"It’s important to stay safe whilst getting off"
Yippee, you are at the top! Now what? You will find climbing anchors that are designed to be top roped on, lowered off, or just a pit stop before going up the next pitch. Anchors need to be redundant so they will have at least 2 bolts, but the configurations of hangers, chain, quicklinks, rings and lower offs are endless. Let’s look at some common types.
Top Access Top Rope Anchors
Routes that offer climbers the luxury of walking to the top of the climb to set up and take down the rope allow route developers to install simple hardware, aka just the bolts. Most TR anchors set ups are two bolt/hanger combos with the assumption that a climber will use their own gear to set up an adequate anchor. Some things to consider:
TR anchors should balance security of the climber while avoiding creating excess rope drag being too far from the edge. If you place an anchor several feet away from the edge it will be much safer to build an anchor but it will be harder to create one where the master point extends over the cliff edge, making rope drag a concern. In some areas there is a boulder or tree that climbers can tether to to safely access the anchors. Another strategy is to place the bolts farther back from the edge with a large space between them. While this requires climbers to bring longer anchor building materials to create an equalized anchor over the edge it allows them to practice better edge security. Keep in mind in most multi-pitch and big wall anchors there will only be two bolts since the follower will be able to remove the gear the leader installed.
Lower Off Anchors
We all know it is important to still be able to get off even when high. Of course you can still set up top ropes on routes that you cannot walk up to or more importantly walk off, but they require a bit more permanent hardware if route developers don’t expect climbers to leave their own gear to get safely back to the ground. Whether used for multi pitch rappel routes or single pitch climbs, and the ethics of the area, there will be several different lower off anchors.
Developing enjoyable safe routes with the proper bolts takes a lot of skill and experience. Fortunately, lower off hardware added to bolts is much simpler allowing any climbers with basic understanding of hand tools to be part of the future route maintenance. The major consideration in lower off hardware is rope wear. Smart developers make sure that the components that will see wear are easy to replace. Ideally climbers who will top rope all day on a route will use their own gear at the anchor, instead of wearing out the permanent hardware, but its good to anticipate high use on the permanent hardware.
Titanium has become popular as photos of corroded bolts float around the internet. However, keep in mind that stainless steel holds up twice as long with ropes running over it. So if you set up a popular lower off anchor, unless you are in Thailand or right next to the ocean, steel chains, rings and hooks will handle the rope abrasion better. Just be sure to use stainless chain, rings and hooks, not only for corrosion resistance, but also so it doesn’t stain the rock with rust or zinc streaks like zinc coated anchors. See the Book of Metal for more about this.
Open vs Closed Systems
Closed systems require the rope to be untied from the climber and threaded through the lower off or rappel. Examples include chain, rings and quicklinks. This is very common on multi-pitch rappels since you have the ends of the rope handy and accessible. This excellent article and video from the AAC shows the method to reduce the risk of closed system anchors when installing after single pitch climbing.
Open system lower offs allow the climber to put the rope into the permanent hardware without untying. Examples include carabiners, mussy hooks and rams horns.
While both systems have their place, open system lower offs are gaining popularity in single pitch sport and trad climbing areas that see a lot of traffic.
Horizontal vs Offset
Horizontally aligned bolts are a very common set up. Two bolts more or less at equal height a least a hand width apart. If traditional hangers are used at least two links are needed to orient the rope parallel to the wall, not pinched into the wall. Some manufacturers make horizontal hangers to address this issue. Keep in mind that if the two rap rings or quick links are spaced out and don’t come to a single point, it can create twisting in the ropes.
Offset anchors place all the force on one bolt with a second bolt backing up the first in case of failure. The force can be on the top bolt and backed up by the bottom or the main system on the bottom with the top one attached with a chain of some sort. Even though a single climbing bolt can easily withstand up to 20 times the forces generated in a rappel or top roping session, redundancy is very important at anchors. Not having to place bolts on a horizontal plane allows the route developer much more freedom in bolt placement, especially critical in rock of variable quality. Sometimes they are connected to each other and sometimes they are not
Quick links: Used either as a connector or the primary lowering point. Ensure that you use quality quicklinks as not all metals are created equal and threads, the part that holds it together, can affect the strength of the connection. Rolled threads are stronger than cut threads. Stainless quick links will resist corrosion longer. Size matters! A quality ⅜” or 8mm link is the minimum that is strong enough and won’t compromise your soft goods with a narrow bend radius. Pro Tip: Make sure the gate of the quicklink is wide enough to fit over your other hardware. Guess how we learned why that was important!
