Dealing with Anchors while Rappelling and Making a DIY Retrievable Anchor

by January 4, 2012 01/4/12
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You’ve read the series on learning How to Rappel. You have a good grasp of the fundamentals and are ready move beyond going up and down the same spot. This article is meant to supplement a few items that were beyond the scope of the original series.

  • How do you deal with natural anchors?
  • How do you deal with multiple pieces of webbing in various lengths?
  • How do you get that anchor back after you get down?

Disclaimer

I think we’re all in agreement that reading something on the Internet is not a substitute for real-world training. The intention of this article is to demystify concepts and to present intermediate steps — not a final one — to your training. If you work out the theory behind how you would retrieve an anchor now, it will free up some memory to make absorbtion of information a more efficient affair when you get hands on.

There are a hundred ways to skin a climbing cat. What is advocated here may be different from what your instructor teaches. We welcome readers to share their ideas in the comments, as well. There are debates on the Double Fisherman’s Knot vs the European Death Knot (gotta love that name!) just like there are debates on how to execute a tactical reload. Educate yourself and do what you feel confident trusting your life and the life of your party to. The decision ultimately falls upon your shoulders, not the approval of someone on the Internet!

Finding Natural Anchors

Not all routes are bolted. A solid anchor could be a boulder that is too big to hug (i.e., larger than the circumference of your arms), a live tree more than nine inches in diameter, or a big fallen tree.

Use your best judgement. In the end, trust your gut. If it looks sketchy, it probably is.

Combining Webbing

If your webbing isn’t long enough to go around your anchor, you can simply tie two or more pieces together with a water knot. For the sake of simplicity and efficiency, you’ll want to use as few pieces of webbing in the shortest lengths possible.

If you use your longest piece all the time and it gets stuck, or if you need a long piece later it just slows things down if you have to tie a bunch of short ones together. At worst, you’ll get stuck without a way down; or up.

Verbal Commands

There are different theories on the matter, but I like my climbing buddies to simplify commands and yell “ROPE” when a man-made object is falling (whether it actually be rope, or my retrievable anchor, or a bottle of Wild Turkey) and “ROCK” when a natural object is dislodged and falling.

Yelling things like “NAGLENE BOTTLE”, “‘BINER!”, or “TREE BRANCH!” just causes confusion. If something is falling, alerting your companions to mind their head (you are wearing a helmet, aren’t you? Chicks dig it) is more important than the specifics regarding what will be crashing down in a second and a half.

Organizing Multiple Lengths of Webbing

Webbing is cheap and meant to be carried in abundance. But how do you prevent it from becoming a tangled mess?

I had my pieces of webbing cut at REI. I discriminate their lengths by color. For example, I have my three-foot lengths in blue, my six-foot lengths in red and my fifteen-foot length webbing in yellow. It’s arbitrary, so make your own system and stick to what works best for you. I like loud obnoxious colors for my webbing, but they are also available in subdued tactical colors. All of my webbing fits in a small stuff sack.

To store them, use the Chain Sinnet. I like to put a Rappel Ring on each length of webbing. These rings are cheap and intended to be expendable. The hole is smaller on a rappel ring than a carabiner, so you can also set up a single-line rappel by putting a triple-clove-hitch on a carabiner and will not risk the knot slipping through the rappel ring the way it might through another carabiner.

Retrievable Anchors

You may be wondering what happens once you get down and want your anchor back. You probably don’t want to leave all that hard earned climbing swag tied to a tree with no way to get it back. You also want to minimize your impact and, if possible, leave no trace for the next climbing party.

To make a retrievable anchor, simply place a water knot at the end of each end of your webbing, being sure to leave an adequate tail. Wrap the anchor around a big tree or boulder or whatever you trust your life with. Once you slide the rope through both rings, the ends will stay together and the system will no longer move freely.

Tie another ring bend on one of the tails of your anchor. This is the side you will be pulling it down from. You will need a spool of pull-cord, whether it be a big length of 550 paracord or even more webbing.

Whatever you have on your person in order to pull it down will work. A little sack for the pull cord helps keep things tidy and untangled As you rappel down, the pull cord should deploy from the pull cord sack.

Before you pull your rope down make sure the last man undoes the figure-eight knot after he touches down, or else your rope will get stuck on the rappel ring up top. You won’t be able to retrieve the anchor while the rope is through both loops.

First, you need to retrieve your rope, then retrieve the anchor using the pull cord. There are pieces of metal on both ends of your webbing, so make sure to yell “ROPE” when it all this stuff comes down!

