Bolted Rap Anchors for Skiing

| April 5, 2010 | 11 Comments

Establishing rappel anchors on a ski descent is a labor of love and an art form.  On a first descent, you may have no idea what the route will require, so you bring along a selection of nuts, slings, cams & pitons and hope for the best.  Most skiing lines which require a rappel aren’t worth repeating, but occasionally a few of them become classics and see a lot of traffic.  When this happens, the original half-assed anchors are often added to in an attempt to beef them up which eventually leads to the Ski Mountaineering version of a Super Fund site – a pile of unsafe garbage that nobody really wants to clean up.

Before: One manky piton and one manky bolt connected by three manky slings clipped into two carabiners, attached to another manky half sling with a random carabiner which was connected to a weathered piece of accessory cord which was frozen into the snow and unusable. Generally, an unsafe eyesore on a great line.

Bolts are a contentious issue in rock climbing, but when it comes to ski mountaineering rap anchors, I’m in favor of them.  Nuts and pitons work well for a few years, but in an alpine environment where cracks expand and contract with freezing and  thawing, they have a tendency to loosen after a few years.  A case in point would be the original anchors on the NW Couloir of the Pfiefferhorn, which after ten years could be removed my hand.  Bolts can be placed in the optimum location, are incredibly strong, don’t require any additional slings, and are less of an eyesore.  The downside of them is that they require a permanent drilled hole which scars the rock.

A drilled anchor has two components – the bolt and the hanger.  Within the hanger world, there are two main types, those for clipping carabiners into and those designed for rappel anchors.

A Metolius SS Bolt hanger. These are probably the most common type of bolt hangers in the US and are intended to be clipped with a carabiner.

A Metolius Rap Hanger. These have a large, smooth, rope bearing surface and are designed so you can pass the rope directly through them for rappeling.

An anchor set in good rock with a tight hole using a beefy rap hanger and a 2-3″ stainless steel expansion bolt  is good for thousands of pounds.  Placing a sling, rap ring or quick-link on it might seem like a good idea, but these add-ons are often substantially weaker than the bolt and serve no real purpose.

A Rap Hanger being used as it was designed - by passing the rope directly through it.

A common practice, of which I’ve been guilty of myself many times, is to bring a short or scrap piece of rope to rappel with, and if it is too short to double back, leave it tied-off to the rap anchor.  This seems like a good idea as the next party can theoretically use it, but in reality the dangling rope gets buried in the snow and becomes useless, or weakened from exposure.  Once a rope becomes augured in, the pressure it can exert on the anchor from the snowpack slowly creeping downwards is impressive.  If the rope is an old section of 10mm climbing rope, it can put hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of pressure on the anchor.  A good anchor can withstand this, but if the rope is useless and it is stressing the anchor point, it is better to not do it.  I’ve cut buried ropes off of anchors which were under so much tension that they almost exploded when the knife touched them.  In the case of a small tree or dubious anchor, a buried rope causes more damage any than potential good it might do.

After: Stronger, safer and less clutter. A two bolt rap anchor sans slings and garbage.

Considering the aesthetic and safety consequences, burly rap anchors are an excellent addition for popular rapping descents.
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Category: 02 Gear

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (11)

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  1. HM says:

    I have no experience of bolts across the pond but from my experiences in Europe I would not be happy abseiling off a single bolt. You have no redundancy whatsoever. Granted it is going to be safer than before. Any anchor for abseiling around here be it for skiing or climbing will usually consist of two bolts and a chain. If your going to bolt an anchor why not do it properly?

  2. Andrew says:

    Hi HM – You can barely see it, but in the “After” photo there are two bolts – one old and one new.

  3. Chuck says:

    Thanks for cleaning that rap anchor up and adding the new bolt. From the old pic I recognize the old slings from last season. See 2:11 through 3:40 in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lqOqrQzeco …for some use of old ropes. This video also makes use of the DB Helmet cam (another A.M. post)

  4. AJ says:

    The Musical Gallery – A guide to popular rapping descents :-)

  5. Nick says:

    Hey Andrew, the practical problems you cite for fixed pins, nuts etc. in the alpine environment are the same whether it’s a climb or a ski descent. And so the issue of retro-bolting is the same as well. For routes that are solely ski descents, I can see the argument, but what about those climbs which then get skied? Is it acceptable for ski-mountaineers to retro-bolt them on their way down? What happens when someone decides to put bolted rap anchors on a Grade 2 snow climb for a ski descent because of a nasty steep section?

    There are many who cross-over from climbing to skiing and understand the issues associated with retro-bolting. Safe anchors are paramount and we all hate the mess that builds up at bad belays. But many skiers new to ski-mountaineering don’t have a climbing background and may not appreciate all that’s involved. Just like climbing, local ethics need to be taken into account.

    But a good topic to bring up, thanks!

  6. Lil'C says:

    Word, dawg. Rapping is best left to the Mother Fuckin’ D.R.E.

    “Dr. Dre is the name, I’m ahead of my game
    Still, puffing my leafs
    Still fuck with the beats
    Still not loving police!
    Still rock my khakis with a cuff and a crease

  7. Andrew says:

    Hi Nick – those are all really good points and questions. Just like climbing, I think there is the danger of over bolting with ski descents, but perhaps not same amount of terrain or desire. 99% of all ski descents can be done without anchors, unlike climbing, which needs anchors almost everytime you go out, whether or not they are permanent or temporary.

    On the ice climbs that I’ve skied, most of the anchors are already in place from the climbers, so retro bolting or adding new bolts hasn’t been an issue.

    I guess the ideal situation would be to establish a removable rap anchor (pins, nuts, etc) and if the descent falls into obscurity, they’ll either fall out or be removed somewhere along the line. If the route becomes popular and safety becomes an issue, retro bolting might be in order.

    As Bob Athey says “Like all things to do with snow, it depends.”

  8. mc says:

    Didn’t know that any of Snoopy the Dog’s posse was down wit skiing. Word to ya mutha!

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