Friday, April 9, 2010

Toproping on Sport Climbs

Pulling through the last few moves on “Lude Crude and Misconstrued,” a popular 5.9 located in the Black Corridor of Red Rocks, is not a particularly difficult thing to do. The moves at the top are easy. No instead, the scariest part of the climb is not the climb itself, but the anchors. So many people have put their rope through the chains at the top of the route and then proceeded to toprope or lower off the anchors that the sawing action of hundreds of ropes has nearly eaten them clean through.

This is a chronic problem at sport climbing areas across America. Chain and quicklink anchors are severely damaged due to ignorance or laziness. The problem is most visible however, in places where it is sandy. Once a rope gets sand in the sheath it literally becomes like sandpaper. The repeated sawing action of a moving tensioned rope -- especially one with sand in the sheath -- may severely damage anchor chains in as little as a matter of hours.

The question then must be asked, who is responsible for a newly damaged anchor? Is it the first ascent party's responsibility to replace the anchor? Is it the responsibility of a local guide service? Does it become the problem of local climbing conservation groups? Or are the people who damaged the anchor responsible?

There is no right answer to the preceeding question. I have personally replaced innumerable anchors out of my own pocket. I know a number of others that have done the same. We do this because we don't want to see anybody get hurt. But it's not something that we want to do.

Most of us who put up new routes or repair existing climbs simply avoid toproping directly through the chains. Instead, we use a cordelette or a double shoulder-length sling in conjunction with locking carabiners.

To the left is an example of a rope threaded directly through the anchor. Do not do this for anything but a rappel.

On the left-hand side, the anchor is composed of quick links. These are easier to change-out when they are damaged. On the right, the anchor is made up of chain purchased from a hardware store. This is more difficult to replace when damaged.

The photo on the right provides an example of a properly set-up toprope. The anchor is composed of a double shoulder-length sling, tied into a pre-equalized eight. At the bottom, clipped into the power-point (sometimes called the master-point) are two opposite and opposed locking carabiners. This is the best possible system as it meets the requirements for a SRENE or ERNEST anchor and protects the anchor chains from damage.

There are two organizations that are currently replacing bolts and anchors throughout the country. The first is the nonprofit American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) and the second is the Anchor Replacement Inititive (ARI) sponsored by Climbing magazine, the North Face and Petzl . It is possible to support the ASCA with donations and to support the ARI by purchasing items from their corporate sponsors.

Checking anchors to make sure that they are not damaged, replacing those that are or providing financial support to those who will replace them, and reporting damaged anchors to individuals who will fix them is the responsibility of every climber. But perhaps the greater responsibility is to simply avoid damaging an anchor to begin with.

--Jason D. Martin


Josh said...

Great post. I think setting up a proper anchor is the most important thing new climbers can learn.

When I'm climbing, I typically use quickdraws or lockers for any TR followers. When I clean, I rappel with the rope through whatever links/biners/hardware appear to be the most intact.

I think there is an argument, however, for occasionally using the rope as shown in the first picture. I respect folks' opinion that (typically) rappelling is more risky than lowering. Unless you use some sort of auto-lock (e.g. a prussik) while rappelling, there is still the chance that you can slip, or drop the rope, and be injured. I think untying only long enough to thread the rope & be lowered by your belayer does mitigate some of that risk.

While it is expensive to replace hardware, a couple of quick-links are certainly worth replacing if it means people don't get injured rappelling.

Most importantly, I think everyone should do whatever keeps them the most safe, both physically and mentally. And, hopefully, there will be enough folks who care to replace the anchors.

American Alpine Institute said...

Good comment.

However, if you're going to lower off an anchor, then you should be replacing quick links all the time. People copy people who look like they know what they're doing and most don't replace anything, ever...


Mr. J said...

Well said. I'm a relative newbie to sport climbing outdoors, but on my first trip, I was instructed to only lower off the anchors if there's no other safe way to get down. Since I know how to set up a rappel and haven't forgotten my Reverso yet, I've never done it. Granted, I haven't led outside nearly as often as I boulder, but it's a good start. I think I'll get some quicklinks just to be sure. They always come in handy as bail biners!

Anonymous said...

I was recently climbing in Thailand and noticed that the common way to lower from a route is to thread a bite of rope through a large pair of rings attached to the anchor, tie a figure eight on that bite once through, then clip it into a locker on your belay loop, then untie your primary eight and have your partner lower you down. Although it applies wear on the rings it seemed completely superior to the north American method as you are never left without a tie in point to the rope. When i asked the thai guides they said that the anchors need to be replaced far before the metal of the rings wear through. Wondering why this system is not used over here?