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Long story short, I want to abseil down from my balcony. The guard rail of my balcony feels sturdy, is bolted into multiple different bricks and uses big screws which makes me think that they will also be long. However since I didn't build the balcony myself nor is its originally intended use case abseiling, I would like to back up the anchor. Since there is not a stronger point to anchor from, I am thinking about backing it up with a human anchor or even solely rely on a human anchor.

What is the proper way to do a human anchor and is it possible to use an human anchor as a backup? Or a human anchor with the guard rail as backup.

Possible complication: I only have one rope.

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    Are you serious? I don't say "Don't do something like this at all" but I certainly will say "Don't do something like this based on information from strangers on the internet". Aside from that, you probably don't have enough imagination. There should be plenty of options on a balcony for more backup points, without involving an additional human. Lets say any rigid object wider than the balcony door placed behind the balcony door (Argghh, I am starting to be that stranger giving advice on something like this). – imsodin Mar 30 '17 at 9:29
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    What on earth is a human anchor?! Humans are not anchors, they drop things, get rope burn, let go and are not rated for this kind of thing, seriously, don't do this, it's dangerous and stupid. – user2766 Mar 30 '17 at 9:40
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    please don't do that. – njzk2 Mar 30 '17 at 13:50
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    @Liam human anchors are totally a thing When used correctly, a bomber stance can replace a traditional anchor, or you can back up a marginal anchor with a solid stance – StrongBad Mar 30 '17 at 21:01
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    @Liam has a great answer to this question, but I'll add one thing. Brick is extremely brittle and prone to breaking/cracking. I've leaned against railings which are bolted into brick and had them crumble/break, let alone using them as an anchor point. Unless you built this railing yourself and trust your life in its construction, I wouldn't use it in any part of an anchor system. Having done some rope work at home, I'd use a roof stud as an anchor, long before I'd use anything with the word "rail" in it. – bhilgert Mar 30 '17 at 21:21
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Once when I was in the Marine Corps I did rappel for fun off of a guard rail in the central staircase of my three story barracks building. I did not have any problem with the guard rail as an anchor, but when my command found out about my "incident" they were not happy.... This is for good reason because:

The guard rail on your balcony is not designed for this type of load so all bets are off in regards to if it will support your body weight.

This means that it really is impossible to tell if your particular balcony railing will support your weight or not. The bricks probably have voids in the middle which will reduce their strength, plus they might have been loose in the past so the holes were filled with some grout/mortar that might not be more structural than a bubble gum filler. The railing might be hollow tubing that is rotten with rust from the inside so it looks ok but it will break with any serious weight/pressure. Keep in mind too that bricks are strongest in relation to compressive loads (stacking things on top), they aren't amazingly strong at preventing a bolt from being ripped out. The list goes on, and on when you have something that wasn't really designed for the way it is being used.


A quick word on a human as a backup anchor.

This is probably a bad idea. Most balconies that suddenly have guard rails missing are a smooth runway to the abyss. If the guard rail pops off then there will likely be nothing preventing your human anchor from being dragged off the balcony. In all reality you should think of a "human" anchor as a counter weight in the form of a sack of beans. Would a sack of beans be dragged to its untimely demise if things go wrong? If the answer is yes then more than likely your friend would suffer the same fate or simply drop you to save their life.


Something to consider too if you're renting I can't imagine your land lord would condone this behavior. If you do it, and everything goes fine with the rappel, you still might face consequences.


If this is a true emergency then I'd build an improvised rappel anchor

Everything I said is true, and valid, but if the choice is stay and die, jump and probably die, or improvise an anchor to rappel and maybe not die, I'd improvise an anchor and rappel. In the military, which is more cavalier about human life than civilian organizations, one option that was given is to use your rifle, or even a M16 magazine braced against the corner of a window to rappel down to the ground in an emergency. The concept is window corners are strong and your weight will probably keep the magazine/rifle in place while you descend. I've known people who have done it in training and it worked. If you don't have a rifle handy then a 18 inch 2x4 could work in a pinch. If your balcony is the emergency exit you're determined to use then look for something big and sturdy that you could use to completely block the exit door with overlap on both sides (if the door is sliding glass make sure the item is wider than the full width of the glass). For example if you had a one piece table that can span the width, slide it across the exit and use that as your anchor. Alternately if you have a big one piece couch that would span the gap then push it in front of the exit and anchor off that.

As you can see I'm not advocating using the railing even in these situations. There is virtually always going to be an option for a better anchor even in dire circumstances. You might be lucky like I was when I did what you are considering, but I personally wouldn't do it and certainly wouldn't recommend you do it.

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TL;DR: don't do this; it's incredibly dangerous and stupid.


I want to abseil down from my balcony. The guard rail of my balcony feels sturdy, is bolted into multiple different bricks and uses big screws which makes me think that they will also be long

So what you're saying is you want to attach yourself to a rope to something and you have virtually no idea how strong it is? Just repeat that to yourself a couple of times.

