Lowering Your Climber: a review of tools/techniques

To save some of the furious fingers that may start sending emails and criticisms towards me please read the following. This is a review of tools/techniques for lowering a climber from the top of a, top managed top-rope climb. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of lowers and all of their intricacies. It is meant to be an overview and general resource. I will make some personal recommendations as well as some recommendations from other climbing guides I have worked with. I will mention some but not all of the pros and cons with specific lowering tools, but again it is not meant to be a comprehensive list. It would not only be boring to read this list but it might prevent you from practicing these skills. The tool you select for a lower will be affected by your knowledge of the angle and type of terrain; the shape, size, and type of master point that your device is attached to; and perhaps the tool available (maybe you forgot to clip it to your harness). Read below to find out if you have all of these tools available and if you are using them safely… *I decided to leave out the Münter please don’t hate*??‍♂️

The Tube Style Device aka “ATC”:

the Nitty Gritty, direct lower using an ATC… rarely used in guide application. More common with recreational climbers.

The above picture is NOT the “guide’s” way of lowering with a tube style device. Notice that there is no 3rd hand applied and the break strand orientation is behind the device. This places the guide behind the device the entire lower and limits the ability of the guide to approach the the cliff to maintain visibility of the climber being lowered.

PROS:

  • Rapid Application (quick to set up)
  • Simple (not too much gear involved

CONS:

  • Guide Location Limited (stuck behind the master point)
  • Limits Visibility of Climber Being Lowered

The Tube Style Device aka “ATC”: Redirected Break Strand

A common guide tool to provide a smooth lower and allows the guide the approach the edge of the cliff and maintain climber visibility through out lower.

This tool’s method of application is implicit in the title. The break strand of the device is redirected through a carabiner located in the shelf. Be certain to make sure that the rope is not rubbing the master point or any element of the top anchor. During the lower the friction of the rope on a piece of rope, webbing, or cordalette could compromise the integrity of the anchor. Also in this picture a non-locking carabiner is being used. This is NOT appropriate. ALWAYS USE A LOCKING CARABINER FOR THE REDIRECT! I recommend a locking carabiner because were the rope to fall out of the redirect and the guide is located downhill from the master point. This would remove the friction power of the tube device placing the lowered climber in extreme danger! Also notice the application of the 3rd Hand. This a super important safety adding to some redundancy to this system. This method is very common in top down approaches.

SUMMARY: Redirect break strand from ATC through a LOCKING carabiner and apply 3rd hand.

PROS

  • Easy to Control “Butter Smooth” Lower
  • Allows Guide to Approach Edge of Cliff

CONS

  • Difficult to Place Climber On Belay During Lower
  • Long Application (takes time to set it up)*usually because you aren’t belaying climber to top of cliff with a direct tube style/ATC belay*

Auto-Assistive Device aka “Gri Gri”:

the Nitty Gritty, direct lower using a Gri Gri… rarely used in guide application. More common with recreational climbers and is common cause of the pants loading “elevator drop”.

This is NOT the preferred “guide’s” method. Notice that similar to the 1st ATC lower mentioned the break strand is behind the device and also the lever on the Gri Gri must be operated to allow the climber to lower. This traps the guide at the master point. There is no ability to approach the cliff and maintain visibility. However, better than the ATC this device allows the guide to go hands free easier with the use of stopper knots or perhaps the Mule off and overhand (Same as the Münter Mule Overhand MMO). Also, it is easy to set up a mechanical advantage raise with this device as it is the preferred ratchet component by most guides for a mechanical haul.

The real drawback is that it is easy to “Elevator Drop” the climber that you are lowering. An “Elevator Drop” is a slang term referring to a rapid drop to a sudden stop. This isn’t a big deal when it only lasts a couple of inches. That is just annoying. However if the elevator drop lasts for 2 to 6 feet! Well… you better hope you have an extra pair of shorts and some extra toilet paper left in your pack for your climber to clean themselves. It is scary. If the elevator drop results in hitting a feature in the rock or the ground. It could result in serious injury or potentially death. For these reasons most guides won’t perform this lower.

PROS

  • Quick

CONS

  • Traps Guide at or Behind the Master Point
  • Poor Visibility
  • Poor Speed Control
  • Elevator Drop!
  • Requires Extra Pair of Shorts and Toilet Paper

Auto-Assistive Device aka “Gri Gri”: Redirected Break Strand

This is the premier Guide’s choice lowering method using a Gri Gri or auto-assistive type belay device.

