Most people are introduced to rock climbing through top rope climbing, either in an indoor climbing gym or climbing outdoors. Top Roping is also usually what people envision when they think of climbing, with a climber ascending a rock, tied into a safety rope stretching above them.
Top Rope Climbing or Top Roping is safer than all other forms of climbing when proper technique is used. With a good belay and a solid set of anchors, very few accidents happen to climbers who are top roping. Climbers need to be attentive on the belay, and very careful when setting up anchors.
While top rope climbing is safer than other styles of climbing, accidents still happen occasionally. Much of this has to do with novice and/or complacent climbers. Here are some tips about top rope climbing and how to stay safe.
What Does Top Rope Mean in Climbing?
With regular sport climbing or traditional (trad) climbing, the first climber brings the rope up the wall with him or herself, securing it to the wall with either permanent or removable gear. A fall above a bolt or piece of gear means the climbers falls twice the distance from the piece, plus rope stretch and belayer reaction time.
Top rope climbing, on the other hand, is where the rope is already secured to an anchor or set of anchors at the top of the wall. The rope goes up to the top, through the anchors, and back down to the belayer. This way the belayer can keep the rope taut as the climber goes upwards and can lower them easily to the ground when they finish.
How Does Top Rope Climbing Work?
There are two main types of Top Rope Climbing, where the first climber leads the route and then sets the rope and the anchor so the next climbers can top rope, or where the climbers can approach the anchors from the top of the cliff and set them without having to climb. Which method people use really depends on the specific route and crag.
Some areas, especially those that consist of free-standing walls or long canyon walls need to be lead. It can be pretty much impossible for climbers to get up to the anchors without actually climbing the rock. Many other areas have a simple walk around so that climbers can reach the top without having to climb.
Top Rope Anchors
Anchors at the top of a route consist of either bolted-in steel hardware of various configurations (shuts, mussy hooks, or traditional bolt hangers and chains with quick links or rappel rings on the bottom) or they are more natural with tubular climbing webbing wrapped around a tree or rock with quick links or rappel rings on the ends. For the difference and advantages between rap rings and quick links, read my article What are Rappel Rings Used For?
Climbers make a big deal about redundancy. Anchors should always have two connection points to the wall so that in the (unlikely) event a fall breaks either a piece of gear or the rock or tree it is anchored to the other anchor point holds firm. Most permanent anchors have two sets of chains next to each other for this reason, and temporary or natural anchors should also be rigged this way.
Anchors need to equalize the load, meaning that the weight doesn’t more heavily rest on just one of the connection points. You can equalize the load on a set of anchors by slinging two connection points with a loop of rope or webbing and tying an overhand knot with both strands in the middle. This creates two loops around the anchor point and two loops for metal quick links so that any point on either side could fail without causing an accident.
When doing top rope climbing, it’s encouraged to add your own hardware (locking carabiners, quick links, or quick draws) to the fixed anchors and climb/lower through those instead of the permanent gear.
In popular areas especially, the sediment found on ropes slowly saws through the anchors on the wall so it’s best to wear out your own gear instead. There’s a reason climbing gyms utilize a big thick metal bar as an anchor at the top of routes instead of traditional quick links!
Who Does Top Rope Climbing?
While Top Rope Climbing generally has a reputation as being for beginners, but that isn’t the only time it is useful. The advantage for beginners is that they do not need to risk taking falls when they are leading above their protection.
Additionally, many beginners are still working to overcome their fear of heights so having a taut rope between them and the top helps them feel more secure. In a climbing gym setting, top rope climbing requires less knowledge and experience than leading so it is much more prevalent, and you can always top rope in a gym without needing to invest in your own rope.
Top Rope Climbing is also very beneficial and common for more advanced climbers. They can rig a top rope in order to practice difficult sections over and over again without taking lots of dangerous falls that can compromise a rope’s integrity. For more information on dynamic climbing ropes, read Katherine’s article What is Climbing Rope Made Out of?
Top Roping is also beneficial to do an easier stress-free route as a rest. Setting a top rope allows climbers to attempt routes that are normally above their highest grade. For example, a lead climber who usually maxes out at a 5.11a can set a top rope on a 5.11c and try out some of the moves and get a feel for it without risking leaving gear behind on the wall. A belayer can leave some extra slack in the rope so that the top rope climber feels like he or she is leading.