All abseils should (ideally) have a backup. You don't have a backup and you're on questionable anchors to start with.

What is the proper way to do a human anchor?

There is no proper way. You should never ever abseil off a rope simply attached to a person, backup or otherwise. What if the bolts fail? Then the person gets shock loaded with you falling, and the balcony? What are the chances of them holding that? The mostly likely result of this, is you and the other person going over the edge.

Possible complication: I only have one rope.

o_O This leads me to think that a) you have no idea what you're talking about b) you plan on abseiling an incredibly long way....given what I've said above, don't!

The guide was holding the rope and somewhere along the rope he connected an ATC

... and was the guide connected to anything? Because I'd wager he was, probably multiple things using properly rated gear.


One last point: when rock climbing, rappelling off is almost always the most dangerous thing you do. It is not something to be taken lightly. Most serious accidents happen in rock climbing due to a mistake made at this point. If you don't know exactly what you're doing, don't do it. Reading things off the internet is not a substitute for having experience in this.

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    I must confess I did abseil down from a railing backed up by a pillar. I am not saying it's a good idea but I thought the risk is ok. Later an engineer told me using a pillar was stupid, as they are constructed to resist force along its axis, not perpendicular to it, so maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all - however I still lived to tell of it :D Also I wouldn't be so sure about the mentioned canyoneering incidence. There is a lot of stuff going on in that sector that the general mountaineer winces when he just hears of it (not saying the whincing is justified, I am not a canyoneer).. – imsodin Mar 30 '17 at 9:55
  • A rope is mostly used in Canyoning to prevent you getting swept down stream too. Not over a sheer drop (typically). So it's like using a rope to get up a slope, typically not fatal if it fails. Rappelling is (obviously) a different prospect altogether. – user2766 Mar 30 '17 at 9:58
  • "So what your saying is you want to attach yourself to a rope to something you have virtually no idea how strong it is?" The exact reason why I'm asking. When you are lead climbing and the hook should be fine, but looks a bit iffy, you still use it but try to find a (extra) way to back it up. The "one rope" part is, because I only have one rope. I can imagine that there are constructions that involve multiple ropes. Just giving the possible restrictions beforehand. My plan is to use a single rope and put both strands through my ATC. – Henk Mar 30 '17 at 10:37
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    Hangers are designed to be abseiled off, balconies aren't – user2766 Mar 30 '17 at 11:13
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    @imsodin yes I've rappelled off of bridges before and used a guard rail as an anchor. When I climbed back up to recover my rope I was frightened to see how quickly my rope was being abraded by the concrete. I also lowered off the top of a sport climb without a fully tied figure-8 knot once. Divine intervention or incredible luck are the only explanation for why I didn't fall into the rocks and surf that day in Okinawa. I'm proof that sometimes people can do stupid stuff and live, but that doesn't detract one iota from any of Liam's points. – Erik Mar 30 '17 at 20:31
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Sicherungsmann

Before they invented the first climbing aids, human anchors were all alpinists had for protection.


This sounds exactly like something I would do. In fact, I've done it. When I was a kid I would rappel off of anything with anything, including the handrail of my grandparents deck, and I've actually been at the end of a rope with nothing but my father as an anchor while descending lower sloping alpine cliffs.

Sure it's not safe, but people don't go rock climbing or rappelling because it's safe, they do it because it's fun. There's always inherent risk with descending ropes. The challenge is to mitigate those risks by assessing the danger, and taking proper precautions.

First, you need to confirm the rail will hold your weight, easiest way to do this is to stand on it. If it'll hold your weight (which it will, because that's the whole intent of handrails...), then it's strong enough to hang off with a rope. Better yet, get you and the friend you're putting on backup to stand on the rail, because if you're putting the rope over it, then it's not holding just your weight, it's holding his too. A little bounce test will confirm it'll hold.

Second, tie your anchor as close to the bolts as you can. Shear strength is much greater than pull-out strength, if you tie your rope in the middle of the rail, then it's much like tying a two point anchor with too great an angle, you're actually going to put more force on the anchors than you would by hanging off only one side. If it were to buckle in the middle, it could pull the screws out. I think I recommend a clove hitch, because it won't slip to the side, otherwise I'd probably recommend a bowline on a bight backed up with a carabiner for ease and convenience of tying, the tail of the rope behind your knot is going to go back to your human anchor.

Third, tie in your sicherungsmann (belayer/security man). You could get him to hold you on a locked off hip belay, but since he's just acting as deadman anchor, you could just have him tie the other end of the rope around his middle and get him in a bomber stance, keeping the direction of pull in mind; if he's sitting on the ground with his feet propped up against a door frame or whatever and you take a fall, then the force is going to want to pull his butt off the ground because the railing will be higher than he is, and if he goes over then you're both in trouble. He needs to get his feet high enough so that if the rope goes tight, he's going to be properly braced for it.


