A Faster Way to Descend Multipitch Routes? The Lower / Rappel Combo
Descending at maximum efficiency on long routes should include lowering techniques as well as rappelling. Here's how to make it work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.