Top rope climbing

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Top rope climbing (or top roping) is a form of rock climbing where the climber is securely attached to a climbing rope that runs through a fixed anchor at the top of the climbing route, and back down to the belayer (or "second") at the base of the climb. A climber who falls will just hang from the rope at the point of the fall, and can then either resume their climb or have the belayer lower them down in a controlled manner to the base of the climb. Climbers on indoor climbing walls can use mechanical auto belay devices to top rope alone.


By definition, top roping can only be done on routes that are less than half the length of a typical climbing rope, which means single-pitch routes that are below 25–30 metres (82–98 ft) in height. Top roping is also used in ice climbing, and the related sports of mixed climbing and dry-tooling, and it is used in combination with auto belay devices in both competition speed climbing and competition ice climbing.

Top roping is one of the relatively safest forms of rock climbing and is used by most beginners and novices of the sport. Before the era of sport climbing, top roping a route for practice (known as headpointing or hangdogging) was considered poor practice; however, it is now a legitimate technique in preparing for a redpoint ascent. Top roping a new route is not considered a first free ascent of a climb, and because of the ability of the belayer to give aid to the climber, it is not strictly free climbing (although some advocate that with slack, it is similar to free climbing), and is thus differentiated from 'normal' lead climbing.


Top-roping Toprope Zeichnung.jpg

In top-roping, the climber and their belayer (or "second"), arrange a fixed anchor at the top of the climb and then hang the rope down from this anchor at the rope's approximate mid-point (i.e. so that two parts of the rope are now hanging down the route). By definition, top-roping is only possible where the climber(s) can get to the top of the route by other means so that they can set up the anchor and pass the rope through it. [1]

Once the top rope is set up, the climber is then tied to one end of the rope (using a figure-eight loop follow-through knot), and the belayer clips their belay device into the other side of the hanging rope. [1] As the climber ascends the route, the belayer "takes in" the "slack" in the rope, so that a climber who falls can simply hang from the rope, unlike a lead climber who falls at least twice the distance to their last point of climbing protection. [1] [2] [3]

In top-roping, the climbing rope needs to be at least twice the length of the climbing route (i.e. this is because the rope goes to the top of the climbing route and back to the climber who is starting at the ground level). As typical climbing ropes are 50–60 metres (160–200 ft) in length, it means that top-roping is only be done on routes that are 25–30 metres (82–98 ft) in height (if not shorter, for safety), which are single-pitch routes. [1] [2] [3]

A belayer who takes in all the slack and maintains a high level of tautness in the rope is giving the climber a source of artificial aid in ascending the route. A physically strong belayer, or a belayer with a light climber (i.e. a child), can physically haul the climber up the route by pulling on the rope. [1] [4] Because of this aid that the belayer can give the climber, top roping is not considered free climbing (and nor is it considered lead climbing), [2] [5] and a top rope ascent cannot be used to claim a first free ascent (FFA) of a new climb. [1] [2] [4] [3]

Use by leading climbers

Before the arrival of sport climbing in the mid-1980s, practicing a traditional climbing route using a top rope before attempting to free climb the route was considered poor practice. [6] A first free ascent where the climber had practiced the route on a top rope (called headpointing or hangdogging), was noted in guidebooks to record its lesser status. [6] [7] When the sport climbing definition of an FFA — the redpoint — became the standard definition in sport climbing and traditional climbing, such distinctions were dropped, and leading climbers now make extensive legimitate use of hangdogging and headpointing top-roping techniques when preparing (or projecting) for redpoint FFAs. [8] [9]

In the 1998 climbing film Hard Grit , leading British traditional climber Johnny Dawes advocated for the use of a top rope — with enough slack in the rope to avoid any implication of aid (i.e. in a fall, the climber would fall a few metres before the rope became taught)— to qualify as a free ascent on extreme traditional climbing routes, however, his view was not adopted by the wider climbing community. [10]


Climber top roping at Cow Lick Crag, Calico Basin, Nevada Starr 071222-0266 Salsola tragus.jpg
Climber top roping at Cow Lick Crag, Calico Basin, Nevada

