Nine Steps to Safely Lower Off a Sport Climb

Learn to Lower from Bolt Anchors

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You've reached the top of an 80-foot-high sports climb at the New River Gorge and now you need to get back to the ground. The best way is to have your belayer lower you from the anchors at the top of the pitch. If someone else is going to climb the route after you, all you need to do is to clip into the anchor bolts with quickdraws or a sling with locking carabiners and lower back down.

The last Climber Must Clean the Anchor

But if you are the last climber up the route, you will have to clean the anchor and then descend by either rappelling or being lowered down by your belayer. By cleaning, that is removing the anchor material that you placed on the permanent anchor bolts at the top of the pitch, you are able to retrieve your climbing equipment, including slings, quickdraws, and carabiners, and then pulling your rope down when you reach the ground.

Cleaning and Threading Anchor is Dangerous

Cleaning and then threading your rope through the anchors before lowering down is one of the most dangerous maneuvers you will do when you are sports climbing. A lot can go wrong during the process, including not clipping yourself into the anchor beforehand; not threading the rope properly through the anchor bolts; not completely retying yourself into the end of the rope, and having your belayer take you off belay.

Clear Communication Keeps You Safe

You need to always check and double-check all parts of the safety system before you lower off after threading a sports anchor. Part of that safety system is having clear communication with your belayer below so that you both know exactly what you plan to do. Clear communication keeps you alive.

  • Before you leave the ground to climb, talk to your belayer. Let her know what you plan to do at the top.
  • If you are going to have her lower you after cleaning, say, "Keep me on belay because I'm going to lower down."
  • If you plan to rappel, let her know by saying, "After I am clipped into the anchor, I will let you know that it's all right to take me off belay because I'm going to rappel down."

Bolt Anchors on Top of Sport Pitches

The top of most sports climbs has two bolts with bolt hangers. Sometimes lengths of forged chain are attached to the bolts, allowing you to thread your rope through the bottom links. Other times the bolts have rings on the hangers; steel lowering rings attached to a screw link locking device (bought in hardware stores) attached to a bolt hanger, or webbing or bits of rope tied to the bolt hangers and connected together with a steel lowering/rappel ring for an equalized lower-off anchor.

Check the Anchors Before Lowering

Always check the anchor material before committing to lowering off of them. In wet climates, the chains and other metal hardware can be rusted and corroded. Make sure any anchor chain is thick and beefy; it should be at least 5/16-inch thick, although the 3/8-inch chain is preferable. Also, it's best if the chain is forged rather than cast chain; forged chain is far stronger than cast chain, which could fail. Look at the chain, screw links, or steel rings and study the area where the rope runs across the metal. It will often be very worn, with deep grooves left by repeated lowerings and by people who top-rope with their rope directly through the anchors. If the grooves are deep, it is safer to thread the rope through the anchors and rappel rather than lower through the unsafe rings.

How To Clean And Lower From A Sports Anchor In 9 Steps

  1. When you reach the anchors, clip securely into the anchors.
    Clip yourself in with a personal anchor system (PAS), a sling girth-hitched to your harness and clipped with a locking carabiner, or two quickdraws attached to your harness and the anchors. It's best to always clip yourself in with a locking carabiner so there is no chance that it will accidently open. Most climbers will clip themselves into one of the anchor bolts, which is fine since it is only supporting your body weight.
  2. Clip the rope onto your harness so you don't drop it.
    After clipping yourself into the anchor, pull up ten or so feet of rope from your belayer. Tie a knot in it like a figure-8-on-a-bight and clip it to a quickdraw on your harness. You can clip the quickdraw to a gear loop or to the belay loop. It's preferable to clip to the gear loop since the rope is out of the way on your side rather than on the front of your harness. Do this so that you will not accidentally drop the rope while you're threading the anchor if you drop the rope, you'll be stranded and not too happy!
  3. Undo your tie-in knot, usually a figure-8 follow-through knot, from your harness.
    Next step is to untie your climbing knot. Place your feet well, preferably on footholds, and untie the knot, which can be tough if it's tight.
  4. Thread the loose end of the rope through both of the anchors.
    Now take the loose tail of the rope and thread it through both bolt anchors if they have rings or through the ends of chains on the anchors. Always thread the rope so that it runs across metal; never across webbing, cord, or rope. Before threading the rope, consider which side of the anchor is best for you to lower. You don't want the rope to get crossed or tangled so pick the side that offers the most direct line to the ground.
  5. Retie the figure-8 follow-through knot on your harness.
    With the rope threaded through the anchors, you can retie you climbing knot on your harness. Alternatively, you can simply tie a figure-8-on-a-bight knot at the end of the rope and clip it to a locking carabiner attached to your harness, which is usually clipped to your belay loop.
  6. Double-check your knot and make sure the rope is threaded through both anchors.
    Now take a good look at your rigging. Check your knot. Is it properly tied? Is the tail long enough? Is the rope properly threaded through both anchors? Is the rope running over steel? Are you still clipped into the anchor?
  7. Unclip the rope attached to your harness, untie the knot, and let the slack rope drop down to your belayer.
    After double-checking, if you're satisfied that all is well, then unclip the rope on your harness and drop it down. Ask your belayer to pull up the excess slack. Okay, now you're ready to unclip yourself and lower down.​
  8. Ask your belayer to "Take" the rope, pulling it tight against your harness.
    Before unclipping, however, you need to make sure that your belayer has you on belay and hasn't wandered off to chat up the neighbors. Yell down "Take!" to your belayer. He should pull the rope through his belay device until it is tight and under tension. He should be able to feel you and you should be able to feel him holding you. This is the most dangerous part of the cleaning and lowering process so don't that assume you are on belay. Remember-clear communication keeps you safe.
  9. Let your belayer know you're ready to lower and start downward.
    Your belayer is holding you tight with the rope. Now unclip yourself from the anchor and yell down, "Ready to lower!" Your belayer shouts back, "Lowering!!" and begins slowly lowering you down. Clean your quickdraws off bolts on the route as you lower down. You will probably have to ask your belayer to stop you while you retrieve each one.

Lowering Tips for Your Belayer

Here are four safety tips for your belayer to use when lowering:

  • If you're unsure about the length of the pitch or if your rope will reach the ground, make sure that your belayer has tied a stopper knot in the end so that the rope doesn't slip through his belay device, dropping you to the ground.
  • Remind your belayer to lower you slowly and smoothly so that she doesn't lose control of the rope and drop you.
  • Also, remind your belayer to have both hands on the braking side of the rope below the belay device. Two hands and ten fingers make it easier to maintain control of the descending climber and to stop you.
  • Lastly, if your belayer weighs less than you, it's a good idea for them to anchor onto a tree or rock or bolt so that they aren't jerked into the air if they stop you suddenly.