Notice that no third hand is required and the break strand is redirected to the same master point as the Gri Gri is attached to. The carabiner used for the redirect doesn’t need to be a locking carabiner. If you haven’t tried lowering with this method it may surprise you how much easier it is to provide a smooth lower.

PROS

  • Quick to Set Up
  • Requires Minimal Gear (1 non-locking carabiner)
  • Easy to Control
  • Smoothest Lower with an Auto-Assistive Type Belay Device
  • Easy to Go Hands Free
  • Quickly Converts to an Efficient Mechanical Advantage Haul System

CONS

  • Difficult to Lift Lever (can actually be painful depending on weight of climber being lowered)
  • Still Traps Guide at the Masterpoint
  • Limited Visibility of the Climber
  • Must Remember to Unclip the Redirect to Transition To Top Managed Belay

Plaquette Style Device (ATC GUIDE/Reverso): the “Ratchet”

Grasp the Belay Carabiner.
Rotate belay carabiner up towards the master point.
Then rotate the belay carabiner back down away from the master point.
Rotate belay carabiner back up towards the master point.
Rotate back down. Repeat these steps until you have lowered the climber sufficiently.

Notice that no extra gear is needed other than your hand. All you have to do is rotate the belay carabiner up and down repeatedly lowering the climber. This is a very controlled and safe lower. This method will lower very slowly and is only good to lower your climber inches. To lower a climber for say 30 feet would probably take 20 minutes or more using this method. It is very commonly used by guides mid route when a client may need to retrieve a stuck piece of gear or could use a very little slack.

PROS

  • No extra gear needed
  • Quick to Implement
  • Super Easy to Resume Top Managed Belay
  • Super Easy to Convert to Mechanical Advantage Haul

CONS

  • Very Slow Lowering Method
  • Traps Guide at Masterpoint
  • Limits Visibility

Plaquette Style Device (ATC GUIDE/Reverso): “Carabiner Lever”

Place Carabiner through eye at the distal end of the device with the spine of the carabiner oriented uphill towards the cliff/anchor
Maintain control of the break strand and grip the spine of the carabiner
While maintaining control of the break strand pull up on the spine of the carabiner as you would say a lever on a Gri Gri, Slowly allowing slack to feed through the device.

This a very slick way to lower a climber several feet without whipping out a third hand and a lot of gear. It requires a single carabiner (locking or non-locking will work) as long as the nose of the carabiner fits in the eye. This works well with some plaquette devices and not so well with others. Some devices can lower a climber an entire route with ease. Other devices you will struggle. Because of the variability of the effectiveness I highly encourage you to practice this with your device and others before implementing this in the field with a new climber. In my opinion most devices this is only comfortable to lower for several feet up to 30 feet. That being said I do know the device that is comfortable enough for me to lower a climber for say hundreds of feet but other guides disagree with me. So check it out for your self:)

PROS

  • Quick to Implement
  • Requires Minimal Gear (1carabiner)
  • Super Easy to Resume Top Managed Belay
  • Super Easy to Convert to Mechanical Advantage Haul

CONS

  • It maybe a strenuous lower (particularly on a guides wrist)
  • It might be too difficult to lower for a significant distance.
  • Traps Guide at the Masterpoint
  • Limited Visibility

Plaquette Style Device (ATC GUIDE/Reverso): Manufacturer Recommended Lower

Step 1 apply 3rd hand with a locking carabiner and test to ensure it grabs. Step 2 girth hitch a sling/cord through the eye at the distal end of the device. Step 3 redirect sling/cord through a carabiner located in the shelf. Step 4 clip redirected sling to harness. Step 5 double check that steps 1-4 are complete and properly applied. Step 6 clip redirected sling/cord to belay loop, maintain control of breakstrand and 3rd hand, then lean on redirected strand until the plaquette function is defeated. Step 7 allow rope to feed through 3rd hand and device until climber is lowered distance desired.
Notice the distance between Climber (load) strand and the break strand at the junction of the plaquette style device. This is the plaquette function defeated.

This is a very smooth tool and a common “guide” way to lower a climber. It has a lot of steps to remember and it can be very dangerous if rigged incorrectly. Neglecting to apply a 3rd hand has resulted in death and decking of climbers. This a skill to rehearse, practice, and never get wrong. This is pictured with a 4′ sewn dyneema runner to allow for all the elements to make it in the picture however it is possible to rig with a long cordalette or multiple sewn runners girth hitched together allowing the guide to be much further away from the master point giving better visibility. DON’T FORGET YOUR 3rd HAND+DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING BEFORE DEFEATING THE PLAQUETTE MODE!

