Use this guide as a general overview. Remember, learning about rock climbing online serves as a tool, but in no way are videos or written articles a substitute for hands-on instruction. Failure to follow appropriate safety measures could result in serious injury or death. If just getting started, seek professional climbing courses offered by AMGA-certified guiding services. Be smart, and climb safe.
When you reach the point in your climbing journey when you’re ready to transition to climbing and/or lead climbing outdoors, one of the most important technical skills to master is how to safely clean an anchor.
Most commonly required at the top of a single pitch route, this responsibility arises when the final climber of a route must reclaim, or “clean,” the quickdraws or other gear placed at the top of the route as the anchoring points.
While there are several approaches to cleaning anchors, the ones outlined by the American Alpine Club in the video below offer a safe and efficient method, governed by the following principles:
- Minimize equipment in order to lessen likelihood of essential items being left behind
- Minimize communication with the belayer to avoid miscommunication
- Eliminate/minimize transitions from one safety system to another
Steps for safely cleaning an anchor
1. Make an action plan with your partner
Whenever preparing to clean an anchor—or more broadly, when climbing in general—always make sure to double check your systems with your partner; ensuring you’re both on the same page with your plan for a safe descent.
In a single-pitch cragging scenario, wherein the seconding climber must clean the anchor, make sure to discuss the following with your partner before anyone leaves the ground:
- Correct attachment of all safety points on you and your partner
- Your communication strategy
- How you plan to clean the anchor (lowering off or rappelling)
- That you have the necessary gear to clean
Put simply, having a simple discussion or action plan with your partner avoids confusion and miscommunication while engaged in cleaning the anchor.
How to clean an anchor by lowering off
This efficient procedure for cleaning, recommended by the American Alpine Club, ensures that the cleaning climber uses minimal extra gear and is never off belay or detached from the rope.
Bring the proper gear
When preparing to clean the top a single pitch route, particularly when sport climbing, you’ll typically encounter a scenario where two quickdraws have been placed at the top of an anchor system (as seen on the left side of the image below).
To clean such an anchor by lowering, you’ll need to ensure you have the following on your harness:
- an additional quickdraw
- a locking carabiner
Step-by-step overview of how to clean by lowering
1. Secure yourself to the anchor
After you’ve reached the top of the route, you’ll need to safely secure yourself prior to removing any equipment. To do so, attach your extra quickdraw to your belay loop and clip the other point to both ends of the two quickdraws already at the anchor. This will give you sufficient room and a more comfortable stance.
Once secure, use your agreed upon communication term to indicate that you are secure and now need additional rope (slack) to begin the cleaning process. This is commonly carried out with the simple command, “Slack, [belayer’s name]!” Using your partner’s name after each command is particularly important to avoid confusion when other climbers are in the vicinity.
2. Secure the rope to yourself
Now that you’re secure to the anchor, it’s time to tie yourself to a second point in the rope prior to untying your original figure eight.
To do so,
- Pull in an arm’s length of rope towards you and feed a bight through the rappel rings
- Once passed through the rings, tie a figure eight on a bight
- Attach a locking carabiner to the figure eight on a bight and secure it to your belay loop
This part can get confusing, so make sure to follow the steps properly! Watch the above video at 3:40 for clarification.
Here’s what the system should look like:
3. Alert your belayer to provide tension
Some climbers might use the word “take,” but use your agreed upon communication term to indicate that your belayer should provide tension on the rope to secure you tightly to the wall.
4. Double check your system
Before you remove any equipment, double check your system; ensuring that your carabiner is locked and that your partner has you taut with the rope.
Now, you can remove the additional carabiner you used to secure yourself to the quickdraws—again making sure your partner has you securely tightened.
5. Untie original figure eight knot
Next, untie your original figure eight knot you tied before climbing, and then pull the tail through the rap rings, letting it dangle by your side.
6. Clean and prepare to be lowered
Finally, “clean” the remaining quickdraws and/or slings your partner put on the bolts, and let your partner know that you’re prepared to be lowered back to the ground.
How to clean an anchor by rappelling
In instances where you must rappel rather than lower off of a route, such as when lowering could cause abrasion to the rope or local ethics request it to preserve the health of fixed anchors, this method suggested by the American Alpine Club offers a safe and efficient approach.
Bring the proper gear
When preparing to clean the top a single pitch route by rappelling with this method, you’ll need to ensure you have the following on your harness:
- 4′ (120cm) nylon sling or personal anchor system
- Locking carabiner
- ATC (or similar) with locking carabiner
- Friction hitch accessory loop (such as a prusik or HollowBlock) with locking carabiner
Step-by-step overview of how to clean by rappelling
1. Alert your belayer to provide tension
When you reach the top of the route, use your communication term to let your belayer know they need to take you in taut on the rope.
2. Construct/attach your personal tether to the master point
Attach your personal tether to the master point of the created anchor (e.g., both quickdraw ends) with a locking carabiner, ensuring to lock it. While the video suggests a nylon sling, you may also consider a Metolius PAS or Petzl Adjust.
Petzl Connect Adjust
3. Request your belayer take you off belay and secure the rope to yourself
Once secure, ensure that you are weighing your personal tether and that it is locked and secured to the masterpoint. Then, indicate to your belayer that they should now take you off belay. This communication point signifies to your belayer that you are secured by a personal tether.
Losing the rope is a no-no when you’re at the top of a route. For this reason, it’s vital to keep the rope secured to you at all times.
To do so when in a rappelling situation,
- Pull in an arm’s length of rope towards you
- Tie a figure eight on a bight and secure the knot to your harness (clipping to a quickdraw or locking carabiner)
This will give you adequate rope length to re-tie into the rope at a later step.
4. Untie original figure eight and feed it through rappel rings; add a knot
Next, untie your original figure eight knot you tied before climbing, and feed the end through the rappel rings or chain links.
Tie a tight and bulky knot, such as the double barrel knot at the end of the rope. This type of knot will stop the rope from falling back through the rings or chain links; possibly leaving you stranded at the belay.
Further, ensuring that both ends of your rope are knotted will prevent the all-too-common error of rappelling off the ends of your rope.
Here’s what that looks like:
5-6. Remove figure eight on a bight attached to your harness and begin feed rope
Next, detach and untie the figure eight on a bight that you’ve attached to your harness and begin feeding the rope down towards the ground until you reach the midpoint of the rope and are certain that both ends have reached the ground. Always seek confirmation from your belayer.
Warning: rappelling off the ends of your rope is an all-too-common error that can easily result in serious injury or death. Prevent this mistake by ensuring that both ends of your rope are knotted upon rappel.
7. Tie a friction hitch backup
Here’s how to tie a friction hitch:
8. Rig for rappel
Using an ATC or similar tube device, feed both strands of the rope through the adjacent slots of the device and secure it to your personal tether using a locking carabiner.
9. Double check all points in your system
Before you remove any equipment or start to rappel, ensure the following:
- Carabiners are locked
- Rappel is rigged correctly
- Middle of the rope is through the rappel rings
- Rope ends are on the ground
10. Detach personal tether from anchor, clean, and rappel
At this point in the video, you’re advised to detach your equipment from the anchor and rappel. However, many guides advise climbers to weight your rappel prior to removing all equipment. This ensures that you’re fully supported by your rappelling system prior to leaning back on it.
In response to commentary surrounding these anchor-cleaning methods, the American Alpine Club has issued this statement.
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