For most rock climbers, it is sometimes hard to find a dedicated belayer willing to put days of duty in an exposed and isolated climbing location. In these cases, the ideal solution is to climb alone, rehearsing your key pitches by solo top-roping.
Whether you intend to do a couple of laps after work without a climbing partner or you are an active first ascensionist, knowing how to top rope solo is important. By showing you how to handle solo top-roping, we hope to help you add a handy climbing technique to your repertoire.
How to Top Rope Solo
Although several methods of solo top roping exist, all share various aspects – before ascending, you will need to fix 1 or 2 climbing ropes to a climbing anchor above the pitch. You will then need to climb self-belayed by the ascenders or progress-capture climbing pulleys clipped to the rope(s). Progress-capture pulleys allow the rope to only roll smoothly in 1 direction but stops if the rope gets pulled in the other direction.
Solo top roping techniques vary largely in the back-up methods. And any climber must be backed up – depending on a single device is never a good idea. Some rock climbers will add another rope alongside the first and clip into the bights pre-tied into the climbing rope in case their belay device or primary rope fails.
Other climbers will climb with 2 different devices clipped into 2 separate ropes while others will work with 2 devices on 1 static rope. Since rock climbing experts prefer having 2 devices on a single static climbing rope, we will focus more on this method.
Solo Top Roping Explained – Step by Step Guide
Anchor Your Rope
To keep things simple, we will assume that you are top roping a single-pitch climb. Ideally, your rope is supposed to be clipped to a solid anchor below the cliff’s top, so the rope does not rub over edges. If you are setting up your top-rope from above, you should build a backup anchor above the cliff, and then set the primary anchor below the lip.
In this method, a static climbing rope is the easiest and safest to use. It is safest for climbing because it will not bounce much under load, hence reducing dangerous wear. It is easiest because your devices will track well along the static rope as you move up. Experienced climbers recommend using a 10mm or thicker static rope for both longevity and security.
Note: If you decide to add a second rope as your backup, ensure your second rope is dynamic. This will allow it to absorb the shock generated if the primary system fails.
After returning to the climb’s bottom, coil the extra rope and allow it to hang above the ground. Alternatively, clip some weight at the bottom of the climbing rope – this will help you add some tension, allowing the self-belay system to slide smoothly up your rope at the beginning of the pitch.
Set Up Your Self-Belay
To maximize the benefit of your backup, using 2 different devices is recommended. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, attach your 2 devices to your beginner climbing rope, one above the other. To avoid self-belay failure, make sure the devices’ cams are locked properly onto your rope.
Clip the 2 devices to your belay rope. You must use either anti-cross-loading locking biners or oval locking carabiners.
The top device will be your primary self-belay. To keep it in a good position for braking, connect the top device to a chest climbing harness, pair of slings draped over each shoulder and crossing in the middle or a single sling.
The purpose of this system is to hold the device in position. You can use an adjustable strap or a bit of webbing to connect the system to a top ascender, making use of the same clip-in hole as your locking biner on the device. Ensure that no cords or straps from your pack or clothing can interfere with the self-belay devices.
Before you start moving up the pitch, test your 2 devices to ensure they will lock perfectly under the weight. Bounce-test the system gently in a safe position at the base of the climb, and ensure that the 2 devices do not interfere with each other.
If the bottom device bumps into your top device, use a quickdraw to extend your top device, using locking carabiners on every end of the draw. If you do this, ensure your chest harness keeps your top device upright on the climbing rope and is still comfortable.
You may need to push your devices along at the beginning of your pitch. But soon the two should slide up as you climb. If you clipped intermediate protection points or anchors along the climbing rope, never climb above the pieces without unclipping the climbing rope from the first.
Escaping the System
There are 2 major situations where you will need to escape the belay system. At the top of the pitch, you will need to unclip from your devices to descend. Less commonly, you may want to escape from the system if you run into trouble or you find it impossible to do a move.
After reaching the top of your climb using the top rope solo, use personal tethers or slings to clip into your anchor. Be careful to avoid climbing too high that your self-belay system bumps into the anchor – this will make it tough to unweight your devices and escape your self-belay system.
Clipping long slings to your anchor before climbing may help. When you reach the top, you will just need to clip into the slings, so you are hanging below the anchor.
Once you are anchored securely, remove the 2 devices from your now-unweighted static rope. Attach the rappel device to your rope, and rappel to the climb’s base.
If you must climb past your primary anchor to retrieve the backup anchor, first clean your primary anchor and pull any slack in your climbing rope above you through your ascenders, before you can start climbing again.
Note: Avoid climbing on a slack static rope using the top-rope self-belay system. A fall onto the slack static rope can injure you or cause a system failure.
If you can’t do a move, you may also need a way to get down or up. This means that you will need to unweight your self-belay devices mid-pitch and then ascend or rappel your rope. To prepare for this, carry some additional gear on the harness – an assisted-braking rappel/belay device, a backup ascender, and a double-length sling to use as the foot loop for ascending your rope or unweighting the climbing devices on your waist.
Q: Can You Top Rope by Yourself?
Yes, it is possible to top-rope alone. All you need to do is plan your climb carefully before you start climbing. In this article, we have explained everything you need to know to get the top rope solo technique right.
Q: How Do You Set Up A Solo Top Rope?
When setting up for a solo top rope, the first thing you will need to do is anchor your rope. Next, set up the belay system. Also, be sure to have a backup system just in case your primary system fails.
Q: What Gear Do I Need for Top Roping?
For top-roping, you will need a rope, belay device, locking carabiners, harness, chalk, and chalk bag. You will also need a climbing outfit featuring a climbing helmet, climbing shoes, good climbing pants/shorts, and an ideal climbing shirt.
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If you need to go climbing but cannot find a partner, solo top roping might be your best option. By following the steps outlined above, learning how to tope rope solo should be easy for you. To stay safe, be sure to extend your comfort zones slowly – this should help you avoid accidents.