Climb Harder & Safer #1: Lowering Off

Author: Jean Paul De Villiers

It is said that our lives are comprised of a few dozen memorable moments and that the rest is just filler. The man who has led a full life will, in his final moments, witness his first kiss, his first paycheck, his wedding vows, and the birth of his child. It is these special moments that stand out from the humdrum of everyday life and make it worth living.

The same might be said of our climbing careers. We spend so much time getting to the crag, scoping out routes, roping up, and belaying our partners, that relatively little is left for real rock time, those precious minutes when our pulses quicken, our focus narrows, and we call on a very specific set of skills and strengths to make a send that, right until the end, seems impossible. It is not that everything in between is pure tedium. Climbing life is full of moments that separate it from the monotony of the working week, and few can deny the lasting impression of experiences like wilderness sunsets and campfire gatherings. It is just that the moments which we really live for, the negotiation of tricky crux sequences and the red point of long-term projects, are fewer than we would wish for.

On some days we plod back to the bus station or car park with forearms completely spent, but on just as many others we wish we could have fitted in just one more send. If, like myself, you are prone to overthinking, you might try to think of ways in which you could have gotten in more climbing between all the walking, gearing up, belaying, cleaning and lowering off. And you might then come to the conclusion that while it is not possible to save much time when walking in and gearing up (without making these usually leisurely activities feel rushed – not desirable on weekends), it is possible to save time on cleaning and lowering off, those rock-based activities which, though time-consuming, do not actually involve climbing. In this, the first of a series of articles on how to make your climbing safer and more enjoyable, I will address these important but frequently overlooked topics and, in doing so, will hopefully help you to raise your special moment quotient.

Long Dong

Over the years Long Dong has seen many climbers come and go, many of who have contributed to the 500 odd routes in the area. Coming from different parts of the world and having different backgrounds in climbing, they equipped the routes they bolted with different top anchor assemblies. The result is a mix of gear that, though safe, may baffle a newcomer to the area and even some who have been here a while. In the paragraphs below, I will describe methods to safely and quickly clean your gear from three of these setups. But first, a note on rappelling.

When I first moved to Taiwan 3 years ago, the majority of sports routes had no more than a pair of bolts at the top, and the only way to come off a route was to rappel. Lowering off through the bolts would wear them through faster than a gung-ho beginner with his first pair of shoes. Since then, we have seen both quick links and rap rings fitted to previously bare bolts, yet I still see climbers rappelling from these. Now, there is nothing wrong with rappelling, only that it is not as safe (it requires going off belay) or as quick (it requires pulling the rope through) as lowering off. The techniques described below will all get you to the ground safely and in a lot less time.

Baskets

The first type of top-anchor assembly does not even require you to untie from the rope. It involves a basket that can be lifted, loaded with the rope, and then lowered back into place. Under tension the basket is pulled flush against the rock, leaving no space for the rope to slide out, even if rope could slide in the direction opposite to which it was being pulled. No PAS is needed unless you want to secure yourself to the anchor in order to free up a hand (useful when you are horribly pumped). You will see these set-ups at the top of several routes in the Long Lane area.

Procedure

First, raise the basket

tech 1.1-002

Second, load the rope into the basket

tech 1.2

Lastly, check that it is loaded properly, weight the rope, and lower off.

Rap Rings

The second type of top-anchor assembly uses rap rings. These require that you first secure yourself to the rock with a sling/PAS before you loop the rope through the ring and attach it to yourself using an overhand 8 and a locking carabiner. What makes this technique the preference of many is the speed with which it can be performed and the fact that the climber is never actually detached from the rope. Though usually seen practiced in places like Tonsai, where rap rings are the standard, this method can also be used for top-anchor assemblies that use larger quick links, making this a method that can be used on most sport routes in Long Dong. Just remember to thread the rope through both lower quick links.

Procedure

First, secure yourself to the rock using a sling/PAS and locking carabiner. Clip into one of the bolts or the rap ring. Screw the gate on your locker closed and slowly put your weight on your sling. Then, tell your belayer that you are safe and call for slack. Do not tell your belayer to go off belay. Your partner is going to be your second safety, and as such he or she needs to keep you locked off. This, off course, also only works if you led the route, and the rope is clipped into quickdraws below. If you top-roped the route and the rope runs straight down to your belayer without passing though any gear, you won’t be sufficiently protected. You can rectify this by using a second safety sling/PAS.

tech 2.1

Second, thread a loop of rope through the rap ring. If there are two in series, thread the lower one.

tech 2.2

Third, tie a figure-8 on a bight and clip it to your belay loop using a locking carabiner (something big and beefy). You are now connected to the rope by two figure-8’s; the other is your original figure-8.

tech 2.3

Check your systems at each step

Untie your original figure-8, and pull through the loose end of your new knot.

tech 2.4

Last, have your belayer take you as close to the anchor as possible, taking your weight off the slings (tying your knot small/close to your body will make this easier). Once all your weight is on the rope and you have checked everything, unclip your sling/PAS, and lower off.

Quick links

The third and final type of top-anchor assembly uses quick links. These also require that you first secure yourself to the rock (this time with two slings/PAS). It is different from the previous technique in that it requires a climber to untie his figure-8, thread it through the quick links, and then retie before lowering off. Even though this not as quick as the previous method, it is worth knowing because it is the one most commonly used at crags equipped with gear (quick links or chains) too small to have a loop of rope threaded through it. It can also be used for cleaning a rap ring setup if you have left your extra locking carabiner on the ground. The steps are as follows.