That's my answer to your question as you've scoped it, now I'm going to offer some suggestions:

  1. A better anchor would be to use your couch as a deadman anchor. Your couch is not going to go through your patio door if you turn it sideways and tie your rope around the middle.

  2. Don't put the rope over the hand rail, run it under the bottom of the railing over the edge of the floor of your patio, the floor is stronger, and it removes any possible extension from your system. It does make getting over the rail and onto your rope a little trickier; you have to reach over the rail and grab the rope from the other side, tie into it, climb over the rail, squat down, take the slack through your descender, and then lower yourself over the edge, but it's more secure.

  3. Be cautious on your first few goes. Don't dive over the rail, don't go fast, and don't try to stop fast. Slowing yourself down puts more force on the rope than just body weight. When you get close enough to the ground that a fall won't hurt, then you can fart around and swing and bounce on the rope to see how strong it is.

As long as you cover all your angles, you can have fun doing silly stuff with minimal gear.

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    Standing on the rail will not test if it's strong enough. You'll be testing that you can apply a vertical force, but trusting your life to its ability to support a horizontal force. Kind of like standing on a brick vs kicking it. Somewhat better: tie off your ropes, hang them to the ground, then from the ground climb up the rope and sway around a bit. That way you're testing the same direction of force as you'll be risking your life to. – Karen Apr 4 '17 at 16:13
  • @Karen Not sure where you're coming from, why would you be exerting a horizontal force on the rail while on a rope? Also, patio rails are designed to prevent people from walking through them horizontally, pretty sure they're stronger on the horizontal than the vertical if they're anchored properly. Hence why the railings are typically wider than they are tall. – ShemSeger Apr 4 '17 at 17:31
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    @ShemSeger: Haha "Sure it's not safe, but people don't go rock climbing or rappelling because it's safe, they do it because it's fun." Totally agree! – WedaPashi Apr 5 '17 at 10:08
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Anchors to rappel from have to be able to withstand some dynamic load -- the difference between just hanging from this point and falling or even just sliding before the rope tighten. So when considering whether an anchor will hold (if no bolted anchor is available), e.g. when considering the base of a tree, you should consider whether you could more or less reliably hang a minivan (something very heavy) from this anchor. Then back it up.

So a human and also a balcony guard rail are completely insufficient.

Also your question makes me wonder what type of rope you are using. Rappelling from static rope is completely OK (e.g. caving), but will transfer significantly more load to the anchor when slipping, falling etc.

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I would argue that this is not as stupid as it sounds, although you will want to get someone with good experience to help you. In your situation, I would avoid the railing completely as you just do not know much about the material and its strength. Instead I would either do a counter balanced rappel or rely on an unanchored belay.

The Needles in South Dakota is/was famous for its spires with no anchors at the top. This Climbing article mentions the basic technique, one person raps off one side while the other person raps off the other side. If there are two balconies on opposite sides of the building you could easily do this. Safer would be to run the rope through the entire building, down the other side and treat it something like an odd toprope with the anchor person standing on the ground.

If you cannot get the rope through the whole building in a fairly straight line, go with a unanchored belay. The use of unanchored belays based solely on a secure stance are fairly common in mountaineering situations. They are mentioned by the AAI, Sierra Club and Climbing Magazine.

In rock climbing, a good seated stance with the rope running between two boulders and your legs straddling the gap is very secure. Even if you get pulled out of your stance, your body becomes a giant chock stone. The ideal setup would be something like running a long piece of webbing through the apartment, out and under the front door (which should be closed), and connected directly to the "anchor" person. The anchor person could sit outside the front door with their feet braced on either side. If you really want you can equalize the anchor between two people. The anchors just sit there wearing a harness with the rappel rope tied into them. They are not belaying. The further the rope/webbing runs along the ground the more friction and less pull on the anchor person.

In terms of forces, the situation is similar to lowering someone from the top directly off your harness. The actual forces will depend on how smooth the lowering/rappelling is. While ideally you would be backed up to an anchor, most people can lower a climber without being pulled from a good stance.

  • Dont. And in your comment above you quote out of context. The next sentence would be: "It’s best in lower-angled and broken terrain, where a fall by the second is easily recovered, and there is little danger of a pendulum swing" -- exactly NOT a rapell situation from a balcony – knitti Mar 30 '17 at 22:09
  • @knitti the pendulum swing is because you don't want to lose your stance and in a rappel situation is not a concern. Easily recovered is a matter of perspective as they will be down on the ground in a matter of seconds. This is really no different then lowering someone from the top directly off your harness. Not particularly comfortable, but not a disaster. – StrongBad Mar 30 '17 at 22:15
  • and what do you do if the person who is to be lowered slips while climbing over the guard rail? Insta-FAIL. Lowering somebody from your body is ONLY acceptable if there's no other option. In this case NOT doing it is the only option. – knitti Mar 31 '17 at 8:23

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