The Beginner’s guide to top rope rock climbing

Top rope climbing
Top rope climbing at the gym

A typical top rope climbing session:

Here’s a story of a typical day top rope climbing at the crag:

Top rope equipment

It will cost you about $300 to get all the gear you need to start top rope climbing. Here’s the basic gear you’ll need:

  • Learn why I always wear a helmet when I’m tied to a rope here.
Keeping this guy safe with a length of cord.

Finding and accessing top rope routes

I remember when I was first venturing into the world of outdoor climbing. I’d read about various crags online and only find sport and trad climbing routes. I struggled to find good info on top rope climbing routes for a while until I found Mountain Project. Mountain Project is an awesome resource for finding top rope climbing routes because it lets you filter everything else out.

Setting a safety anchor

Once you find the top of your route, a best practice is to rig a safety anchor. This isn’t your climbing anchor, it’s just a quick anchor to keep you from tumbling over the edge of the cliff while you rig your climbing anchor.

Safety anchor rigged at the top of the cliff

Setting a top rope anchor

Top rope climbing anchors seem simple enough, but if you’re transitioning from gym to rock, learning top rope climbing anchors correctly is paramount to staying safe and being confident in your climbing.

Principles of anchors

Basic principles of anchor building apply to top rope anchors as well as any other climbing anchors. Many beginners learn to build climbing anchors using acronyms such as SERENE or EARNEST. These acronyms can be helpful as you’re learning, but don’t rely on them alone. I learned using EARNEST, but I use it as more of a guide than a rule. The important thing is to understand why each element is important so you can use them appropriately. You have to know the rules before you can break them, right?

E — Equalization

Ensure each anchor point is being weighted as equally as possible.

A — Angle

The wider the angles, the more load you’re putting on each anchor point

R — Redundant

Ensure no single failed point will result in you plummeting to your death. Have at least two points that need to fail before you fall.

NE — No Extension

If something fails, be sure the anchor won’t get a sudden shock load from a big extension in the system.

S — Solid

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that 6 sub-optimal anchor points equal one good anchor. Ensure each anchor point is strong, secure, and stable.

T — Timely

You don’t have time to waste when you’re up on the cliff building anchors. Practice at home and get fast at an efficient method that doesn’t take all day to set up.

Types of anchors

Bolts

Many top rope crags and sport climbing crags have bolts set at the top of each route.

Top rope anchor bolts with rappel rings

Quad

My preferred top rope anchor method is with a pre-tied quad. Just clip your quad in, clip the rope to the quad, lock your biners, toss the rope, and you’re ready to go.

A quad anchor rigged and ready to go

Draws

If you carry quickdraws, another fast and easy way to rig an anchor is to clip a draw to each bolt or chain link and then clip the rope through the free biner of each draw. Ensure the biner gates are facing out and in opposite directions.

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

Slings

If you’ve got two slings on your rack, make a quick anchor by clipping one to each bolt and tie them together in the direction of pull. This gives you a redundant masterpoint to clip two lockers into — opposite and opposed.

Sling anchor rigged with basket hitches

Single point anchor on a tree or large rock

Sometimes a top rope route won’t have fixed bolts on it and you’ll have to set up your own anchor. If you have multiple trees or rocks to anchor to, use them for redundancy, but sometimes you only have one point to hang everything on.

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

The tensionless hitch is great because it maintains 100% of the strength of the rope and doesn’t load any knots. To set it up tie a figure eight on a bight in the end of a static rope. Wrap the tied end of the rope around a tree several times to create enough friction so the rope won’t slip. Secure it by clipping a biner through the figure eight and around the load strand of the rope.

Tensionless hitch preserves the strength of the rope

Multi-point anchor on trees, or other features

If you’ve got multiple features to tie to, use them to create more redundancy. I don’t like to tie into two weak trees and pretend I’m safe because together they would equal one strong tree. Find solid anchors to start with and back them up with redundant strong anchors where possible.

Master point position

When setting your anchor, be sure to position your master point correctly to reduce rope drag and ensure your carabiners are safe from breaking or opening. This means the master point will need to hang over the cliff edge so the biners don’t get loaded sideways on the rock and so the rope goes as straight down the route as possible. Sometimes this is tough on angled routes or where there’s an overhang in the middle of a route. In those cases, you may unavoidably end up with spots where the rope drags against the rock.

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

Once you get the master point dialed, you can rig your rope. Use two locking carabiners set opposite and opposed. Two biners provide more surface for the rope to move across which reduces the wear and friction on the rope. Clip the rope into the two biners in roughly the middle of the rope and toss each side down to the ground yelling “Rope” and looking for anyone in the way before each toss.

Protecting the edge

Carpet, fire hose, garden hose, towels, backpacks, rope bags, wood, newspaper, floor mats, shoes. These are all items I’ve seen used to protect the rope from running over sharp rocks at the edge of the cliff.

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

Now that you’ve got a safe and solid anchor rigged, it’s time to head back down to the base of the cliff to tie in and get climbing.