Procedure 

Secure yourself to the rock with two slings/PAS and locking carabiners. You are going to untie from the rope, and you do not want to trust your life to a single sling. Clip into the bolts or any links other than the lowest two. You want to leave these open for the rope. Screw the gates on your lockers closed and slowly put your weight on your slings.

tech 3.1

Second, you tell your belayer that you are safe, and you call for slack. You do not tell your belayer to go off belay. More about this later. You pull up a few meters of slack, tie a figure-8 on a bight, and clip it to your belay loop using a quickdraw or loose carabiner. Doing so ensures that if you drop the rope, it won’t fall to the ground, leaving you stuck on the rock. A figure-8 might not be necessary in this scenario (nor may clipping it to the belay loop as opposed to a gear loop), but doing so reinforces a good habit as it creates an extra safety point. In a scenario somewhere between this and that described before, a climber armed with only a single sling/PAS (he expects to be able to use the previous method) reaches the top-anchor to find that he cannot thread a loop through the gear (maybe the quick links are too small), and he is forced to create a safety with a figure 8 on a bight in the way described here. If he is already in the habit of clipping the knot to his belay loop, he does not risk doing something foolish like clipping it to an unrated gear loop.

tech 3.2

Then, you untie your original figure-8 and thread the rope through the lowest link on each of the two chains. If your quickdraws are still in these, get them out of the way first.

tech 3.3-001

After threading the rope through, retie into the rope with another figure-8. You are now connected to the rope by two figure-8’s (one is the figure-8 on a bight attached to your belay loop via a carabiner).

tech 3.4

Untie your figure-8 on a bight, and ask your belayer to take up the slack. Once your partner has you as close to the anchor as possible (to get your weight off the slings), test your knot by putting your weight on it. When you are satisfied with the knot, unclip from the anchor and ask to be lowered off.

tech 3.5

Cleaning the Route

So now you have cleaned the gear off the top anchors and are lowering off. You only have to take off the draws on the way down. If the rock is mostly vertical, that will be straightforward, but if is steep or if it traverses you will have to clip yourself to the rope via a quickdraw to keep you close enough to the rock to be able to reach your precious gear. This is all good as long as you remember to unclip yourself from the rope before you unclip the last quickdraw. If you don’t, you risk taking your partner for a ride. Such a mistake could result in your partner losing his balance and dropping you or, worse, a swing over a gaping void.

 

error 1

Communication

Vital to all techniques and climbing in general is good communication. Tell your partner beforehand whether you are going to rappel or lower off and, if you are going to lower off, how you are going to do it. Make it very clear that you do not want them to take you off belay. The only fatality at Long Dong was the result off miscommunication in an instance where the climber, having reached the anchors, was taken off belay for no reason. There is no reason for your belayer to go off belay while you are cleaning a route unless you are going to rappel. When planning to lower off ensure that your partner knows to keep you on belay. Also review your commands. Some say “safe” while others “secure”. Some say “slack” while others say “rope”. Ensure that you understand each other before you leave the ground. Note that both ‘slack’ and ‘take’ can sound very similar when communicated (or rather miscommunicated) over a distance and carried by the wind. “Rope” is probably a better command to pair with “take”.

error 2

 

Personal Anchors

What follows is a quick note about gear. For Long Dong always carry two slings/PAS with locking carabiners and an extra, big, beefy biner for attaching your overhand figure-8. These will allow you to always choose from both techniques, according to the kind of top-anchor you find. A multi-link PAS is not necessary if you are capable of a one-arm lockoff (and most climbers are). In most cases I don’t believe that less is more, but in the case of 60cm dyneema sling vs PAS, I don’t see a reason for the longer and ungainly PAS. A PAS is only really necessary at top anchors where there are no footholds and only sloping or crimpy handholds. The carabiners on your slings should be small lockers of the keynose (not lipped) variety. Larger biners are more difficult to get into and out of quick links and only add unwanted weight. Lipped carabiners come off glue-in bolts easily enough, but they can be a nightmare to get off mechanical bolts as they get caught on the hanger. If you are still using old, lipped lockers, it is probably time to replace them. All modern lockers are made with a keynose design. The Black Diamond Positron screwgate, DMM Shadow screwgate, and Metolius Element are all good choices although the Element has a very round, chunky profile and is almost as heavy as a full-sized HMS. I don’t suggest buying the Petzl Locker for climbing in Taiwan only because its gate is un-anodized mild steel and it rusts quickly in the humid environment.

Practice the abovementioned cleaning techniques according to a protocol, and do so repeatedly until they become second nature. And then still remember to follow protocol. In time you will learn to halve the time you spend cleaning gear from a route, and you will do so more safely. Also accept that you will face anchor setups that you have never seen before and that each will require a little problem solving and real-world application skill. The more skills you have prior to such an experience, the better equipped you’ll be to handle such novel situations. It’s all part of becoming a confident and well-rounded climber. Enjoy the journey.

Thanks to Nate Ball, Wojtek, and the rebolt guys for all the work they have put into the maintenance of Long Dong’s routes.

Disclaimer:  Online climbing information is no substitute for professional climbing instruction. TaiwanRocks holds no claim to the accuracy of this article. 

tags: ,

Comments

Post a Comment

Login if you have a TaiwanRocks.net account, or fill in your information to leave a comment