PROS

  • Easy to Control Smooth Lower
  • Easy to Lower Long Distances
  • Easy to Convert to Top Managed Belay
  • Easy to Convert to Mechanical Advantage Haul
  • Allows Better Visibility
  • Easy to Go Hands Free

CONS

  • Complicated (A Lot Of Steps)
  • Takes Long Time to Set up
  • Requires a Lot of Gear

Plaquette Style Device (ATC GUIDE/Reverso): Load Strand Direct aka “LSD”

Notice 3rd Hand For Control. Climber (Load) Strand is redirected through a single non-locking carabiner placed in the masterpoint. To redirect the load strand the climber must be able to unload the rope (unweight the rope in the climb or at the top).

This is a a very popular lower in the multi-pitch and alpine environment. It requires minimal gear and is rapidly employed. However if the climber is unable or unwilling to unload the rope system then it is impossible to implement. The carabiner doesn’t have to be a locker as it is not direct life support to the climber. If the rope were to jump out of the redirect, then the rope would return to the plaquette mode from whence it came; keeping the climber safe.

PROS

  • Easy to Control Speed “Butter Smooth” Lower
  • Minimal Gear Required
  • Quickly Implemented
  • Ability to Move Away From Masterpoint
  • Ability to Maintain Visibility

CONS

  • Requires Climber to Unweight the Rope to Implement
  • Requires Climber to Unweight the Rope to Transition to Top Managed Belay

Plaquette Style Device (ATC GUIDE/Reverso): Counter Balance Tube with Redirected Break Strand

Notice the 3rd Hand applied. and Notice that the BREAK STRAND (NOT load strand) is redirected through a Locking Carabiner in the Master point.

I can’t confirm my opinion but, it is my suspicion that this was created by someone that absolutely loves lowering the Tube style device redirected break strand. I believe this because in this Tool’s function that is essentially what is happening. Step 1 apply 3rd hand. Step 2 girth hitch sling/cord through belay carabiner. Step 3 redirect sling/cord through a carabiner in the shelf. Step 4 redirect break strand through Locking Carabiner. Step 5 double check steps 1-4 are completed. Step 6 clip sling/cord to belay loop and weight sling until the Plaquette is defeated. Step 7 allow slack to travel through 3rd hand and device in a controlled manner until climber has been lowered the desired distance. This is pictured with a 4′ sewn dyneema runner to allow for all the elements to make it in the picture however it is possible to rig with a long cordalette or multiple sewn runners girth hitched together allowing the guide to be much further away from the master point giving better visibility. DON’T FORGET YOUR 3rd HAND+DOUBLE CHECK EVERYTHING BEFORE DEFEATING THE PLAQUETTE MODE!

PROS

  • Easy to Control Speed “Butter Smooth” Lower
  • Ability to Move Away From Masterpoint
  • Ability to Maintain Visibility

CONS

  • Complicated (A Lot Of Steps)
  • Takes Long Time to Set up
  • Requires a Lot of Gear
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Becoming a Certified Guide…

By Michelle Marco, April 9, 2018

My introduction into the Rock Guiding world has been quite a unique experience. I was lucky enough to find a mentor when I had very few years of climbing experience under my belt. I started with Stoneman in August 2016, and at that time, I had only been outdoor rock climbing for barely over a year. I knew the moment I tied in my first time outside, that I had just made a life commitment. I was “tying the knot” both literally and figuratively with rock climbing at that moment, because I fell so deeply in love that day, I knew there was no turning back. From that point on, I spent the vast majority of my free time learning what I could about outdoor climbing and practicing my skills at a local indoor gym. About a year later, I reached out to a local climbing guide to ask “Hey, what’s this guiding thing all about?” We met for coffee, and I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse: a guiding mentorship, where I could learn the ins and outs of what it means to be a Rock Guide. And man… was it a steep learning curve!

There are a lot of skills that a climbing guide needs to know, a lot more than you may even imagine. Learning to efficiently handle ropes, tie knots, place gear, communicate with guests and climbers, perform rescue and safety techniques, and other skills can be quite overwhelming at first. It is a continuous learning process, and many of these things can take years to master. Because there are so many facets to guiding, it is only natural that there is a certification process for Rock Guides. Even guides must go to “school” to hone their craft, and pass tests to prove their aptitude. This past month, I participated in my own certification course through the Professional Climbing Guides Institute (PCGI).

