Rappel Anchors: A few thoughts

Rappel Anchors: A few thoughts

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Activities Activities: Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing

Rappel Anchors

Going up results in coming back down and naturally, rappelling is an ever important part of climbing. In addition, many people use rappels that are not involved in technical climbing with some examples being canyoneering, sport rappelling and challenging scrambles. Since rappelling puts your well-being entirely at the mercy of the technical system that you have established, if any point of the system fails you are likely going to be injured (or worse). Rappel accidents occur every year due a wide variety of mostly avoidable scenarios and even experienced climbers fall prey. Lastly, anchor skills for rappells are similar to climb (belay) anchors but do carry a slightly different set of rules. This article is not intended to serve as an instruction manual or a "how to" on rappelling, but is written to give a small analysis of different portions of a rappelling set up. Seek instruction from an experienced climber before attempting anything on your own.

Nice rappel anchor...
Nice rappel anchor...

Commonly Used Anchors

The most crucial portion of any rappel is the anchor. A wide variety of things are used to anchor the rope at the top of a drop, and as long as they are solid/strong they can be used safely to descend. Always analyze what you will be using to anchor the rope, and if you have any doubt about the integrity of your anchor, either back it up yourself or find a different anchor. Here are several of the most common things that people rappel on and a short list of thoughts about them.

Source of Anchor
*Is it alive/healthy?
*Is it big enough to hold your weight?
A big tree is often the best anchor possible.
Make sure it is well-rooted and healthy.
If you think you could push it over, don't hang on it!
*Is it big enough to hold your weight?
*Is there any movement when you shove on it?
*Is it shaped in a way that will hold your anchor onto it?
Giant boulder often make solid anchor but use lots of
cord to be made redundant. Be positive that it will not
move under weight and that the cord cannot slip over
the top of the rock.
*Are they modern gear or old star drives?
*Do they spin? Can they be tightened?
*Are there more than one? If not, is there something else to use as well?
Bolts can be bomber and easy to equalize but keep a sharp
eye for bad bolts. Old bolt can sometimes be pulled by hand and
should not be trusted. Also, trusting a single bolt it usually a bad idea. 
Fixed Gear (or knots)
*Is it current gear or has it been fixed for a long time?
*Was it used in an emergency situation? If so there may be another option.
*Is it properly placed/equalized?
*Is it placed in SOLID rock?
Often times gear is only left in emergency situations or used to backup
existing questionable anchors. Be leery of any fixed gear and look to see
if it is even necessary (aka is there another way?).
Slung Constrictions
*Is the constriction actually solid?
*Is it thick enough to be trustworthy?
*Is there any way that side or portion of the constriction could shift?
Chockstones and constrictions between boulders can make good anchors,
but be absolutely positive that no portion of the rock could shift causing the
anchor to fail.

**Climbers often become complacent when using pre-exisiting anchors. Just because someone else trusted it does not mean that you should.
**Also, always be very critical and thorough when inspecting and trusting pre-existing cord and webbing. It's easy to place new cord.

Photos taken from the internet...
A constriction anchor and a messy one at that.

A good tree anchor. Keep your cord low and watch anything smaller than this.

Decorative webbing (A.K.A. rappel anchor)
A questionable boulder anchor. Would you trust the fractured block? Hopefully the  out-of-screen backup is good. Photo by ElGreco.

Good looking bolts with thick maillons and good rap rings.

Soft Goods aka Webbing/Cord

Once a proper source of an anchor is found, you must create a way to attach the rope to it. Unless the anchor is a set of good bolts with rings (don't rappel directly off a bolt!), climbers will most often tie off or equalize with a length of tubular webbing or accessory cord. Here is a short list of different types of cord and a comparison of breaking strength and a few pros/cons.

Breaking Strength
 Pros Cons
Accessory Cord
6.8KN - 1,529lbs
Very standard material and easy to use.
Strong and holds well against abrasion.
Works for repeated use.
Heavy/bulky to carry.
 9/16" - 14.3mm
9KN - 2,023lbs
Lighter than most cord. Slightly cheaper.
Also very strong material.
Doesn't hold up to abrasion as well as cord.
Knots must be perfectly dressed (flat).
The Rope
 9.5mm≈26KN - 6,000lbs
Strongest option.
Having to sacrifice a portion of your rope would be
an absolutely last resort and would only be resorted to
in a dire situation.
Nothing at all.
(i.e. the rope wrapped around a tree)
Depends on anchor.
Doesn't require any extra gear.
VERY easy to get the rope stuck due to friction.

**Diameters and widths can vary widely and many people use different things. I chose the one that I most often use to be able to include breaking strengths.

Accessory Cord!


