Safe and Sensible: Lowering Off Sport Climbs
- Tuesday 24th December 2019
In this article, AMI instructor and guide, Mark Reeves, shows the best way to thread a lower-off safely at the top of a sport route in preparation for a safe lower down the route. Read on…
From the other side of the quarry I heard a blood curdling scream, not an ‘oops I have fallen’ or Ondra style power scream but one of utter terror. A few of us instantly ran over and there she was writhing in pain. She had fallen the height of the crag, from the lower-off to the floor. First aid survival mode kicks in, 999 is called and eventually she is away in an ambulance.
The girl in question had messed up re-threading a lower-off whilst sport climbing and when she leant back on her cow’s tail/lanyard, she plummeted from the lower-off to a Mission Impossible distance from the ground. Later that night she was discharged from hospital with only cuts and bruises. She survived because the last bolt below the lower-off eventually caught her fall. That day I had seen many novices struggling to re-thread a lower-off and other climbers top roping direct through the lower-offs. So:
Please do not be lazy and top-rope directly through the lower-off as it will cause wear and eventually failure costing £30 in equipment to replace. Use your own karabiners in the belay bolts to top-rope from, only the last person to lower down the route should do so directly through the lower-off using the method below.
Re-threading a lower-off
There are several stages to mastering re-threading a lower-off. One is understanding the underlying principles – in that we want to re-thread the rope through the lower-off whilst maintaining at least two attachment points throughout the whole process. The method below achieves that, so practise the process on the ground or at a climbing wall. Repeat it a few times with a break to make sure you are slick before trying it for real. When doing it for real the first time, pick a shorter route or one where an experienced climber/instructor can see you and check you as you go.
There are many ways to re-thread a lower-off and I prefer the re-threaded bight method, although occasionally you have to free up the end of the rope because the rings are too small for a bight of rope or the route is so long you need to tie into the very end of the rope. The process I describe allows you to physically check your new attachment point before transferring onto it. The communication with visual, audio and tactile feedback between you and the belay are key.
Re-threaded byte method
1. Ensure the rope going down to the belayer is clipped through the penultimate quickdraw, this is the ‘back-up’ should it go really wrong and is what saved that girl in the story. Clip the lower-off with quickdraws and shout take. Feel for the rope going tight and look down and check the belayer has hold of you and get yourself ready to re-thread, if you are not already, with a cow’s tail/lanyard attached to you already.
2. Attach the cow’s tail from your belay loop to one of the bolts in the lower-off and lean back on the cow’s tail. This ensures you are clipped in properly and if not, you still have one of the lower-off bolts clipped as a runner, plus the penultimate quickdraw as a back-up. Finally remove the quickdraw from the bolt your cow’s tail is clipped to.
3. Now your cow’s tail is taking the weight pull up a bight of rope and push it through the lower-off rings and pull the loop all the way back to your belay loop.
4. Tie a figure 8 knot in the bight and clip it into your belay loop with a screwgate.
5. Shout take and let the belayer now re-take your weight on the rope. Make sure the tension has come off your cow’s tail, this ensures that you have successfully re-threaded and are now re-attached to the rope. Once your weight is on the rope, untie the rope you climbed up with.
6. Pull the end through the lower-off and pop it over your shoulder to keep it out of the way. Then clean up any quickdraw or belay from the lower-off. But stay clipped in with your cow’s tail.
7. Finally, double check everything and that you are being held by the rope ready to lower.
8. ONLY WHEN you are sure, unclip the cow’s tail and shout down ready to lower.
About Mark Reeves
Mark Reeves runs his own business www.SnowdoniaMountainGuides.com where he teaches rock-climbing and mountaineering. He also writes the Climber's Coach column in Climber magazine and is a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors. www.ami.org.uk