The Single Pitch Guide (SPG) course is 3 days long with a 1-day assessment. I was lucky enough to take my course close to home, in the McDowell Mountains. The first day of the course went over anchor systems, or building the gear at the top of a route to hang a top rope (a top rope is similar to how it appears in the gym, when the belayer is on the ground). The following photo shows a solid anchor for top roping:

The red line is the anchor. It is attached at the top (not in the picture) to two pieces of gear in the rock and there is a giant, super strong knot tied in between the two pieces of gear. The loop underneath this knot is called the master point, and this is where the top rope is hung.

We also reviewed a few effective methods to take over the belay from one guest, and ascend the rope up to the climber in the event that the climber should become frightened or hurt, and need assistance lowering to the ground.

A majority of the information from the first day was review for me, although I did pick up some very handy tricks from my instructor that will help make me more efficient at building anchors. Efficiency is key to be able to set up systems in a timely manner and prevent the other climbers in your party from waiting an unnecessary length of time.

The second day, we returned to the McDowells to review 3-1 and 6-1 hauling systems. A 3-1 or 6-1 hauling system creates a mechanical advantage that allows you to pull 1 lb of force for every 3 (or 6) lbs of force at the other end of the system. So for example, if a climber were to need help through a section of a climb, I could set up at 3-1 system where I would only be pulling 1/3 of their weight, and the system would help me with the other 2/3. That also means that for every 3 feet of rope I pull up, the climber is only going to move 1 foot. The graphic to the left from roperescuetraining.com helps explain how this system looks.

On this day, and the third day, we learned various methods to safely teach climbers how to rappel. These include belayed rappel and load releasable rappel (using the munter-mule combination hitch). This allows the climber to rappel on one strand of the rope while backed-up on a belayed strand, should the climber let go of the brake strand, or get their hair caught in the rappel device. A proper anchor set up with this system is pictured below:

This picture doesn’t do a great job of clearly showing you each piece, nor is the munter-mule tied here, but as you can see, there’s a lot of gear involved and a lot going on at once when multiple ropes are involved.

One other method to safely rappel is to set up a pre-rigged rappel, where the new climber is set up on rappel at the top anchor. The guide then rappels down to the ground, and keeps their hands on the brake strands to protect the climber as they then rappel down to meet the guide. This seems to me to be the most effective and time-efficient way to teach a new climber how to rappel, although there are situations when a belayed rappel would be ideal.

After going over all of these systems, it was time to put them together in various scenarios. For example, in the first scenario…

  1. Guide instructs Guest #1 and #2 on how to lead belay, and backup a belay. Guide lead climbs traditional route (placing trad gear) and builds a traditional anchor.
  2. Guide belays Guest #1 to the top of the route. First guest has trouble, and needs assistance through a section of the route. The guide implements a 3-1 system to help the climber through a few meters of the climb. The guest finishes the route and is safely anchored in at the top of the route.
  3. Guest #2 climbs route to the top with no trouble, but does not want to rappel down. This climber is lowered to the ground.
  4. Guide sets up load-releasable rappel for Guest #1. Guest #1 rappels safely to the ground.
  5. Guide cleans up anchor and joins the guests at the base of the route.

Roleplaying this scenario as the guide (with the instructor and another climber roleplaying as the guests) was very high-stress and high-intensity. There are many steps that go into each of these systems, and it is imperative that they are completed in a safe, accurate, and timely manner. These are the same scenarios used in the assessment. In the assessment, these skills are timed, adding to the intensity.

Because I have had 1.5 year experience as a guide under my belt under my mentor, a lot of these techniques were review for me, although many of these rescue / safety techniques are not something that I have needed to use very often. I felt that this was a great opportunity to be able to really master some of these skills. At times the course felt a bit like information overload, so I can’t imagine how stressful it would be for a climber with little-to-no guiding experience.

In all, I am really satisfied with the material presented in the course. I was able to really hone my skills, learn some new tricks, and become a better, more efficient Rock Climbing Guide. But the road doesn’t stop here! There is a lifetime’s worth of growing as a rock climber, both recreationally and professionally as a guide. There are more skills to learn, and more courses to take, and this is just the beginning of my journey.