When you toprope, you climb with the rope strung through overhead anchors. Toproping is an excellent way to learn how to climb because it frees you from hassling with gear, removes the fear of falling and allows you to concentrate on simply climbing.
People often take a complacent attitude toward toproping, however. After all, what could possibly happen to you with the rope secured overhead? Well, those anchors you slapped in can pull. The rope or anchor slings can slice over a sharp edge. You can tie a knot wrong. You can mix up your signals with your belayer who thinks you are calling for slack when you really want the rope pulled taut. The list of catastrophes goes on. Prevent those scenarios by treating toprope anchors with the same tender care and attention you lavish on belay and rappel anchors and heed the following advice.
Getting to the Anchor
To set a toprope, you will either lead up to the top of the climb (a common situation at sport crags) or hike to the top of the cliff. If you lead to the top of the climb, there will likely be a two-bolt anchor you can equalize for a toprope. If you hike up, you’ll probably be equalizing trees, natural gear or a combination of both. If you hike up, take care not to stray near the edge where you might trip over tree roots, slip on pine needles or just stumble over your feet. When you arrive near the toproping area, inspect your anchor options. As you creep close to the cliff’s edge, tether yourself to a large tree or anchor, using a second rope brought for this purpose. Attach yourself to this tether rope with a Grigri, or, lacking that, a standard belay device, and self-belay to the edge. Be sure to tie a figure-eight loop knot in the end of the tether rope so you can’t slide off the end. When you reach the anchor position, lock off your self-belay by tying a figure-eight loop in the rope just behind your device, on the brake-hand side.
Rigging a Gear Anchor
Besides the rope you will use as the toprope itself, you will need a long (up to 80 feet) length of heavy-duty webbing or 9 to 10mm static cord for building an equalized two-point anchor with a back-up anchor, and at least four locking carabiners for the anchors and toprope anchor point. You’ll also need pro for any natural anchor placements.
Place at least three bomber anchors, oriented so they are secure against the anticipated downward loading. Never toprope off a single piece. Once the anchors are set, follow these steps:
Take one end of the static cord and tie a figure-eight loop. Clip this to your highest anchor.
Run the static cord so it reaches just past the cliff edge to the climb’s apex, and tie another figure-eight loop here, so the entire knot hangs over the edge.
About a foot from this knot, tie another figure-eight loop in the other side of the cord. Tying two figure-eight loops adds redundancy to the system, increasing its safety.
Run the remaining length of the static cord up to your second anchor. Tie a clove hitch in this cord and clip it to your second anchor.
Adjust the clove hitch so both anchors will hold an equal load. To safeguard against the clove hitch slipping, tie a figure-eight loop just beyond the clove hitch.
Use slings to include the third anchor into either anchor. Adjust the slings (or use a cordelette) so the third anchor equalizes off the placement it is backing up.
Go back to the cliff edge, and clip two locking carabiners through both figure-eight loops.
Clip the midpoint of the actual toproping rope through both locking carabiners, and lock them down. Yell “rope,” and toss off the climbing rope.
Check to make sure that the toprope will run smoothly, without abrading or binding against the cliff edge. Hike back down, leaving your safety tether attached to the anchor; you’ll need it when you return to disassemble the toprope station.
Rigging a Bolted Anchor
Typically, toprope stations with fixed bolts are at sport crags, and you lead up to them. When you arrive at the anchor, clip yourself to each bolt using two slings girth hitched to your harness belay loop (clip one sling to each bolt).
Sometimes, you can hike to the top of the crag and access the fixed station from there. In this case, follow the steps just outlined to belay yourself to the fixed anchors.
Regardless of how you get to the fixed anchor, once you are there and safely clipped in, the system and steps for rigging the toprope are the same.
Clip a quickdraw or runner to each bolt.
Clip a locking carabiner on the bottom (rope clipping) end of each draw or runner.
Clip the toprope, which will also be the rope you led with, through the locking carabiners, and lock them.
Now, if you hiked to the anchors, clip the midpoint of the toprope through both locking carabiners, lock the carabiners, yell “rope” and toss the rope down. Self-belay until you are clear of the cliff edge and hike down.
If you led to the anchor, have your belayer reel slack out of the rope so he has your weight. Take tension on the rope, unclip your tether slings, and have your belayer lower you.
A few pointers: When you rig the toprope through the anchors, avoid running the toprope directly through fixed rings, cold shuts, fixed carabiners or lap links on the anchor. Stringing the rope through fixed gear makes cleaning the system easy (when you’re finished, you simply pull the rope), but the sawing action of a toprope will quickly wear out the hardware. By running the rope through your own carabiners you prolong the life of the fixed equipment and help prevent future accidents.
