Top-Roping on Fixed Anchors

Top-roping outside on fixed anchors is most like climbing in the gym, and is the logical first step outdoors. In sport-climbing areas, the typical top-rope belay setup is identical to that so well known indoors: the slingshot belay. Two other situations that this section addresses are how to rig a slingshot top-rope on routes that are longer than half a rope length, and how to safely top-rope mildly overhanging or traversing routes.

The Slingshot Belay

In the slingshot belay, whether indoors or outdoors, the rope runs from the belayer up through the top anchor and back down to the climber. There is one very important difference outdoors, however: The rope is not fixed in place; it must be put through the anchor by the climbers themselves. How safely this can be accomplished for a given climb depends on the terrain and the skill and judgment of the climbers. A short cliff with a flat, easily accessible top and bolts just below the edge is a simple and relatively safe place to set up a toprope.

But climbing areas this straightforward are not typical. At many crags, the top may be uneven or sloping, requiring a belay just to get to the anchors. Another cliff may not have access to the top belay at all and will require that routes be led before a top-rope can be established (for example, short routes at the base of tall cliffs). And still another cliff may not have fixed anchors at all and the climbers will have to build their own.

The characteristics of a cliff are usually clearly described in a guidebook. Read the description prior to heading out to make sure that you will he able to set up your climbs safely. If you do not feel technically capable of arranging the belays safely, go somewhere else that day. Then practice the necessary techniques on the ground before your next trip. Assuming that the area where you intend to go is ideal, what decisions need to be made?

1. Consult the guidebook and choose a route within your abilities. Outdoor routes do not have the name and grade labeled at the base or have the holds conveniently marked with colored tape.

2. Determine how you are going to approach the anchor safely. It may be reasonably safe to walk to the top, reach over, and clip the anchor, but do not hesitate to belay the operation from above if there is any chance of slipping.

3. Be certain that you have clipped the anchor as safely as possible. Assuming a standard two-bolt anchor, the options are as follows: (a) clip an oval or D carabiner to each bolt, then clip a 24inch-long 9/7e-inch or larger sling into both bolts, and clip a pair of reversed and opposed carabiners (locking preferred) into the sling using the “magic X” technique-and keep in mind that if the sling fails, the system fails; or (b) clip a quickdraw to each bolt so that the two lower carabiners are oriented reversed and opposed, then clip the rope in at its center point. These two techniques establish the “master point” of the anchor-the point where everything comes together.

Do not thread the rope through the anchor bolts, even if they are designed for lowering or if a chain and ring are available; it can be hard to pull the rope and causes unnecessary wear. If the master point created is higher than the lowering ring on the fixed anchor, then you can run the rope through the fixed anchor to hack up the slings. This will also preposition the rope for lowering or rappelling later.

4. After the anchor is clipped, the rope threaded, and the carabiners properly aligned and locked, confirm that both rope ends reach the ground and then have someone on the ground test-pull the rope to make sure it runs smoothly.

5. When you get back down to the base of the route, determine whether the belayer should be anchored-you might decide this is a good idea if the belayer is much lighter than the climber; the terrain at the bottom is uneven, unstable, sloping, or on a ledge; or the belayer cannot belay from directly below the climb.

6. Decide what happens when the climber reaches the anchor: lower off immediately, clip in, clean the anchor, and then lower off; or clip in, clean the anchor, and rappel off. It is critical for the belayer and climber to agree about this. An unfortunate number of accidents occur when the belayer and climber fail to communicate clearly.

You can see by these six points that just the simple act of setting up a slingshot belay at a straightforward location outdoors requires far more thought and judgment than using the identical setup indoors. And it is not over yet.

What do you do when the last climber is finished? How do you remove the anchor? In the simplest situations, the best thing to do is lower the last climber down, then walk hack up to the top and safely take the anchor apart.

If that option is difficult or dangerous for any reason, the last climber up can clean the anchor and either he lowered or rappel from the anchor bolts. To be done safely, both techniques require clear communication between the climber and the belayer, and a specific series of steps must be performed.

On Routes longer Than Half A Rope Length

On routes that are longer than half a rope length (when a 165-foot rope is not long enough to set up a slingshot belay), how do you rig a slingshot top-rope? The simplest option may be to belay from above, allowing the climber to be belayed safely with one rope. However, the climb can still be belayed using the slingshot system if two ropes are tied together. This will present a problem, though, if the climb is less than 165 feet long. If the route is 100 feet long and the climber ties in to one end of the rope, the rope will run from the climber, up through the anchor, back down

65 feet to the knot, and then another 35 feet to the belayer. When the climber gets 35 feet off the ground, the knot will reach the belayer and he or she will have to make a technical and potentially dangerous knot pass. The belayer will also have to repeat the knot pass when lowering the climber down after the ascent.

But do not panic; there is a wonderfully simple solution. The climber ties in at the point where the rope reaches the ground, instead of at the end of the rope. The climber will trail 65 feet of rope behind him or her (no big deal, just like leading), will reach the anchor at the same time that the knot reaches the belayer, and can be easily lowered back down-no knot pass is necessary. The trick is how to tie in. Bulky knots such as a retraced figure eight can be used, as well as opposed and reversed carabiners, but a simpler solution is this:

1. Position the knot on the belayer’s side of the top anchor.

2. At the point where the climber’s side of the rope reaches the ground, tie a figure eight on a bight, creating at least a 3-foot loop.