It's critical that your cord is tied in a way that it will not come undone under weight. The knot that you use is what holds the system together and should be looked at carefully. Here are a few of the most common knots used in rappelling.

Knot Strength**
Water Knot
Easy to tie. Strong.
Must lay flat and be well dressed for most strength.
Leave at least 2" tails to prevent slipping and knot failure.
Flat Overhand
Easy to tie.
Must lay flat. Knot can roll under heavy loads if not properly dressed.
Best to tie two knots next to each other and leave at least 6" tails.
Accessory Cord
Double Fishermans
Very strong.
Can be tricky to tie correctly without practice.
Nearly impossible to untie if heavily weighted.
Flat Overhand
Easy to tie.
Must lay flat. Knot can roll under heavy loads if not properly dressed.
Best to tie two knots next to each other and leave at least 6" tails.
Flemish Bend
Familiar knot to all climbers.
Very strong.

**Very, very approximate. Taken from info on the internet found HERE and HERE. This is added more for interest than anything. All of these knots will hold your weight if tied correctly.

Water knot in webbing.
Properly dressed, tightened with tails.

Double fisherman
Well-tightened and 2-3 inches of tail.
Flemish Bend with backup knots.

Flat Overhand aka "Euro death knot" with appropriate tails.

SERENE - What does it mean?

S-Strong, E-Equalized, R-Redundant, E-Efficient, NE-Non-extending.
This acronym is often taught to help people remember the foundations of a solid climbing anchor. This is a good saying, and there is no doubt that every aspect mentioned is tremendously important. That said, rappel anchors can slightly alter the framework of SERENE while still creating a strong and safe anchor. Here is a slight detail on each element of the acronym, and ideally you should be able to answer yes to every question listed...

*Are the points of your anchor strong and trustworthy?
*Will the individual parts hold your weight?
*Is it rigged in a way that each portion of the anchor shares the load equally?
*Is it equalized with the anticipated direction of load in mind?
*If any one point fails, is there another portion that will serve as a backup?
*Have you utilized your materials (cord or pro) in a way that is safe, yet has not wasted any?
*If one point fails, will the master-point stay in one place without dropping?
*Have you tied it in a way to facilitate a non-moving masterpoint? (i.e. no "sliding X")

Although it is recommended, climbers often tie off an anchor source (i.e. tree) with a single loop of non-redundant cord. There is a wide variety of reason why climbers do not make their rappel anchors redundant, these reasons include wanting to save cord, trusting pre-existing cord, laziness, or a belief that it is simply not needed for a rappel anchor. Although creating a redundancy will undoubtedly create another level of safety (unless the whole anchor fails), a competent climber can safely descend on a strong, non-redundant anchor. Also, slinging a large boulder takes a lot of cord and it may be unrealistic to create an anchor that is redundant while still being efficient. With an undoubtedly solid anchor like a large tree or giant boulder and a new piece of cord, it is not necessary to equalize it with another anchor source nor is it necessary to make it redundant. Double check every aspect of your anchor (especially the knots that tie your cord together), and if there is any doubt of its integrity, add another loop of cord to cause redundancy or find something else to use to create equalization. If you find yourself creating an anchor out of something that is slightly weaker, attempt to find something to use to equalize and share the load. Once again, seek qualified instruction before attempting this.

Two bolts demonstrating SERENE properties.

If it looks like a mess then it probably is!

As a habit, always treat established anchors as suspect regardless of what they are made out of. Even "bomber" bolts and chain anchors can develop dangerous grooves in them and anything that is a "soft good" (i.e. webbing and cord) is at the mercy of the weather. Fortunately, many anchors as easy to inspect and assess the overall condition. A quick twist of a bolt will show if it spins and a flip of a maillon or carabiner will show any grooves. If you come across an anchor that has so many slings or wads of cord that it is impossible to tell what is going on, you should consider cutting it apart and making a new one. Usually if it looks like a mess, it probably is and the parties before you may not have set up a safe anchor. Just because it has held in the past, doesn't mean that it will hold you. Several accidents happen every year when pre-existing anchors fail and these incidents could easily be avoided by placing your own gear.

Ship Rock
Nasty old bolts and a mess of crap. Looks bad and likely is bad. I wouldn't want to find out.

The Oracle, Fisher Towers
A mess of muddy, old webbing and spinning bolts. Is it equalized? Who knows! We backed it up with the purple cord.

Constriction Anchor
A series of questionable constrictions as an anchor. The one on the right is seemingly solid, but the left two???? Could have been equalized much better.

Ship Rock
Single bolt placed in a small boulder sitting on a sloping ledge. The "backup" cord is simply a mess of crap looped around the same boulder. The boulder vibrated when you pounded your hand against it. Unfortunately, this anchor had no other alternative. Would you trust it?