Here’s a gallery of the step-by-step instructions for tying your own DIY Retrievable Anchor:

Seek Real Life Training

Most guides cater to folks who want to do a half day of rappelling down cool places and get their picture taken to put up as a sweet Facebook profile picture. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be given a fish, but chances are that if you are reading this, you want to learn how to fish.

I recommend talking to your guide beforehand and explaining that you and your climbing party wish to spend more time learning the ins-and-outs of anchoring skills, even if it means less time actually climbing and rappelling. The guide should dedicate at least half the morning to ground school. If you are in the south-west region of the United States, I highly recommend a three-day course with Zion Adventure Company. Zion is a canyoneering mecca. the scenery is top drawer, and thus it is a great place to learn the relevant skills.

Have fun, stay safe, and remember: whoever steps on the rope owes its owner a case of beer!


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CameronBenz1
CameronBenz1

Interesting read. I'm revisiting the subject after years of not having rappelled. Most stuff is pretty well adjusted in my head but we never covered anchor retrieval as we always had easy access topside.

Randy
Randy

Do you really build an anchor with 9/16" webbing singled around a tree/rock with a double overhand knot tied in each end as pictured?

panzer
panzer

i also think the rings could get caught in cracks in rocky terrain, but i guess it will work fine around trees and in many urban situations

(and you could also fill suspicious cracks with small rocks, put sticks across them or whatever)

but i just got an idea to simplify the rig: how about using one small and one large ring?

then you don't need to hassle with an extra pull cord, just make a knot at the end of the rope that will fit through the large ring, but not the small ring

this way you can simply use the rope to pull down your webbing

panzer
panzer

i also think the rings could get caught in cracks in rocky terrain, but i guess it will work fine around trees and in many urban situations (and you could also fill suspicious cracks with small rocks, put sticks across them or whatever) but i just got an idea to simplify the rig: how about using one small and one large ring? then you don't need to hassle with an extra pull cord, just make a knot at the end of the rope that will fit through the large ring, but not the small ring this way you can simply use the rope to pull down your webbing

Tightey Whiteys
Tightey Whiteys

Thanks for the link to Zion Adventure Company. They have some amazing courses, especially some family ones which I can bring my 8 year old daughter.

Homer J. Simpson
Homer J. Simpson

That retrievable setup is just begging to caught in a crack or draped on a flake when pulled. Then you are really screwed. I climbed in areas where it was not so easy just to keep the rope itself from getting eaten by the cracks in the granite, let alone a rope with a chock-like piece of metal tied to it.

Bring some extra webbing or cordage along and leave it.

Homer J. Simpson
Homer J. Simpson

That retrievable setup is just begging to caught in a crack or draped on a flake when pulled. Then you are really screwed. I climbed in areas where it was not so easy just to keep the rope itself from getting eaten by the cracks in the granite, let alone a rope with a chock-like piece of metal tied to it. Bring some extra webbing or cordage along and leave it.

Danny Korn
Danny Korn

A couple of comments, since I do quite a bit of climbing in my spare time. First, I want to echo the disclaimer. Nobody should be trying this stuff based solely on what you've read on a website. No amount of reading can suffice where practical experience is needed. If you want to climb or rappel, you should get professional instruction, or, at the very least, have one of your friends who has done it before show you the ropes, so to speak.

For yelling, most climbers use "ROPE" for ropes, webbing, and similar soft gear, and "ROCK" for anything else. The reason we do this is at least partially so that if I, for example, accidentally drop something while messing with gear, I don't have to figure out what it was before warning the people below.

Your releasable anchor is very, very similar to what my friends who tree climb use. The biggest difference is that they use two different sizes of rings. One ring is big enough for an overhand knot in the rope to pass through, and the other is small enough that the knot will get stuck. Then, they just pull the rope (in the correct direction, otherwise it gets completely stuck) with a knot tied in the end. The knot goes through the first ring and gets stuck in the second, pulling the anchor down with it.

However, that being said, most climbers don't use releasable rappel anchors at all, for a number of reasons. First, most climbing places where you would need to rappel to get back down have semi-permanent anchors already set up (trust them at your own risk, however, as nobody is guaranteeing their strength). Second, most climbers I know aren't too keen on the idea of taking metal gear and intentionally having it fall from a cliff. This potentially damages gear, in addition to being dangerous to those below and causing, as Aegeanhawk mentioned, a risk of getting it stuck anyway.

My thought is that, if you are in a situation where you need a rappel anchor but will be unable to retrieve it later (i.e, there's no other way to get down from that spot and no prexisting anchor), then you should be prepared to leave gear behind. Build an anchor using the minimum amount of gear that YOU are comfortable trusting your life to, and leave it behind. Remember that gear is replaceable, but YOU are not, so you shouldn't use a weaker anchor than you're comfortable with just to save gear. Personally, I'd have no problem throwing a few feet of webbing or cord around a sturdy tree and losing that and one carabiner, but if I had too, I'd even equalize a few climbing nuts and lose 5+ pieces of gear if I thought it was the only way to get down safely.