3. Pass the loop through the harness, over the climber’s head, down around his or her feet, and hack up to the harness again-creating a girth hitch directly on the harness.

4. Feed all the slack through the figure eight and tighten up the girth hitch to create a snug, secure connection.

5. To help the trailed section of rope stay out of the climber’s way, tie an overhand loop about 18 feet down the free end and clip it to the hack of the climber’s harness-this keeps the free end hanging behind the climber and out of the way of his or her feet.

This may sound complicated, but it is not. It is a quick, straightforward, and very secure midrope tie-in with little hulk.

On Overhanging Or Traversing Routes

Setting up a top-rope on an overhanging or traversing route may require special preparations before the route can be safely climbed.

If the route is only gently overhanging or the traversing is minimal, the basic slingshot setup may be suitable. But on more steeply overhanging routes or when the climb traverses more than a few feet, the basic setup will probably not be safe enough. A climber falling on these routes will swing, and this could cause him or her to strike the ground, trees, or other features on the cliff, or it may simply put the climber so far off route that he or she cannot resume climbing.

Routes in which this swinging hazard exists must be equipped differently. To minimize the swing potential, the climbing rope must run through some or all of the climb’s protection bolts.

This requires that the climber setting up the top anchor be lowered down the route and held in close to the rock by the belayer so he or she can clip the bolts.

Assuming that the anchor can be established easily and safely from above, here are the steps to equip the route:

1. The climber at the anchor clips the top anchor, establishes the master point, puts the rope through it, and ties in.

2. Meanwhile, the belayer clips the climbing rope through a quickdraw on the first protection bolt; this will help the climber stay as close to the route as possible during the lowering (if the bolt cannot be reached safely by bouldering up a move or two, consider climbing a different route).

3. The belayer takes all the slack out of the system and puts the climber on belay.

4. The climber makes the transition over the edge (this can be very awkward), weights the anchor, and then clips a quickdraw to his or her harness and the belay rope below the anchor.

5. The belayer slowly lowers the climber down the route; because the climber is clipped to the rope between the protection bolt nearest the ground and the top anchor, he or she will be held in close to the rock and in line with the route-called tramming.

6. Each time a protection bolt is reached, the belayer locks off the belay and holds the climber.

7. The climber clips each bolt with a quickdraw and then clips the quickdraw to the rope just above where the quickdraw connected to his or her harness is clipped to the rope.

When the climber reaches the ground, the rope should run from the belayer up through the quickdraws to the anchor and then back down to the climber. The first climber climbs up to the first bolt, unclips his or her rope from the quickdraw, and then clips the belay rope into the quickdraw-this helps the climber stay close to the rock as he or she is lowered later.

As the climber continues up the route, he or she unclips the rope from each quickdraw as he or she comes to it. When the climber gets to the anchor, he or she clips a quickdraw between the harness and the rope below the anchor and is lowered down, re-equipping the route for the next climber. The last climber to do the route cleans the quickdraws as he or she ascends, and then the anchor.

Pulling The Rope: What if it gets Stuck?

When the climbing is over, how do you get the rope down? If the top rope has been set up from above, it is simple: Go back up and unclip the rope, then either drop it or pull it up, coil it, and carry it down. But what if the last climber was lowered or rappelled off? Theoretically, it is still simple: Just pull the rope through the anchor. But sometimes this does not work and the rope gets stuck. If you do the following things, you will minimize the chance of getting your rope stuck.

1. Make sure that the last climber unties his or her tie-in knot completely, and do not pull the rope until you have made sure that there is no knot in the end. (It is quite common for each climber to leave the initial figure eight knot in the rope to make it easier for the next climber to tie in-do not do this if you are the last one down!)

2. Make sure that the rope is not being pulled through any cracks where it could jam, and position yourself well out from the cliff face or to the side when pulling the rope.

3. Pull the rope smoothly and slowly jerking the rope or pulling too fast can cause the end to whip around and get jammed or even tie an overhand in itself before it gets to the anchor.

4. Continue to pull smoothly even after gravity has begun to pull the rope through the anchor-try to keep up with gravity as the rope falls; this helps minimize the possibility that the rope will jam a loop in a crack or get hung up on a ledge or projection.

Even when you are as careful as possible, the rope can still get hung up. What should you do? Most ropes will come down if tugged in the right direction. Step back, try to see what it is stuck on, and pull hard. If it does not come down and the anchor can be reached safely from above, go up and try to work it free from the top.

If an extra rope is available, you can set up a rappel with a backup belay (see the autoblock belay in the Rappelling section of chapter 4, Retreat and an Introduction to Self-Rescue) and rappel the route to free the rope. If the rope is stuck just above the ground within safe bouldering distance, someone can climb up to it with a spot-check from below. Never try to climb the jammed rope; it could come loose unexpectedly with tragic results. If nothing works, leave the rope. You may be able to return later with someone who can help you retrieve it.