Pawnee Buttes
This is perfectly equalized, but each piece is garbage. No good.

Mexican Hat
Single piton "anchor" for your belayer. This is a good example of something that would be good to backup.

Yer gonna die!
Ancient single bolt rappel anchor with an old maillon-type iron ring.

Suspect gear? Equalize!
Good thing there are a lot of bad bolts to equalize them all. Still a bad anchor.

This looks good at first, until you see that all 3 pieces are old rusted pins. Hmmm.

The Titan
A nice reminder that bolts don't always equal bomber.

2 new bolts in good rock close enough to equalize with maillons. BOMBER! Nice change of pace from the other junk.

Ring or Not to Ring

Often a member of a climber's rack, rappel rings are considered by many to be a critical portion of a rappel anchor. They serve the purpose of providing a solid point of entry and exit for the rope, and are strong and abrasion resistant. The allow anchors to become safe to use for several parties, as pulling the rope through the cord can burn through it completely, or worse, cause damage invisibly. Rings also offer much less resistance for pulling the rope and help decrease your chance of stuck ropes. That said, safe rappels are possible without using rings and many parties chose to forgo their use. Here is a brief look at popular rappel rings.

Remember, ALWAYS back up a pre-existing anchor that does not have a ring as the previous party's rope pulled will have damaged it.

Type of Ring
Breaking Strength
No ring at all.
Same as cord used.
You don't have to carry anything extra.
One use only as pulling ropes damages cord.
SMC "Descending" Ring 14KN - 3,147lbs
11g - 0.39oz
 $3.10Lightest of the ring options. Cheap.
Makes people uncomfortable as they "look weak".
Repeated use will saw through them.
OP Rap Ring
 20KN - 4,496lbs
34g - 1.2oz
 $4.75Looks burly and is strong.
Can be used more than once.
Heavy and more expensive than other options.
SMC "Rigging" Ring
 32KN - 7,194lbs
26g - 0.92oz
 $4.50Strongest of the ring options and not the heaviest.
Slightly cheaper than the Omega Pacific.
Still heavier than nothing or the thinner ring.
Not every store carries them.
3/8" Maillon aka Quicklink***
 9.7KN - 2,200lbs113g - 4oz$3.23
Can be purchased at all hardware stores.
Comes is different sizes. Can be very durable. Cheap.
Not all maillons are created equal, some are weaker.
Heaviest of the options.
Carabiner (oval wiregate)
23KN - 5,170lbs
45g - 1.59oz
You always have carabiners with you on a climb.
Strong as long as gate stays closed.
A bit more expensive. Gate could open during rappel.
Tape the gate or use two to help prevent this.

**Using REI to get cost. Other retailers often sell these for less money.
***I chose 3/8ths as it's a common size to use. Not all are strong enough to use so make sure to check the ratings stamped on the side of the maillon.

SMS Ring
SMC "Descending" Ring

Omega Pacific Ring
Omega Pacific Ring

SMS Descending Ring
SMC "Rigging" Ring
Quick Link
Two maillons of differing size. Check the strength ratings before using them!!

Don't be complacent!

Always careful inspect rappel anchors no matter how they appear at first glance. Don't assume that all anchors on a popular climb are safe just because lots of people use them. Not all bolts are bomber and not all trees will hold your weight. The price of anchor failure on a rappel can be lethal, so always backup or find an alternate descent instead of trusting a sketchy anchor.

Grooved Carabiners
Watch for grooves!

Damaged top-rope anchor.

SMS Thin Ring Damage
This damages occurs after repeated use or lowering.

From the ASCA

The Sword of Damocles
Bolts are not always bomber.

American Death Triangle
American Death Triangle. This multiplies the force on each piece.
Photo by Exitableboy.

Yikes! Photo by Dow Williams.
The Oracle, Fisher Towers
Replace that cord!

Specialty Anchors (Canyoneering)

Once enough experience is gained, a competent and experienced rappel can make many things work. A rappel anchor only has to be strong enough to hold your weight and specialty "anchors" are often made and used. The place that these most often are seen is canyoneering, where the choice of solid anchors often doesn't exist or a copious amount of webbing may be required. Canyoneers pride themselves on being able to descend on seemingly impossible anchors and also use clever ways to leave nothing behind in a canyon. I will leave these specialty anchors for somebody else to address as the intention of this article is geared toward basic anchors that are commonly seen. Here are a few photos of canyoneering anchors, and as always, don't try this unless trained by an experienced person...

A water-bag retrievable anchor.
From canyoneeringusa.com

Retrievable anchor
Retrievable anchor system in Enigma Canyon. No slings are left behind.
Posted by Scott P. Mike Kelsey photo.

