The Beginner’s guide to top rope rock climbing

Top rope climbing
Top rope climbing at the gym

A typical top rope climbing session:

Top rope equipment

  • a large diameter (>= 10mm) semi-static rope (or low-stretch rope) is ideal if you plan to do a lot of top rope climbing. If you want a more versatile rope that you can eventually lead climb on, you’ll want a dynamic rope. I started with this dynamic rope and it served me well for years for both top roping and lead climbing. Top roping can be tough on ropes so a larger diameter rope will give you a longer rope life.
  • You’ll see many people at the crag without helmets on, but you’ll never see me connected to a rope without my helmet on. Get a comfortable helmet that you don’t mind wearing and then just put it on when you start your climbing day and don’t worry about it until you’re done climbing. This is an economical helmet that does the job just fine and you can see in all the photos that it’s the one I use. Wearing a helmet is such an easy thing to do that has huge upside and little downside. When you’re climbing, even if the rock isn’t loose and chossy, you don’t want to fall and swing into the rock with an unprotected noggin. Also, when belaying, you owe it to your climbing partner to have a helmet on so when a rock falls on your head you don’t pass out and let go of the rope.
  • Learn why I always wear a helmet when I’m tied to a rope here.
  • You’ll need at least two harnesses to climb. One for the climber and one for the belayer. Harnesses come in many varieties. For top rope climbing, a basic but comfortable modern sport climbing harness will do great. Here’s the one I’ve been using for many years and am very happy with for top rope and sport climbing.
  • Having at least a couple 120cm slings can be handy to help you out in many situations like rigging your safety or belay anchor.
  • I would recommend getting a Petzl Grigri belay device. The Grigri is an assisted braking device that will keep you much safer than a traditional belay device. While you’re learning the ropes of belaying, this will give you an added layer of protection from error. Tons of other options exist, but I’d recommend learning how to use one of these before you worry about other types.
  • Climbing shoes are optional if you’re just getting started, but they can make a huge difference. I picked up several pairs of these La Sportiva Tarantulace shoes in various sizes when they were on sale so I have shoes for people to wear when I invite them out to climb with me.
  • A few locking carabiners like these are a must for setting up anchors and belaying from. I’d start with at least 5 and add from there as you find ones you like. I use HMS biners for belaying and these ones for everything else
  • Having a cordolette of 6 or 7mm nylon cord that’s about 15–20 feet long can come in handy for top rope climbing and is indispensable if you’ll be building any gear anchors with cams or nuts. I usually buy a 30′ length of accessory cord to use for all kinds of things like tying up little tikes when mom and dad are climbing.\
  • this is for the top rope anchor, safety anchor, or bottom belay anchor. Get at least 30 feet and make sure it’s climbing spec.
  • This one is totally optional, but if you get sweaty fingers or hands like me, it will make a big difference.
Keeping this guy safe with a length of cord.

Finding and accessing top rope routes

Setting a safety anchor

Safety anchor rigged at the top of the cliff

Setting a top rope anchor

Principles of anchors

E — Equalization

A — Angle

R — Redundant

NE — No Extension

S — Solid

T — Timely

Types of anchors

Bolts

Top rope anchor bolts with rappel rings

Quad

A quad anchor rigged and ready to go

Draws

Anchor using quckdraws — not a great option if you’re not at the anchor to watch it

Slings

Sling anchor rigged with basket hitches

Single point anchor on a tree or large rock

Basket hitch with an overhand

Basket hitch finished with an overhand knot

Wrap two pull one

Wrap 2 pull 1 with doubled webbing tied around a solid tree

Tensionless hitch

Tensionless hitch preserves the strength of the rope

Multi-point anchor on trees, or other features

Master point position

Incorrect positioning of the master point. The carabiners are not extended over the edge and will be pulled into the rock. The rope will drag.
Better master point positioning. The biners and rope are visible from below and won’t drag on the rock.

Rigging the rope

Protecting the edge

This setup will have serious rope drag issues.
The rope drag can be minimized by using something to protect the rope from the rock.
Better yet, extend the anchor to avoid rope drag entirely.

Setting up to climb

Tying in to the rope

Tying in before I go up the wall

Belaying

Setting up top rope belays

Grigri belay device
Loaded Grigri

Belaying from below

Typical bottom belay for a top rope climb

Belaying from above

PBUS — Pull, Brake, Under, Slide

PBUS motion

Pull

Brake

Under

Slide

  • Little movements are better than big ones. Unless you’re an orangutan with gigantic arms, trying to pull too much slack at once doesn’t work well. Just pull a foot or two at a time.
  • When the climber first starts off the ground or when she exposed to a dangerous fall, keep the belay tight to keep rope stretch low. Do this by sitting into the belay and choking up as tight as you can on the rope.
  • Use an experienced backup belayer who can hold the brake strand while you’re learning this.
  • Always keep an eye on your climber. Anticipate her movements and be ready if she falls.

Belayer rope management

Rope bag protecting the rope from dirt and grit

Top rope physics

Forces in bottom belays

A typical top rope belay from below

Forces in top belays

Rope Stretch

Here I’m sitting into the belay to pre-stretch the rope.

Topping out

Lowering

A climber lowering after a successful climb

Cleaning the anchor

Safety tips

C — Clothing

H — Helmet, Harness, Hands, Hair (that’s a lot of H words!)

E — Environment

C — Connections

K — Knots

  • Learn how to escape a belay
  • Understand and learn hauling and mechanical advantage systems
  • Learn how to lower or assist a stuck climber
  • Add a directional

Additional Resources

Top Rope Skills Objectives

  1. Describe how to properly select, size, put on, and care for
    a harness.
  2. Explain how to select a climbing rope
  3. Demonstrate how to coil, and care for a climbing rope.
  4. Explain when to use and demonstrate how to tie a figure-eight follow through, water knot, overhand on a bight, clove hitch, figure eight on a bight, girth hitch, basket hitch, alpine butterfly, munter hitch, and a double fisherman’s knot.
  5. Demonstrate how to rig and back up a rappel.
  6. Demonstrate how to rappel competently both double and single stranded.
  7. Describe the components of the belay and demonstrate PBUS belaying.
  8. Know how to bottom belay with an ATC and a GriGri.
  9. Know how to top belay with an ATC, GriGri and a Munter
    Hitch.
  10. Know the signals used to communicate in bottom belay and
    top belay situations.
  11. Know what constitutes a good anchor. Understand the concepts
    of vectors, pulleys, multiplication of loads, equalization,
    and extension reduction.
  12. Demonstrate how and why to add a directional to a system
  13. Demonstrate proper multi-point anchors that include
    fixed, and removable anchor points for solid top rope anchors.
  14. Demonstrate basic climbing movement.
  15. Know what equipment to purchase for top roping.
  16. Demonstrate an understanding of the risks encountered in
    top roping and how to mitigate each one.
  17. Know how to select and manage a safe top rope site.
  18. Know how to use a guidebook or beta site.
  19. Understand the YDS rating system.
  20. Be able to identify various rock features.
  21. Understand cliff etiquette.
  22. Understand Leave No Trace Ethics
  23. Demonstrate how to escape a belay
  24. Demonstrate how to use hauling and mechanical advantage systems
  25. Know how to lower or assist a stuck climber
  26. Demonstrate how to add a directional

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Hi, I’m Chris. I started Adventure School to help you get out on more adventures. Follow us and learn the skills you need to get out on your next adventure.

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Chris Allen

Chris Allen

Hi, I’m Chris. I started Adventure School to help you get out on more adventures. Follow us and learn the skills you need to get out on your next adventure.

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