Danny Korn
Danny Korn

A couple of comments, since I do quite a bit of climbing in my spare time. First, I want to echo the disclaimer. Nobody should be trying this stuff based solely on what you've read on a website. No amount of reading can suffice where practical experience is needed. If you want to climb or rappel, you should get professional instruction, or, at the very least, have one of your friends who has done it before show you the ropes, so to speak. For yelling, most climbers use "ROPE" for ropes, webbing, and similar soft gear, and "ROCK" for anything else. The reason we do this is at least partially so that if I, for example, accidentally drop something while messing with gear, I don't have to figure out what it was before warning the people below. Your releasable anchor is very, very similar to what my friends who tree climb use. The biggest difference is that they use two different sizes of rings. One ring is big enough for an overhand knot in the rope to pass through, and the other is small enough that the knot will get stuck. Then, they just pull the rope (in the correct direction, otherwise it gets completely stuck) with a knot tied in the end. The knot goes through the first ring and gets stuck in the second, pulling the anchor down with it. However, that being said, most climbers don't use releasable rappel anchors at all, for a number of reasons. First, most climbing places where you would need to rappel to get back down have semi-permanent anchors already set up (trust them at your own risk, however, as nobody is guaranteeing their strength). Second, most climbers I know aren't too keen on the idea of taking metal gear and intentionally having it fall from a cliff. This potentially damages gear, in addition to being dangerous to those below and causing, as Aegeanhawk mentioned, a risk of getting it stuck anyway. My thought is that, if you are in a situation where you need a rappel anchor but will be unable to retrieve it later (i.e, there's no other way to get down from that spot and no prexisting anchor), then you should be prepared to leave gear behind. Build an anchor using the minimum amount of gear that YOU are comfortable trusting your life to, and leave it behind. Remember that gear is replaceable, but YOU are not, so you shouldn't use a weaker anchor than you're comfortable with just to save gear. Personally, I'd have no problem throwing a few feet of webbing or cord around a sturdy tree and losing that and one carabiner, but if I had too, I'd even equalize a few climbing nuts and lose 5+ pieces of gear if I thought it was the only way to get down safely.

Josh Orth
Josh Orth

genius. I can't believe I haven't come across those Rappel Rings before. I've done this kind of rigging with locking carabiners, but they are not the right tool for the job. Thanks for the post, really enlightening.

Aegeanhawk
Aegeanhawk

Nice presentation, but i doubt it is working in all "types" of rocks and rappel lengths. If the cliff is not totally "clean" and vertical there is very high possibility that something will stuck badly on a crack. A lot of "bulky" knots plus the rings can work as cams as you pull the cord down. The extra weigh of the metal rings will force it to fell down as a big loop with high possibility to be catched somewhere on his route.

May be it works in very short cliffs, but it will be unusable in abseils longer than 30 meters for example.

Aegeanhawk
Aegeanhawk

Nice presentation, but i doubt it is working in all "types" of rocks and rappel lengths. If the cliff is not totally "clean" and vertical there is very high possibility that something will stuck badly on a crack. A lot of "bulky" knots plus the rings can work as cams as you pull the cord down. The extra weigh of the metal rings will force it to fell down as a big loop with high possibility to be catched somewhere on his route. May be it works in very short cliffs, but it will be unusable in abseils longer than 30 meters for example.

Skunkabilly
Skunkabilly

Our pleasure! Thanks for posting that article, I enjoyed reading it. And the reminder I need to stock up on more rings.

Skunkabilly
Skunkabilly

I hope you do! Let us know how she goes, but I'm pretty confident she will love it. Get a waterproof case for your camera even if it is a dry route, as the canyons have lots of fine dirt.

Skunkabilly
Skunkabilly

True that, I have been as well. The technique(s) above are just various tools in the toolbox. I like Double Fishermans but know some guys who use things like the European Death Knot in places they think a fat knot will get hung up. And you're right about the extra webbing and cordage, I keep extras just in case!

Skunkabilly
Skunkabilly

Hi Danny, thanks for elaborating on the 'rope' vs 'rock'. Some places are relatively untouched and I think the Leave No Trace ethic has more folks not placing new anchors if it is possible to use a natural anchor. The idea is to leave minimal human impact and a greater sense of adventure for the next climber. The heavily trafficked areas do have fixed bolts and if they are there, and safe, I'll use those.

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