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Essential Skills: Cleaning Sport Anchors

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Update 5/7/2019: Climbing is a sport, yes, but it’s also a deadly serious sport in which catastrophic errors have life-and-death consequences. With a grimly increasing frequency, there have been accidents—some fatal—at sport crags due to miscommunication between a climber up at the anchors and their belayer down on the ground. In some cases, the climber has failed to anchor herself or thread the anchor properly; in other cases, there is a miscommunication over whether the climber expects to be lowered or is rappelling. In this latter, and all-too-common scenario, the belayer, expecting the climber to rappel, takes her off belay, and then the climber, expecting to be lowered, sits back on an unsecured rope and falls to the ground.

To avoid this, there should be clear communication between climber and belayer over what’s going to happen at the anchor before the climber leaves the ground, as well as confirmation once up at the anchor over what’s going to happen. Most importantly, the climber, upon threading the anchor, should test the rope to make sure she is still on belay before leaning back on the rope, having her belayer take tight to confirm the system is working before she unclips from the anchor. There are no shortcuts or workarounds here—do it right or face potentially lethal consequences.

—Matt Samet, Editor

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, vice president of quality at Black Diamond and former 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. This step is critical: 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. By weighting the rope while still in direct, you confirm that you are on belay and no communication error has occurred.

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 on the hardware, especially in high-traffic areas. If the anchors show excess wear, or if local ethics discourage lowering, consider rappelling instead to preserve the anchors and your rope.