In common with lead climbing, top roping requires the standard equipment of a harness attached to one end of a dynamic kernmantle rope (usually via a figure-eight knot). The second, who is belaying, will use a standard mechanical belay device that is clipped into the rope (i.e. same as that used in all lead climbing), and which pays out the rope as needed but can grip the rope tightly to catch the climber in the event of a fall. [1] [4]


Top roping requires a fixed anchor at the top of the climb, from which two sides of the rope can be hung back down to the base. Because top roping is either done by novice climbers, or by experienced climbers practicing to attempt a route at the limit of their capabilities, there is a high probability that the anchor will experience a load, and it, therefore, needs to be strong. [11] Some climbing areas place fixed artificial anchors (i.e. iron rings or cement blocks) at the top of routes to assist top rope climbers in creating a strong fixed anchor. [1]

Auto belays

Some indoor climbing walls offer auto belay devices that enable a solo climber to top rope without a belay partner. The auto belay is fixed to the top of the route and the climber clips into a wire that pays out from the device, which enables the device to belay the climber as if they were on a top rope. Top roping with auto belay devices is the format used in competition speed climbing and in the speed elements of competition ice climbing. [12]

Top rope solo climbing

Top rope solo climbing is where a single-length static fixed rope, anchored to the top of the route, is laid along the length of the climb (unlike normal top roping, the two sides of the rope are not needed). The climber then clips-into the fixed rope using at least one progress capture device (PCD) such as a Petzl Micro Traxion or a Camp Lift, that will allow the rope to pay-through as the climber ascends but will grip the rope tightly in the event of a fall. [13]

Big wall climbing can also use top rope solo climbing for the "second" (and other non-lead climbers), to speed up their follow-on ascent, and give the lead climber time to rest and/or look after other tasks (i.e. gear hauling). [14]

Use in ice climbing

Ice climber top-roping Elevator Shaft (Grade WI3-4), Montana The Elevator Shaft (WI3-4) Montana.jpg
Ice climber top-roping Elevator Shaft (Grade WI3-4), Montana

Ice climbing, and the related sports of mixed climbing and dry tooling, also use top-roping techniques to provide greater safety to climbers as an alternative to lead climbing the routes. Lead climbing on ice is considered even more challenging than on rock, as the placement of secure ice screws is a complex task that requires judgment on ice quality and stability. The technique of top roping in ice climbing is identical to that of rock climbing but sometimes the creation of a secure anchor point at the top of the route can be more complex if it involves securing into the ice (e.g. it may require the creation of an Abalakov thread anchor point). [15]

See also

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Traditional climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">First ascent</span> Mountaineering and climbing term

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ice climbing</span> Type of climbing with ice tools

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Solo climbing</span> Style of climbing performed alone

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Multi-pitch climbing</span> Type of climbing

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rope solo climbing</span> Type of solo climbing with protection

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Belay device</span> Mechanical piece of climbing equipment

A belay device is a mechanical piece of climbing equipment used to control a rope during belaying. It is designed to improve belay safety for the climber by allowing the belayer to manage their duties with minimal physical effort. With the right belay device, a small, weak climber can easily arrest the fall of a much heavier partner. Belay devices act as a friction brake, so that when a climber falls with any slack in the rope, the fall is brought to a stop.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Big wall climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Big wall climbing is a form of rock climbing that takes place on long multi-pitch routes that normally require a full day, if not several days, to ascend. In addition, big wall routes are typically sustained and exposed, where the climbers remain suspended from the rock face, even sleeping hanging from the face, with limited options to sit down or escape unless they abseil back down the whole route. It is therefore a physically and mentally demanding form of climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Auto belay</span> Mechanical belay device

An auto belay is a mechanical device used for belaying in indoor climbing walls, in both training and competition climbing formats. The device enables a climber to ascend indoor routes on a top rope but without the need for a human belaying partner. The device, which is permanently mounted in a fixed position at the top of the route, winds up a tape or steel wire to which the ascending climber is attached. When the ascending climber sits back, or falls, the auto belay automatically brakes and smoothly lowers the climber to the ground.


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Further reading