; https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JNPpuY0VU7o "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 http://files.meetup.com/403172/CleaningBook_v1.pdf

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 failed...it 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

I agree with Mr MaTaN. PLEASE DON'T EVER LOWER OFF OF FIXED GEAR, CHAINS, RAP RINGS, OR BOLTS!!!

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

Some real quality constructive criticism here.. What an astute observation of others "noob" tendencies. If you're all this way on the rock, I'm surprised and suggest un-wadding your.. harness. That said, yeah, always rappel. It's a trick you have to learn, mainly, because if enough people top off of the bolts, for long enough, that's another death. Climbing is an amazing sport for a vast amount of reasons BUT, one of the most relevant and understood reasons is, safety. I have a lot of friends that are athletes and I, climbing massive rock faces and throwing myself at a seemingly life-risking path, have sustained a small fraction of the number of injuries as they have. So if you see someone lowering off the bolts, don't be an ass about telling them, but always, always, tell them why they shouldn't lower in that manner, and how to rap down. I've lost count of the number of ATC's I've given to climbers I saw bolt lowering. No one resents a lesson that saves a life so if you know it, teach it, and if you don't, learn it.

Matt - 10/30/2013 4:10:12

Sad to see Climbing Magazine call lowering "common practice" without any mention of local ethics. I wrote an article on this discussion (about a time I experienced the issue at the New River Gorge) and the local Mike Williams said it was New ethics to lower, but not necessarily the case everywhere. Read here if you're interested: http://leelkennedy.com/2012/09/17/rock-climbing-horrors-when-gym-climbers-go-outside/

Lee Kennedy - 09/09/2013 12:11:09

I cannot believe you idiots are still publishing this stupid article. "Lowering off the anchors is a common practice" BS BSBSBSBS If you can't rap and clean a steep route, then you're still a noob, regardless of what is said above. So many ways to deal with this. DO NOT LOWER OFF ANCHORS. I'm having to consider cancelling my subscrip to Climbing given all the idiotic info they've been handing out. Going to kill all the gymies with their bs like using unachored belays, simul rapping, etc... These are advanced techniques that require some experience to evaluate and master.

David Dangerfield - 08/22/2013 5:29:01

PLEASE DON'T EVER LOWER OFF OF FIXED GEAR, CHAINS, RAP RINGS, OR BOLTS!!! It wears out the gear much much faster, and is unsafe, since people have decked when their rope was severed due to being cut over worn out gear (sharp notches and grooves are etched into the gear due to the friction caused by the rope rubbing on the metal after repetitive lowering). Instead, clip in directly to the bolts (I like to use the Metolius Personal Anchor System, with locking carabiner and one quickdraw, each clipped to different bolts for redundancy), pull the rope through the rap rings or last chain links (or bolts if they are specifically designed to accommodate rappelling), pull the rope to the mid point and rappel. DON'T FORGET THE SAFETY KNOTS AT THE ENDS OF BOTH STRANDS OF YOUR ROPE. You can clean your draws as you rappel down. Not knowing how to rappel is no excuse, since, you should already know this simple skill before you lead your first sport route. Another big reason to keep the fixed gear at the crag in tip-top shape is that there are good, hardworking, people maintaining them. This equipment is not cheap, and these route developers and maintainers often freely volunteer their time and money to keep the crag clean and safe. Lets give them and the crag the respect they deserve and do our part by minimizing the wear on gear. Also, check out this awesome facebook group for some scary examples of worn out fixed gear: https://www.facebook.com/RrgFixedGearEthicsInitiative Be safe, and have fun. :)

Mr MaTaN - 08/22/2013 3:43:13

If on steep routes you don't want the hassle of lowering from and subsequently retrieving your own gear, or perhaps don't feel comfortable with good rappel techniques and don't want the admitted hassle of cleaning on rap, then stay off steep routes or donate some gear--leave community gear for folks not tempted by laziness into a tragedy of the commons. At the very least, you'll set a good precedent for all of those newbs, gumbies, or folks otherwise possessed of 'limited experience'.

Derek - 07/26/2013 7:12:50

There are several comments here describing anyone who lowers as a noob. My take is that the climbers making those statements have limited experience and probably climb mostly vertical and slabby routes. Each method has its benefits. Not only is it really difficult to clean steep routes on rappel, but it can also be unsafe trying to hold the device safely while maneuvering in to the wall and retrieving your gear. Learn the pros and cons of both methods and when it's best to use them. Knowledge is power, and in climbing knowledge is life.

