Lower Away!

Save time and avoid stuck ropes on your descent

Outside of single-pitch sport climbing, lowering isn’t a common practice, and most climbers will choose to rappel anything longer than one pitch. However, descending at maximum efficiency on long routes should include lowering techniques as well as rappelling. Lowering the first climber with the second rappelling can speed up descents on multi-pitch routes—and alleviate common rope problems.

Lowering-on-Multi-Pitches

Illustration by Chris Philpot

This technique gets the ropes down quickly and without tangles, and if the descent route is unknown, it is easier for a person being lowered to look around, swing sideways to find anchors, or build an anchor if necessary. Safety knots in the end of the rope, which get snagged easily, become unnecessary. If the person is lowered too far, it is usually simple to climb back up on belay, rather than ascend the rope, which you’d have to do when rappelling. Lowering also comes in handy in the event of a dropped belay device, an injured climber, or in windy conditions. This skill is best applied with a team of two on multi-pitch climbs. While it can be done with double-rope rappels, the following scenario describes single-rope rappels.

*Editor’s Note: In the following technique, the “lowering climber” is the person being lowered at any given time. The “rappeller” is the person who will be rappelling.

First

At the top rap station, the lowering climber and the rappeller should each be attached to the fixed anchor with a cow’s tail, which is a locking biner on a sling or personal anchor system girth-hitched to the tie-in points or belay loop of his harness. The lowering climber should be tied into the rope, and the rappeller should be untied.

Second

Thread the free end of the rope through the fixed rappel gear, until the middle of the rope is lined up in the fixed anchor. Do this by matching the ends (one end is tied to the lowering climber) and coiling them simultaneously, with the lowering climber’s side stacked on top. On the other loose end, tie a figure eight on a bight, then clip it to the lowering climber’s belay loop with a locking biner. He’ll pull this end down as he’s lowered.

Third

Set up a temporary anchor with cord or a sling on the fixed rappel gear. (See climbing.com/ skill/bolted-toprope-anchors for one way to build this anchor.) Now put the lowering climber on belay by starting from his tie-in knot and running the rope through a redirected tube-style belay device (see left diagram) that’s clipped to the lowering anchor’s master point with a locking biner. Take up slack until it’s clear that you (the rappeller) are holding the lowering climber. He can now unclip from the anchor with his cow’s tail. If the terrain is steep or if the stance is poor, consider adding an auto-block to the brake strand of the rope (see the Guide’s Tip in Climbing 311 or climbing.com/skill/rappel-toascend); clip this to your belay loop with a locking biner. You can now begin to lower.

Fourth

When the lowering climber reaches the next anchor, he can clip in to the fixed rappel gear using his cow’s tail tether. Then he should untie from the rope, thread his end through the fixed gear (setting up for the next round of lowering and rappelling), and tie in again. Make sure to double- and triple-check all your knots and locking biners. The rappeller will clean the temporary anchor and then rappel off the fixed gear.

Fifth

As the rappeller heads down, the first person gives a “fireman’s belay” from below. Repeat the process of building an anchor and setting up the lowering system. For the sake of speed, it helps to have one person be the rappeller and one person be the lowering climber all the way down. Be aware that when lowering, the rope will be moving over the terrain under weight, so watch out for loose rocks or sharp edges.

Steve Banks is an AMGA/IFMGAcertified guide for ski, rock, and, alpine. He can be reached at stevebanksmountainguide.com.



Comments

Homework assignment: Add a z-pulley to pull up the lowering climber who has been lowered too far. I think you'll need an additional prusik and biner.

Dulfersitz - 07/02/2013 1:58:53

My current partner and I have adopted, as of last season, lowering of the second as S.O.P. It is much faster (the second doesn't have to set up for rap or even anchor in to the belay anchor. S/He reaches the belay and immediately lowers. It's no different than falling and having to be lowered. It's also much safer: the second completely avoids the issue of correct set up of the rap. Lowering completely eliminates one full step to phuck up. The only issue is the lead climber - who's doing the lower - must be able to identify and have control of the halfway point of the rope (this is not always easy!).

