I suck. After 25 years of climbing, I have elevated passionate mediocrity to an art form. I have never even considered climbing the Nose, never led a pitch of ice, and barely pierced the ceiling of 5.12a sport routes. I boulder like a wounded walrus. There is no real excuse for being this terrible. During the past quarter-century, climbing has been an important part of my life. I have climbed as part of my job teaching at a boarding school for much of that time and my wife gives me ample hall passes. My scarecrow-like physique favors climbing; there have been few serious injuries in my life, and no detours to locales with no rock. Still, I’m just not that good.
I have charged through 25 years with unwavering enthusiasm and the misguided belief that enough daydreaming and obsessive guidebook-reading in the bathroom would improve my climbing. My hopes of breaking into the inner circle of climbing bro-dom remained unrealized. Yearly I watched climbers with a fraction of my experience climb harder, longer, tougher routes. A student I had taught to climb fired a 5.13d. Another student climbed the Nose on El Cap and the Supercouloir on Fitz Roy. It was time to stop talkin’ and start chalkin’. The problem was getting up a résumé route without risking my neck.
I worked all my usual tricks for a select classic in Rocky Mountain National Park: stronger partner, sequencing to land the easy pitches, plenty of excuses ready if I failed. However, karma caught up with me. We were three pitches up Spearhead when my lead petered out in a smooth slab with TCUs behind crispy flakes for pro. I noodled up and down searching for a way out. This was the moment when gravity met ego. The problem was that I had taught my partner to climb. Even though he now climbed grades harder than I, I had hoped to retain some of the old master aura. But every time the crystals crumbled under my feet the coward in me counseled retreat. I finally threw in a belay at the end of the crack. As my partner approached I tossed down the words of contrition that generally mark the end of a climbing partnership: “I don’t think I can lead the next pitch. It’s all you.”
At the moment of shame, as I handed off the rack, the unexpected happened. Instead of heaping scorn upon me, my partner smiled.
“It’s all good,” he said. “You’ve got a family, I’ll take this one.” Then he glided across some of the hardest runout climbing I’ve ever seen. That simple exchange shook me out of my self-pity and offered redemption. Getting a tow up the hard pitches was not sleazy; it was a proud act of cunning that required years of experience. It was time to embrace the idea that I was happier on toprope.
I also realized that I was not alone. Rather than being a useless poser, I was actually a member of a unique subset of the climbing community. Now it was time to spread the gospel and say, “Top Ropers Unite!” (TRU for short.)
“What the hell is so great about top-roping?” you ask. After all, almost every one of us initially began climbing on toprope. You can, however, elevate the toproping game to the point where you achieve goals as well as TRU climbing status. The key is stealth. It’s critical to fool other climbers into thinking that you really are a “true” climber, not just a leech. Avoid clanking hexes, long underwear topped with shorts, and tube socks tucked into Fires. Most of my best routes have been done with climbers of far superior abilities, hauling my skinny butt up real routes that I could then namedrop.
My inspiration comes from a few of the patron saints of the TRU crew. The first is Edward Whymper, who achieved lasting fame getting hauled up the Matterhorn by guides who climbed circles around his tweediness. However, his accomplishment was marred by having to pay those guides. The real hero has to be Chongo, who scammed rides up numerous El Cap routes, “hitchhiking” his way to the top. I don’t have the scratch to hire a guide to haul me up climbs I could brag about. I also lack the cajones to live in the dirt and trade canned food for the right to jug fixed lines like Chongo. I am left to rely on wits, flattery and guile.
I present a few tips so that you, too, may get up the climbs of your dreams without too much heavy lifting.
1 RATIO | The key to attaining TRU status is to climb a lot, while also avoiding the dreaded sharp end as much as possible. Lounging in the gym with Auto-Belays is not going to cut it. Get out to the crags and tie in. Just find a way to get on stacks of routes without leading. When really pressed, you must be prepared to lead to avoid sinking to boot-licking subman-ship. Aim for a camouflaging ratio of one route led for every four routes on toprope.
2 MRG | The best possible way to crank out a ton of routes without too much leading is finding a Magnanimous Rope Gun (MRG). The MRG is large-hearted, stoked to climb, and leading about three number grades harder than you. Generally the MRG is so psyched to climb that he or she won’t even notice that you aren’t leading any of the pitches. Alternatively these people may be so kind that they just charge along without pointing out that you haven’t led anything all day. They may even hand you creampuff pitches on worthy routes to keep your self-respect intact. MRGs are hard to find since they tend to be ideal partners for “true” climbers also. If you can’t find an MRG you may resort to a few of the following techniques.
3 THE STALL | Needed for when you are climbing with someone who has mistaken you for a “true” climber and expects you to lead half the pitches. This technique involves taking so long to shoe up at the sport crag that your partner can’t avoid being ready to go first. As you glance up from tightening your laces for the 11th time you note with some surprise that your partner has stacked the rope, racked the draws, tied in and is snorting with impatience at the bottom of the route. “You look ready,” you say mildly. “Why don’t you lead this one?” Your partner shoots away and your first toprope of the day is secure. Now you need to keep the momentum. You need sequencing.
4 THE SEQUENCE | This does not refer to remembering the mind-numbing beta that better climbers recite all day. No, this refers to finessing the flow of the climbing day. Now that your partner has led the first route, you are descending “tired” from the TR lap. Shake your forearms vigorously and mumble, “Nice lead. My forearms are blown right now. Why don’t you start the next one while I rest?” With any luck this sequence can get you through four or five routes before your partner really is blown from doing all the real climbing. When you hit the end of the line and your partner calls your bluff you need ...
5 LOCAL KNOWLEDGE | Even if you aren’t really a local, having the goods from all those hours spent poring over the guidebook will pay dividends here. Casually mention the “classic” 5.8 just around the corner that you could lead. The key is to fire up something easily with a minimum of risk. When you’re finished your partner will probably want to get on something harder. Here the tried-and-true line, “Since I picked the last route, why don’t you lead this one?” often works. If your partner is insistent that you do your share on the sharp end, resort to point 6.
6 EXCUSES | You don’t need the overworked “hung-over” or “too reachy” or “tweaked finger/ jacked shoulder” type of excuses. These are so transparent any self-respecting “true” climber would know you were a total weenie dodging your duty. No, you need the bulletproof excuse, something like, “My kids were up all night vomiting with the flu.” The best excuses not only slip you off the hook, but elicit sympathy from your partner and any nearby onlookers. “Wow, you looked pretty good on that considering you didn’t get any sleep.” When you run out of excuses you may have to actually climb. If this happens, by all means step up and maintain your dignity and cover.
After all these years of walking the line between revealing my TRU gumby status and remaining included by “actual” climbers I have decided to come out of the shadows, though I suggest other TRU climbers keep a low profile to scam rides on the rock. Now if I could just get them to post a website with a TRU scorecard I could finally be a leader in something.
Dave Meyer lives in Carbondale, Colorado, with his wife and two children. He is always searching for the next MRG.