As you lower off the anchor, strategically unclip some of the protection to reduce rope drag. Do, however, leave enough pieces clipped to keep the rope tracking properly along the line of ascent.
TOPROPE BELAY SCHOOL
Make sure everyone in any toproping group knows how to belay. Watch to make sure no one ever takes the brake hand off the rope. Inexperienced belayers should practice belaying before they ever actually do it, by holding and lowering a climber who’s just a few feet above the ground. If a belayer is shaky, have a backup belayer who feeds rope off the stack and provides extra grip on the brake-hand side of the rope.
Use the buddy system to confirm that the climber is properly tied into the rope and the belay is secure before the climber leaves the ground. You can do this in four verbal steps:
“Am I on belay?” Climber checks that the rope is threaded through belay device correctly, that the locking carabiner is locked, and that the belayer’s harness is doubled back.
“You’re on belay.” Belayer double-checks his system and confirms that it’s good.
“Climbing.” Climber double checks his system and confirms it’s good.
“Climb on.” Belayer checks that the climber is correctly tied into rope and that his harness is doubled back.
Knot the Free End
Tying a figure-eight loop in the free end of the rope isn’t strictly necessary when you are toproping short (much less than half a ropelength) pitches, but it’s a good habit to get into every time. A figure-eight loop will protect you from being lowered off the end of the rope where the lowering distance is greater than the length of your rope. If you use a rope bag, always stack the rope with the ends knotted.
Anchor the belayer
This is a good idea if the belayer is lighter than the climber or the belay area is steep and rocky. Trees make great anchors. Have the belayer tie into the free end of the rope, girth-hitch a tree with a sling, put a locking carabiner on the sling, tie a figure-eight loop in the belayer’s rope, and clip it (use a locker) to the sling.
Pre-stretch the Rope
Dynamic climbing ropes stretch almost eight percent under a static load. That means if 100 feet of rope is out (in a toprope on a 50-foot climb), and the climber falls at the start of the climb, he could hit the ground from eight feet up. To take some of this stretch out of the rope, once the climber is tied in, have the belayer pull the rope taut, then have the climber sag onto the rope while the belayer continues to pull in slack. On overhanging or diagonaling routes, you’ll want to climb on the side of the rope that is clipped through the lead or “directional,” protection. The protection will help prevent you from swinging out and away from the cliff if you fall. On vertical routes where the rope runs straight, climb on the “free” side of the rope, the side that is not clipped through the protection, because it’s less of a hassle.
CLEANING THE ANCHOR
At the end of the toprope session you’ll need to retrieve your equipment. If you can’t reach the anchor from the top of the cliff, you’ll need to toprope the pitch and hang on the anchor while you clean it. This is a simple procedure, but it is easy to screw up. Don’t become a statistic. Double-check each new system before you commit to it. Never go off belay. Communicate clearly with your belayer. And follow these steps to clean an anchor.
Clip into both bolts again, using two separate short slings girth-hitched to your harness belay/rappel loop. Hang from the slings and unweight the rope.
Ask for slack from the belayer and pull several feet of rope up through the anchor toward you. Tie a figure-eight loop in the rope and clip it to the belay/rappel loop on your harness with a locking carabiner. (This step keeps you on belay while you untie the rope and also prevents you from dropping the rope.) Make sure your belayer keeps you on belay.
With your weight on the slings clipped to the anchor, untie the rope at your tie-in point, thread the rope end through the fixed lowering hardware (rings, chains, lap links, cold shuts etc), and tie back into the end of the rope, tying the rope through your harness exactly as you did when you were on the ground. Never lower directly through bolt hangers—they can shred your rope.
Check your system: Is the rope threaded through the fixed equipment? Is it tied into your harness correctly?
Unclip and untie your figure-eight backup.
Ask your belayer to take in the slack. If possible, he should suck up enough rope to hold your weight. This way you can confirm your system is holding before you unclip your tether slings from the anchor.
Double check that the rope is threaded through the fixed equipment and correctly tied into your harness.
Yell, “Got me?” to confirm that you are on belay.
When and only when you hear confirmation from your belayer that you are still on belay, unclip the tether slings, and clean the rest of your equipment from the anchor. Your belayer can now lower you to the ground.
Thanks to AMGA guides John Bicknell and Michael Silitch for their assistance.