Note - This post discusses techniques and methods used in vertical rope work. If you do them wrong, you could die. Always practice vertical rope techniques under the supervision of an experienced climber, and ideally in a progression: from flat ground, to staircase, to vertical close to the ground before you ever try them in a real climbing situation.
You and your partner have topped out on the classic West Ridge of Forbidden Peak in the Washington Cascades. Now it’s time to go down, a series of short rappels and down climbing the low 5th class route. Problem is, the wind is ripping and you see all kinds of rope-eating blocks ready to entangle your rappel rope if you toss it in the normal manner.
This is a good time to think about lowering your partner.
If the first climber down is lowered on one strand, with the other rope end clipped to a locker on their belay loop, there is minimal chance of the rope hanging up anywhere, causing a spaghetti pile halfway down, or blowing into some irretrievable rock feature.
Lowering can also be the preferred method in these cases:
If you have an injured climber who might be unable to rappel on their own
Someone’s dropped their belay device, whoops
A beginner who’s a little freaked out and needs to get down under the control of someone else
If the first person down is lowered a little too far past the anchors, hopefully they can climb back up on belay, rather than doing a rather complicated rope trick of transitioning from rappel to ascending the rope.
Communication needs to be rock solid between the partners, because of course you don’t want to lower the first climber past the anchor. But on many alpine routes you want to be doing short rappels anyway to minimize the possibility of a rope getting stuck, so communication is often easier because you’re closer together.
This is best done with a single rope rappel.
The climber being lowered brings both ends of the rope with them as they are lowered.
There are a few different ways to rig this, each with relative pros and cons.
Lower directly of your harness
Lower of your harness with a redirect through the anchor
Lower directly of the anchor with a Munter hitch
Lower off the anchor with a redirect
Lowering it directly off your harness will work, but it’s not the most comfortable. Adding a redirect through the powerpoint of the anchor offers a little more friction and gives you a little more control of the lower, but can double the force on the anchor, so you better be sure it’s bomber.
Note: Petzl recommends belaying from your harness, and redirecting through the anchor if you are using a Grigri, see more here. (I’m presuming this also applies to a lowering your second.)
Probably the simplest way is to tie a Munter hitch on the anchor master point and lower off of that. For extra security, you can add a friction hitch to the brake strand and attach it to your belay loop as a “third hand” backup. Note that lowering from a Munter hitch can put twists in your rope.
Finally, the fourth option: lower off of the anchor, but through a redirect. This is slightly more complicated to set up, but offers the most advantages. No rope twist. Excellent friction and control. No extra force on the anchor. Easy to lock up and go hands free if need be.
Let's look at a two different ways to rig this last option.
If you have an anchor with a shelf, clip the belay device to the master point and the redirect carabiner to the shelf. (Here, we’re using the mini quad anchor, tied with a 120 cm / double sling.)
The belayer’s rope strand is on the right. The climber being lowered is on the left.
The prusik on the right side rope strand is clipped to the belay loop of the person doing the lowering as a 3rd hand backup.
If your rappel anchor doesn’t have a shelf, you can extend the anchor a foot or so with an extra sling or quickdraw, attach your rappel device on this extension, and redirect the brake strand of the rope back through the master point.
Rappel anchor with no shelf, such as sling(s) around a tree. Note the CRT (Crafty Rope Trick) of taping the gate of a carabiner shut to make a “cheapskate locker”, a nice way to make a secure rappel point from a single carabiner.
Add a sling or quickdraw to extend the master point, then attach the belay device.
Finally, feed the rope through the belay device, add a redirect carabiner to the sling(s), and clip the brake side of the rope through that. A prusik or friction hitch on the brake strand adds extra security.
Note: the climber to be lowered is on the right strand; the belayer is on the left strand. The prusik is used as a 3rd hand backup, clipped to the belay loop of the person lowering.
Be sure you weight and test the system before committing to it.