Phillip - 04/29/2013 8:54:51

I would have to agree with Richard Dingman. Lower off your own gear, replace your own gear.

Matt - 04/12/2013 9:04:25

So what is best practice for setting up rappel in same scenario?

scouper - 03/21/2013 12:03:33

"Absolutely ! Never lower off the anchors. bad form, sign of a newbie and a dweeb." - Paul Paul so when you were a "newbie dweeb" you never lowered off anchors, and why is that a bad thing for a beginning climber? Throwing out a blanket statement like "never lower off the anchors" is ridiculous. Everyone knows top-roping directly off of an anchor is frowned upon for the reasons listed above... but I would be a little more concerned about a beginner's safety than how they are perceived by some "dweeb" at the local crag.

Joe - 01/07/2013 1:19:08

We always lower off the anchors. Its a taste thing.

Wes - 12/26/2012 12:17:58

Food for though: If you have someone who is concerned about re-tying a figure 8 at the top of a route without someone to double check, then they should not be expected to rappel in the first place. And I agree, rappel whenever possible, lowering is the exception.

TSwitz - 12/06/2012 4:27:39

I agree with the consensus here that lowering off is the exception to the rule (on steep routes at well-maintained climbing destinations where lowering off is specifically expected) rather than the standard. Lowering is usually NOT ok and I am very disappointed that climbing mag would publish otherwise.

James - 12/04/2012 12:01:42

When cleaning please rap whenever possible. I climb at The New regularly, and lowering is Not the accepted or preferred method as Bob states above. In fact, the guide book specifically asks you not to lower from the anchors! Lowering from the anchors lazy and wears out the anchors prematurely, creating dangerous situations for other climbers!

James - 12/02/2012 5:45:06

Rapping vs. Lowering off is a very region specific thing. At my local crag there are anchors with "Pig tail" Lower offs which are specifically there for you to lower off of. The European climbers(one italian, one german) and a South african climber i climb with also regularly lower off routes like they are used to. On the other hand rapping seems like the ethic at almost all American crags. My only concern with this method is the retying of the figure 8. Not sure if I'm just paranoid, but retying in while at the anchors without anyone to double check seems like it could be a place where mistakes happen.

Danger - 12/01/2012 7:31:08

I'm with Richard. There are signs up at places like Muir in the Red asking you not to lower off the anchors. It's bad form and impolite to those that periodically have to replace the gear.

Brian - 11/29/2012 8:13:25

I think it depends on the anchors/bolts that are in place. In the US I've found particularly at the Red that rapping off is the done thing to ensure the life of the bolt and the rope. The bolts at anchors in the UK/France however tend to be smoother and rounded or chains are in place that will allow a lower off. At times this can be much safer for the cleaning climber as they are never off belay. I take the point that lowering will always wear down the bolts no matter what they are made off although the norm definitely depends on which side of the pond you are on. I am in no means an expert but I have climbed a reasonable amount in different parts of the world and found very different approaches to this topic. Here are a couple of geeky bolt articles from the BMC that kind of demonstrate the point for those that are so inclined! http://www.thebmc.co.uk/spot-a-bad-bolt http://www.thebmc.co.uk/bmcNews/media/u_content/File/equipment_advice/bolt_funds/Users_guideLR.pdf

Doug Rowlands - 11/21/2012 9:33:24

Lowering is not always bad form. Generally accepted and preferred method for steep routes at places like the red river gorge or new river gorge. For the record.

bob - 11/20/2012 12:33:42

Absolutely ! Never lower off the anchors. bad form, sign of a newbie and a dweeb.

Paul - 11/19/2012 2:03:15

I agree with Richard, and would like to add, that if you can find a down-climb or preferably a walk-off, do THAT. Whatever is simplest & safest. I must also say that the procedure outlined in the illustration here, looks adequate. Fairly safe.

Ben - 11/17/2012 10:31:03

Interesting that you say "consider rapping". It is very bad form not to rap. Lowering always wears the anchors significantly and unnecessarily. You are wasting resources and potentially putting future climbers in jeopardy by not rapping. I was taught, and still believe, one should ALWAYS rap when you can, and you almost always can, and save the anchors!!

Richard Dingman - 11/16/2012 10:13:42