Know the Ropes: Prevent Lowering Accidents

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Over the past decade, nearly 80 lowering incidents, including fatalities, have been reported in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, the AAC’s annual compendium of climbing accidents. And unlike many climbing disasters, nearly every lowering accident is 100 percent preventable—nearly all are the result of simple climber errors. Hoping to prevent some of these tragic accidents, the 2013 edition of Accidents focuses on lowering in its annual Know the Ropes section. The 11-page article describes essential ways to prevent all-too-common lowering accidents stemming from miscommunication, belay errors, and poor judgment. Below, we feature an excerpt from Know the Ropes, written by Mike Poborsky, an internationally certified guide who works for Exum in Jackson, Wyoming.

Accidents cover

This year’s Accidents has been printed and will be available soon in shops and online retailers. (American Alpine Club members get a free copy in the mail.) Meanwhile, you can download the full 128-page book to read on your computer or tablet at the AAC website.

Know the Ropes: LoweringRope Too Short

More than half of all lowering accidents reported in Accidents in the past decade occurred when the rope end shot through a belay device and the climber fell uncontrollably. It is very easy to misjudge the length of your rope and/or the height of the anchor in vertical terrain. However, most of these unfortunate accidents could have been prevented simply by closing the system. This will make it impossible for the rope to unintentionally pass through the belay device.

In a typical single-pitch climbing scenario, where the pitch length is less than half the available rope, the ground closes the system by default, meaning your partner is going to make it back to the ground before the belayer gets to the end of the rope, so closing the system is unnecessary. The problem comes when the anchor is near or above the midpoint of the typical rope. This is increasingly common as new routes are established with anchors above 30 meters (half the typical modern rope length). For some climbs, a 70-meter rope is now mandatory to lower safely. Before trying an unfamiliar single-pitch route, read the guidebook carefully, ask nearby climbers, and/or research the climb online to be sure it doesn’t require a 70-meter rope to descend safely. When in doubt, bring a longer rope or trail a second rope.

revised anam chart

Another scenario frequently leading to single-pitch lowering accidents is a climb where the difficulties begin after scrambling five or ten feet to a high starting ledge. The anchors at the top of such routes may be set in such a way that there is plenty of rope to lower the climber back to the ledge, but not all the way to the ground. Or the belayer may need to be positioned on the starting ledge in order to have enough rope to lower the climber safely. Again, do your homework, ask other climbers, and always watch the end of the rope as you’re lowering a partner.

Double fisherman's stopper knot.
Triple overhand stopper knot. Photo by Rick Weber.

If there is any doubt about the length of the rope being adequate to lower a climber safely, tie a bulky stopper knot in the free end so it cannot slip through the belay device. (The triple overhand knot is a good choice; see Figure 1.) Better yet, the belayer can tie into the free end, thus closing the system.

As you belay a lead climber on a long pitch, keep a close eye out for the middle mark so you’re aware of whether there is enough rope to lower the climber. Once the middle of the rope passes through your belay device, you and the climber need to be on high alert. Rope stretch may provide a little extra room for the climber to be safely lowered to the ground, but in such cases the system should always be closed as discussed above. When in doubt, the climber should call for another rope and rappel with two ropes.

As the climber lowers, it’s natural to keep an eye on her, but as the belayer you should also be watching the pile of free rope on the ground. Once there is less than 10 or 15 feet remaining, make a contingency plan for safely completing the lower. For example, will the climber have to stop on a ledge and downclimb? Will you need to move closer to the start of the route? Never let the last bit of rope slip through the device if the climber is still lowering, even if she is only a foot or two off the ground—the sudden release of tension can lead to a free fall and tumble.

When lowering in the multi-pitch environment, the belay system must be consciously closed by having the non-load end of the rope tied to the belayer, the anchor, or something else to prevent it from passing through the belay device. In a multi-pitch rappelling scenario we close the system by knotting the ends of the rappel ropes, making it impossible to rappel off the ends.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering can be purchased now in PDF form at the AAC store for $8.95. The print edition ($12.95) will be available in August. Join the AAC to get a free copy.