Common Top Rope Accidents and Injuries
The vast majority of serious top rope accidents happen while setting up the anchors from falls due to miscommunications concerning lowering or rappelling back down. Less severe accidents include short falls that result in twisted or broken ankles and hand and finger injuries. Some of these accidents can be mitigated through best practices, but some risks are inherent in rock climbing.
Errors and Mistakes
Whether due to inexperience, laziness, forgetfulness, or fatigue, sometimes climbers make mistakes. This can happen on the ground or anywhere along the wall. This can be a moment of distraction for the belayer or a moment of fatigue for a climber preparing an anchor.
The number of risks and failure modes decreases with top rope climbing, but the stakes are just as high. It’s important to always pay attention, and rehearse what is going to happen before committing.
Double check each knot and tie-in point. Another common, and often fatal accident is when the person setting up the anchor slips on the edge and falls.
Depending on the height of the climb, the weather conditions, and the number of other climbers in the vicinity, communication can be difficult. Accidents happen semi-frequently when the belayer assumes the climber will rappel down, and the climber expects to be lowered.
Additionally, accidents can happen when a climber on a nearby route calls out to be lowered and a belayer cannot distinguish between the voices above.
Most non-climbers can’t believe that people would trust their lives to a thin rope or small metal carabiner, but the idea of gear failure is largely a myth. Accidents happen when people make mistakes, which is why it is so important to practice clear communication with your belayer and double check every knot and setup before committing to it.
Are Climbing Anchors Safe?
Anchors, consisting of steel, aluminum, and sometimes tubular webbing components, are a crucial part of the climbing equation. Anchors should always have two points of contact as a matter of redundancy in the event that a single piece of the system were to fail.
Climbing anchors are usually drilled into the rock, but can also be slung around boulders or trees. The gear is strong enough to hold up many climbers over and over again, as long as the material is in good condition and rigged correctly.
It’s important to be cognizant of the forces at play. The anchor doesn’t just need to withstand the weight of a single climber, but also the counter weight of the belayer. Additionally, a study by Rock & Ice found that even just 4 feet (1.3m) of slack in a rope can lead to double the force on an anchor. Keep that in mind when evaluating anchor materials, especially trees and boulders near the top of a cliff.
For more information on setting up a safe climbing anchor, read our article: How to Tie a Rappel Anchor or check out this guide from the American Alpine Club. pulley approximately doubles weight on rope/anchor
Do Climbing Ropes Fail?
Climbing ropes are tested, rated, and certified for a certain number of catastrophic falls- usually around 5. Long falls and sudden stops can damage the core of a rope. As explained above, top roping doesn’t (or shouldn’t) involve long falls.
Climbing ropes do wear out over time as they pick up sand and dirt and you will see the wear on the sheath. Climbing gyms closely track rope age and wear to ensure safety.
The only time ropes can really fail when top rope climbing is if a rock were to fall and somehow sever it. The odds of it happening are very slight, but it is possible.
Other Climbing Gear Safety
Harnesses, carabiners, and other climbing gear are all designed to withstand forces that a falling climber is physically unable to generate. Safety gear does wear out over time though, with or without use, so you need to learn how to inspect it and retire it when appropriate.
How to Make Top Rope Climbing Safer
Here are seven tips that should be used to make top rope climbing safer:
- Exercise caution when walking around to the top of the cliff to set up an anchor and use a personal anchor system to secure yourself to the wall while setting it all up
- Be careful not to kick or pull rocks down on anyone who may be at the bottom of the wall
- Prevent injuries with assisted braking devices that can help catch the rope if a belayer isn’t paying attention
- Determine whether the climber will lower or rappel ahead of time
- Clarify communication signals ahead of time
- Inspect equipment prior to each use, noting regular wear and tear as well as any more significant damage
- Always wear a helmet
Is Top Rope Climbing Sport Climbing? Top Rope is a separate type of climbing from sport climbing or trad climbing. Sport climbing usually refers to lead climbing a route with bolts, and trad is leading a route without fixed protection. Climbing top rope is a safer option because falls are reduced.
Is Top Rope Climbing Easier Than Bouldering? There are various grades of difficulty for rock climbing routes and bouldering problems. In general, bouldering requires more grip strength because problems are often overhung. Top Rope requires more sustained endurance because routes are longer, but you can take a break as needed. Routes usually are vertical instead of overhung because of how the rope lies.