Constructed retrievable
This is a constructed retrievable anchor.
Photo by Scott P

Cairn anchor.
From canyoneeringusa.com

Here is an article on retrievable anchors written by Scott P... https://www.summitpost.org/retreivable-rappel-anchor/172233


Hopefully this serves as a brief reflection on standard rappel anchors and a small look into the fundamental portions of each anchor. Rappelling is often a relaxing portion of a climb but is still a place to keep up your guard. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, always seek instruction from a qualified instructor before attempting anything discussed. I am not an expert and nobody should listen to anything that I say.

Duh! Don't trust this guy!

Climb on!


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-16 of 16
Jeremy Hakes

Jeremy Hakes - Apr 18, 2013 9:19 am - Voted 10/10

Great info

Nice work on this, Brian.

Brian Kalet

Brian Kalet - Apr 18, 2013 1:45 pm - Hasn't voted

Snow Anchors

Great article! Maybe add a section on snow anchors?


jacobsmith - Apr 20, 2013 3:10 am - Voted 10/10

great article

i'm never sure how much i should worry about rap anchors, i know it exerts far less force than a leader fall, but as you mention, the consequences of failure are very high.
i like how all the most insane anchors are in canyoneering photos, those guys get away with the craziest shit.


Fletch - Apr 22, 2013 12:43 pm - Voted 10/10


Thanks Brian - very nicely done...


mfox79 - Apr 22, 2013 6:53 pm - Hasn't voted


A very well written article. thanks for sharing!

Brian C

Brian C - Apr 23, 2013 9:17 pm - Hasn't voted


I added a short table that talks very briefly about what the different parts of the acronym means. I hope that helps!

Sarah Simon

Sarah Simon - Apr 23, 2013 6:14 pm - Voted 10/10


of your "don't do this" photos gave me the chills. I wouldn't even lower my backpack off of some of those anchors, let alone me! -S

Brian C

Brian C - Apr 23, 2013 9:18 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Some

Haha. The sad thing is most of the ones that were my photos I have rappelled off of...

For the record, I still think canyoneers are the real brave peeps out there!


noahs213 - Apr 27, 2013 11:15 pm - Hasn't voted

Some thoughts


Think it would be an important thing to put in there which side of the rope to pull. Alot of the time, even with a single rope rappel, not pulling the right side or not paying attention and letting them get tangled while you pull them, can bring one of the more dangerous situations. Especially in places where you're truly on your own. No room for error. (i.e. in a chimney pulling the left side of the rope instead of the right side in which case the left side is rubbing against the rock could make the difference of a stuck rope or not) Also, ascending a stuck rope is one of the most important skills to know imo. Mainly because it's happened to me (or us on the big Ship)countless times. Through error, it's the little things that can make a huge difference. Thought I would add that. Otherwise, great information! Thanks for putting the work into this.

Adventure Punk

Adventure Punk - May 4, 2013 2:49 pm - Hasn't voted

Great Article

Thanks for the article. Been studying/practicing repelling lately so glad this info was here!


MeanUncleDon - Jul 30, 2014 1:20 pm - Voted 8/10

Awesome Insight

Thanks for your post. I wish more people would take time to post more information like this.

Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Aug 21, 2015 2:50 pm - Hasn't voted

Novice v. Experienced

You can always tell novice climbers from real climbers from their attitude towards rapping.

Novice climbers like rapping, real climbers don't.


MoapaPk - Aug 28, 2015 5:07 pm - Hasn't voted

edk tails

what determines the appropriate length for edk tails? I've done lots of tests, falling on an edk, and the knot simply doesn't move, if dressed correctly. But 6" recommendation is better than the 6' I've seen recommended elsewhere! I actually use > 6", and tie an extra edk. I do that mainly to keep partners from freaking.

Brian C

Brian C - Aug 29, 2015 10:08 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: edk tails

No idea who came up with the set numbers but you're right, some people use crazy long tails. I do the same as you and tie a separate knot against the first one and call it good. Never once have I seen any sign of budging whatsoever.

Eric Sandbo

Eric Sandbo - Aug 31, 2015 8:55 pm - Voted 10/10


Good article that might help some folks live through more climbing seasons. The piton right next to the rock art was a crappy idea, assuming the rock art is old, and not some tourist scraping.
As a reinforcement of your recommendation against trusting old-looking slings, I once returned to Concord Tower, beside Liberty Bell in the North Cascades, and found the chock I'd rapped off 9 years earlier. It's dark purple cord had faded to almost white in the sun. I could split the mantle on the cord just by spreading it with my thumbs.


Jarpup - Sep 7, 2015 12:47 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice work

Helpful stuff. Thank you. Just to second a post above, a section on snow/ice anchors would be nice as well.

Viewing: 1-16 of 16



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