Kim Graves - 04/18/2013 9:38:11

I think this technique could be very useful. The article states the best scenarios to use this method is "in the event of a dropped belay device, an injured climber, or in windy conditions". I agree with all but windy conditions. I think this method would be heinous to execute with the lack of communication that comes with winy conditions. My favorite trick for avoiding poor rope tosses in wind is to use saddle-bags, where the rope coils are held in a sling on your gear loops and feed automatically as you lower. This avoids the communication issue, and also give the rappeler control of their descent. Nobody likes getting lowered over a roof too slow. That's how you lose teeth. Austin, not many climbers carry separate ropes for climbing and rappelling. Yes, rappelling on dynamic ropes wears them out, but most people would rather replace their rope slightly more often than carry a quiver of ropes. That being said, I often bring a 60m 7mm static rope to facilitate double length rappells, but if I carry both I'm sure as hell going to use them both on the way down. Also, Austin, if you are referring to the auto-block as the superfluous "extra rope", an ATC guide (or any autoblocking belay device) would not substitute for the autoblock. Why? Because the system is not set up to use the belay device in autoblock mode, and lowering from an autoblocked ATC guide is a royal pain. It is an ATC guide pictured, but he intentionally did not set it up in autoblock mode.

Zachary - 04/17/2013 10:53:19

This is a technique that can be very useful in certain circumstances. The description was easy for me to understand. Thanks.

Nick Lyle - 04/17/2013 5:32:48

This sounds like a terrible idea to use on normal everyday routes. A couple thoughts that come to mind are what about the length of the rappel? It would be pretty crappy to be lowered to an anchor only to find out you were lowered to the wrong one? Communication with the person lowering you could be a huge problem. What if it's windy, you get lowered into shrubbery, or off the edge of a large overhang? Does anyone recall Touching the Void? On the surface this seems like something that might save time and hassle but I've had many more rope problems after pulling the rope then when tossing it for a rappel. If your really concerned about speed of decent then maybe a appropriate technique to learn and practice would be simul-rapping .

Brandon - 04/17/2013 4:47:12

To rappel or lower you want to use STATIC rope NOT DYNAMIC. It will stress out your dynamic if you use it to rappel or lower too ofen. If you use a guid style ATC it may already be an auto block, and so the extra rope would be superfluous. I would suggest alwayse carrying at least one extra belay device at all times as well as the knowlege how to build a device out of carabeiners.

Austin Killam - 04/16/2013 7:08:54

Sounds useful but I could never attempt this based on the written instructions, a video would be great.

Krob - 04/10/2013 12:52:07

This is a bit confusing

Jimbo - 04/08/2013 3:20:10

Oops - never mind - gave my head a shake. Please ignore last comment. Of course the rope would just run free through the autobloc without the rappeller/belayer's brake hand still on the opposite site of the main anchor controlling descent - the diagram makes perfect sense. Thanks for the article.

Chris - 04/05/2013 5:41:27

The diagram is confusing - the lowering climber's line is directly running through the belay device, and then being redirected through the anchor. Surely you want the redirection between the device and the climber being lowered? As it is, the main anchor point is essentially acting as a brake hand, creating the friction necessary to stop the lowering climber. In order to lower the climber, the "rappeller" (wouldn't it have been easier to call them the belayer?) needs to place his brake hand between the anchor and the reverso and pull down/across...

Chris - 04/05/2013 5:21:52

Awesome technique for multipitch! If you lead and bring up your 2nd with an autoblock, this should be easy to understand and deploy. Practice it on the ground or in a controlled environment before using it in anger. IMHO, you should understand the basic rescue techniques if you want to get on most multipitch climbs. Escape the belay, ascend the rope, raise or lower injured climber....all important aspects to safe multipitch.

Craig Childre - 04/05/2013 1:58:18

I like this, but as mentioned earlier, the article is alphabet soup at best. The picture is worth a thousand words.

Patrick Bates - 04/04/2013 8:47:20

Leave a Comment