Safety is your responsibility. This article is not a substitute for qualified in-person training.
WHAT TO BRING
- Climbing shoes
- Belay device(s)
- “Third hand” with small locking carabiner
- Rope(s) and rope bag/tarp
- Anchor-building materials (see below)
- Bags for garbage
- If no toilets are available, “toilet kit” (TP, wipes, trowel, zip-lock bags for used TP and wipes). Wag bag(s) if going to an area where human waste must be packed out.
- Extra clothing, rain jacket, sun hat, sunscreen, etc.
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- First-aid kit
ANCHOR-BUILDING MATERIALS FOR TOP-ROPING
Here is an example of a very complete set of gear that you might bring for a day of top-roping in an area with complex traditional anchors that require extension. The list below should allow you to set up at least two ropes in most climbing areas, though if each anchor needs to be extended far out to reduce rope drag, you might want a 50-foot anchor rope for each climb.
- Single set of cams, BD Camalots #0.4 through #4 or the equivalent, with carabiners.
- Single set of nuts (and/or hexes and/or tricams if desired) and a few carabiners.
- 50-foot (some prefer even longer) length of low-elongation rope. 9 millimeters is a nice diameter. This is commonly referred to as a ‘static’ anchor rope but ‘semi-static’ would be more accurate.
- 20-foot length of 1-inch nylon webbing (great for tying to trees and rocks)
- Cordelette—a 7-millimeters cord about 20 feet in length is fairly standard
- One or two double-length (48-inch) runners
- One or two single-length (24-inch) runners (most likely used for directionals, but could bring quickdraws instead)
- Four small locking carabiners (D or oval)
- Six non-locking oval carabiners
Note on carabiners: I like to use either two lockers or three non-locking ovals at each master point. For top-roping I like steel ovals—they’re heavy, but they don’t get aluminum on your rope and they never wear out!
FLOW OF THE DAY
Read the guidebook, talk to other climbers, consult online resources, and choose your climbing area—ideally a place with at least one easy warm-up route and some more challenging routes nearby. If you are only top-roping—i.e. no one in your group is prepared to lead a climb to set a top-rope—you’ll need to figure out an area where you can access the top of the routes without leading. Ask around; most climbing areas have places that are perfect for this.
Find and follow existing trails—read the guidebook, look for signs and clearly marked paths, and don’t be afraid to ask for directions!
Unlike in an urban environment, it is customary to make eye contact and say hello when encountering other humans in an outdoor recreation area. Most climbers will be friendly and helpful if you slow down and say hi. This makes it easy to ask for directions and route recommendations.
Upon arriving at a climbing area, choose a spot to put your gear. Don’t “explode” your packs all over the place—this tends to result in other climbers’ stuff getting mixed in with yours, and then you or someone else is likely to leave something behind and not realize it until later. Even if you’re the only ones there, keep your stuff contained in case more people arrive.
Don’t sit or put packs on top of vegetation—stick to durable and previously-impacted surfaces.
crag about their plans. Ask climbers on adjacent routes what they intend to do next. A party of two that is spending only 20-30 minutes on each route should be given right-of-way over a group that plans to hang a top-rope and use a route for much longer. If you do set a top-rope and plan to use it for hours, and a party of two comes along, offer to pull your rope to the side if they want to quickly lead and clean the route.
The most dangerous part of top-roping is accessing the top and building the anchor. If you will be near the edge while building your anchor, consider building a higher anchor first, in order to be tethered, on belay or on rappel (with third hand backup and backup knots) while accessing your intended anchor location.
Think about the best way to carry your rope and anchoring gear to the top. Never carry things in your hands while scrambling. If carrying a pack, don’t have things clipped to the outside where they can get snagged and cause you to lose your balance. Organize your gear neatly on your harness or in a pack. Carry your rope in a backpack, over your shoulder in a mountaineer’s coil, or tied over your shoulders as a rope backpack.
Before going to the top, choose landmarks that will help you set your anchor in the correct location. Remember—once you’re up there, you might not be able to see the route!
Consider whether the route(s) that you want to climb will require any directionals, in addition to the anchor. Are there any sections of the route from which a fall would result in a dangerous swing?
Check the top carefully for loose material that could be knocked down onto people below. Move rocks and other hazards back from the edge as needed.
Build a SRENE anchor and hang your rope (shouting “rope” and pausing before tossing the ends). Verify that both ends of the rope have reached the ground. Rappel or walk back to the base.
Top-roping is a great way to introduce beginners to climbing, and it’s very safe if done correctly—but remember, if you are taking beginners climbing, you are in charge of their safety! Managing a top-rope site means staying aware of everything that is happening, at all times. If you need to leave (e.g. to go to the bathroom), you must leave someone knowledgeable in charge, or ask everyone to stop climbing until you return.
Loose rock and dropped objects are among the main hazards while top-roping. One great way to keep your friends safe is to establish a “helmet zone”—point out some landmarks 10 or 15 feet from the wall and ask everyone to have helmets on any time they are closer to the wall than those landmarks (i.e. “if you are closer to the wall than this bush, wear your helmet!”) It’s true that many people don’t wear helmets when top-roping, but a falling object or a swinging fall can result in serious head injury, so wearing a helmet is always a good idea.
Do your pre-climbing warm-ups—arm circles, finger warm-ups, etc. Start slowly and listen to your body!
If you have taught a beginner how to belay, give him/her a backup belay. Assisted-braking belay devices also provide an extra measure of safety—but don’t trust them blindly!
Be especially careful when lowering. Climbing gyms usually have metal cylinders at the tops of climbs, which provide extra friction as the rope wraps around them. Beginning climbers who are accustomed to climbing in gyms will be shocked by how fast you can drop a climber with the rope just running through carabiners at the top.
Consider building ground anchors for smaller belayers so that they are not pulled around by larger climbers.
When going up to move your rope to a new route, or to clean your anchors at the end of the day, remember—if you will be near the edge while building or cleaning your anchor, consider building a higher anchor first, in order to be tethered, on belay or on rappel (with third hand backup and backup knots) while working near the edge.
Be safe, be respectful of other visitors, drink water, wear sunscreen, have fun!
At the end of the day, it’s a good idea to spend at least 10-20 minutes stretching so that you don’t wake up super tight and sore the next day. It will also lengthen your muscles and improve your flexibility.
Each time you get ready to leave an area, “sweep” the area to make sure you’re not forgetting anything. Pick up trash and chunks of chalk, even if they’re not yours. Try to leave this shared space better than you found it! If you “ticked” any holds, please brush away the tick marks so the next climber has the fun of figuring it out for him/herself.