Tying in to the rope

To tie into the sharp end of the rope, the most common knot is a retraced figure eight. For top rope climbing, there’s really no reason to tie any other knot, but there are several other knots you can learn as you progress to other types of climbing.

Tying in before I go up the wall

Belaying

Belaying just means backing someone up. In top rope climbing, two different belay positions can be used. One is to belay from the top of the route and belay your partner from above. The other is to belay pulley-style from the ground, with the rope running in an inverted V up to the anchor and back down to the climber. This slingshot style is the more popular top rope belay method because both partners start and finish on the ground.

Setting up top rope belays

There are two ways to set up belays for top rope climbing — from below and from above. Belaying from below is the most common method so we’ll start there.

Grigri belay device
Loaded Grigri

Belaying from below

Belaying from below is pretty straight forward. This is what you do at the climbing gym. Run the rope through the anchor so both ends touch the ground. The climber ties into one end of the rope and the belayer connects the belay device to the other side and pulls rope down through the belay device to keep it taught throughout the climb.

Typical bottom belay for a top rope climb

Belaying from above

Belaying from above accomplishes the same thing, but the belayer starts on top of the cliff and the climber starts climbing from the bottom. The rope runs straight up from the climber to the belayer and the anchor at the top. The belayer pulls rope up from below to keep the system tight as the climber ascends.

PBUS — Pull, Brake, Under, Slide

The first rule of belaying is to never take your brake hand off the rope! The PBUS method of pull, brake, under, slide, is the generally accepted way to accomplish this safely.

PBUS motion

Pull

Pull down on the climber’s rope with your guide hand — your non-dominant hand and the one on the opposite side as the brake. At the same time, pull out with the brake hand to get the slack through the belay device.

Brake

Put the brake strand down in front of you in the brake position. This bend puts friction on the rope at the belay device that will hold the rope tight.

Under

Move your guide hand to the brake strand under your brake hand and firmly grasp the rope.

Slide

With your guide hand now firmly on the brake strand, slide your brake hand up the brake strand without removing it from the rope. Slide until it’s a few inches from the belay device. Now move your guide hand back to the climber’s strand for another pull.

  • 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

The belayer is responsible for keeping the rope tight but for taking care of the rope below the belay device. As you pull slack you’ll end up with a big pile of rope that will need to be quickly deployed when the climber lowers.

Rope bag protecting the rope from dirt and grit

Top rope physics

Understanding the physics at play while rock climbing goes a long way to keeping you safe. A few key forces are worth exploring.

Forces in bottom belays

The first is the pulley forces applied on the top rope anchor when using the bottom belay or slingshot belay.

A typical top rope belay from below

Forces in top belays

Another scenario to be aware of is when you’re belaying from the top. This isn’t as common, but some routes overhanging a river or other obstacle or routes longer than half your rope require a top belay. In a top belay setup, the friction tends to be less and the rope is a bit harder to manage due to different angles in the rope at the belay station. Especially when lowering, the belayer needs to ensure the weight of the climber is hanging on the anchor, and not the belayer or you’ll be fighting to hold on to your stance at the top of the route while your climber falls or lowers.

Rope Stretch

Many climbers use dynamic ropes to top rope climb on. This is fine but you need to be aware of the risks involved so you can mitigate them.

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

Topping out

Once the climber gets to the top of the route, she’s got to get down. I’ve seen people pull themselves up over the edge and walk off, but the easiest and most common way to get back down once you get up is to have the belayer lower you on the rope.

Lowering

When lowering from a top rope route, once the climber reaches the top, they can yell to the belayer to take in the slack. Once the rope is tight, the climber will sit back into her harness and put her feet on the wall in front of her about shoulder-width apart.

A climber lowering after a successful climb

Cleaning the anchor

After everyone’s had their turns climbing a route, you’ll need to clean the anchor. This can be done in a number of ways.

Safety tips

When you get out on real rock, the responsibility to keep you and your group safe falls squarely on your shoulders. Following all the instructions in this article will go a long way in helping you with that, but here are a few more pointers that can help keep you climbing confidently and safely.

C — Clothing

Ensure your clothing isn’t loose and liable to get stuck in a belay device or get in your way while you’re climbing

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

Check your helmet to ensure it’s on and fastened. Ensure your harness is on correctly including doubled back if it needs to be. Check your hands. If you’re belaying, do you want gloves on? Check your hair. Long hair can get stuck in a belay device. Tie it back.

E — Environment

Check the environment for things like excess noise, wind, sun exposure, weather threats, animals, other climbing groups, etc. I like to take a final inventory of my gear on the ground to ensure it’s not going to roll or blow away while I’m tied into a belay and can’t do anything about it. I also use this step to ensure the climber has any gear they may need on their harness for the anchor or to set up a top belay.

C — Connections

Check all your carabiners or other connections to ensure they’re locked, not cross loaded, or otherwise at risk of not working properly.

K — Knots

Check all the knots in the system including the tie in knot.

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

Additional Resources

So we’ve covered a lot in this article, but it’s by no means a replacement for more hands-on instruction. Also, much of the content here describes “what to do”, but doesn’t provide all the “how to do it” details.

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.