Rings: Several climbing manufactures offer welded rings specifically designed for lower off/rappel anchors. They are often sold attached to hangers but can be purchased separately and connected with a quicklink. Unlike quicklinks, rings are able to spin and spread wear from the rope on more than two points. Avoid the rolled aluminum variety as they are much weaker and more susceptible to wear.
Chains: Chains are used to extend the master points to minimize rope drag or connect other anchor components, even though the last link of chain is common to lower off from. Chains can also provide extra clip in points for building anchors and hauling. While harder to source and more expensive, long link chain has more area to clip carabiners. Stainless is preferred but since chain is usually easy to replace other types of steel are often used. Not ideal as these often leave streaks of rust and can discolor the rock as the coating dissolves. Down sides of chain include: high visual impact, wasteful as you cut chain to length and heavy to carry when developing. Designing anchors to avoid chain saves a lot of headache.
Captive Eye Carabiners: Having fixed gear bootied sucks, use captive eye carabiners to keep “would be gear thiefs” honest, you know who you are! There are several carabiners that you can add a pin to secure them. It is also possible to buy carabiners with an integral eye that require a quick link to add them to your anchor set up and quicklinks can be glued shut.
Mussy Hooks: These hooks allow you to drop your rope directly into them. Slip hooks for towing are commonly used, these generally have really poor gates that fall off or get sharp. Climbtech offers a great option with a climbing style wire gate. They can be attached to bolts with just a quicklink.
Fixe Super Shut: These hooks have an eye so it can be bolted in directly and carabiner like gate. They are limited to a ⅜” bolt and there is not a substantial amount of material so it can be worn quickly if on a popular route
Ram Horn or Pig Tail: These are simple and bomber and can be twisted onto most hangers or glue ins so there are many ways this can be part of a combo. They can be used as a single master point and changed quite easily when worn or even installed as a pair for a redundant beautiful bend for your rope.
Monster Hook: This fancy glue in is designed to be a single point lower off. Two of these could be placed next to each other but would cause rope twists. Probably better as an offset anchor. Difficult to change if worn, and confusing to anyone who hasn’t seen them before, but very clever!
A note on Bonier's fancy anchor hangers. I love the idea of a hanger a rope can be threaded into as a highliner, but for a climbing anchor 2 need to be placed in order to be redundant and if you put them side by side you might get some gnarly rope twist action going on! And if they wear down there are sharp edges against the ropes.
Remember to never mix metals!
DIY Anchor Set Ups
V SETUPS can have anything at the bottom. Rings are very common, rams horns can be threaded through and Mussy hooks can be installed on there.
Best use: extending master points over edges or equalizing to a single point (equalizing bolts for lower offs is not critical)
Cons: expensive, high visual impact, must bring variety of lengths for install, chain links won’t hold up to wear if lowered off on frequently, most inefficient anchor design
Open French - Rope weights top ram horn and is backed up by the lower carabiner.
Best Use: single pitch climbs, easy to maintain, one of the safest and most redundant vertical open systems
Cons: uncommon, aligning backup carabiner can be tricky so it doesn’t have risk of opening
French - Rope weights top quicklink, or ring, and is threaded through the lower one to back it up. One of the safest and most redundant closed systems.
Best Use: multi pitch rappels, single pitch climbs
Cons: closed systems require more effort to install your rope
Vertically Backed Up Ramshorn
Best Use: single pitch climbs, simple and open
Cons: master point is only partially redundant, chain has higher visual impact
Best Use: High use lower offs
Cons: Mussy hooks are not stainless, other than climbtech’s hooks most Mussys have bad gates
Chains to Ramhorn
Best Use: retro fitting existing horizontally placed bolts
Cons: highest visual impact, master point is not redundant
This chart below comes from Matthew Markell and is also a good comparison between some anchor types.