I hate lowering. I was dropped once while lowering, and was lucky not to be more seriously hurt than I was, but even before then I didn’t like depending on another person to get me back to the ground. I have to depend on my belayer while sport climbing—because I fall off a lot—but once I get to the top I like to take charge and make it difficult for a belayer to kill me.
Here are four good ways to control your fate in descents from short climbs, the first for beginners and the rest for everyone who climbs.
1. Learn how to thread anchors when you’re still on the ground.
There are a lot more people learning to climb these days (thanks, Dawn Wall), and sooner or later that means climbing outside, topping out on a route, and learning to thread an anchor for lowering or rappels. It’s amazing how often I see someone stand at the base of an 80-foot wall and yell instructions to a beginner at the top: “OK, now untie and push the rope through the end of the chains…the chains…the hole in the chain!….”
It’s crazy—like teaching someone to scuba dive when he’s already underwater.
Don’t try to learn these techniques when you’re 80 feet off the deck. Do it while you’re all safely standing on the ground. Ask your mentor to set up a mock anchor (two carabiners hanging from a tree branch, for example), get her to demonstrate good techniques, and then practice them yourself before climbing.
Some gyms and even crags (Muir Valley at the Red River Gorge, for one) have installed practice stations for anchor threading. Last year the British Mountaineering Council began sending out “lower-off simulators” to gyms all over the country. These should become ubiquitous in American gyms, too, and gyms should offer free anchor-threading classes every night.
2. Rappel when you can.
There are plenty of climbs on which rappelling to clean a route is inefficient or even dangerous—routes with big overhangs or traverses, for example. (You'd be a fool to rappel to clean the climb pictured here, for instance.) But when you rappel, you stop depending on your partner and start depending mostly on yourself. It minimizes potentially dangerous communication issues (see below). Most important, rappelling causes less wear on anchor hardware.
In truth, the best descent technique (lowering vs. rappelling) varies from crag to crag, and from climb to climb. People who climb mostly overhanging sport routes will say, "Always lower: It's more efficient and safer." People who climb mostly vertical or slabby routes will say, "Always rappel: It preserves the anchors." But both methods have their place. I try to choose the right one for each route, rappelling when I can.
3. Communicate clearly.
Before you leave the ground, let your belayer know whether you plan to lower or rappel from the top anchors. Too many accidents happen when the belayer assumes a climber is going to rappel and takes him or her off belay.
When you’re at the top, use your belayer’s name when you yell down to the base, so he or she is sure it’s you. And keep it simple—if you want to shout “Watch me!” at the crux and “Sweet Jesus, I made it!” when you top out, that’s fine. But don’t narrate your every move at the anchor. Communicate only the essentials:
• If you’re planning to lower, say nothing when you clip in to the anchor temporarily. • Yell “off belay” only if you have clipped in to the anchor and are planning to rappel. • Say “slack” when you need it. • Say “take” or “up rope” when you want tension.
Any other communication is superfluous and potentially dangerous. I often hear climbers yell “I’m in direct” or something similar when they clip the top anchor. This is not essential information—why does the belayer need to know?—and it could confuse a belayer into thinking you are off belay or planning to rappel. If you say “in direct” to indicate you want slack, start asking for “slack” instead.
4. Trust but verify.
Eventually, if you’re lowering, the time will come when you have to trust your belayer. But don’t just clip into the anchor, shout “take,” and lean back. I don’t weight the rope until I’ve clearly heard my belayer tell me “I’ve got you, Dougald” and I feel the rope come tight as he takes up slack.
Even then, I don’t just lean back and go. If at all possible, I look down at my belayer to make sure he really does have me. And if I can’t see him, I keep one or both hands on the “up” rope to the anchor as I start moving down, until I’ve gotten into a position where I can see the belayer. I don’t let go until I do.
Dougald MacDonald is editor at large of Climbing and managing editor of Accidents in North American Mountaineering.