Top Rope Climbing: Rock Climbing Basics!

There are so many different forms and styles of climbing that someone new to the sport can often quickly become confused with all of it. Top Rope climbing, for instance… what the heck does that mean?

Top rope climbing really isn’t that complicated, and it’s likely that if you’ve been climbing indoors you’ve already seen it and know what it is!

What is Top Rope Climbing?

Top Rope climbing is a type of climbing where your rope and anchor are above you during the entire climbing. A belayer is below you and is hooked onto the other side of the anchor. The belayer takes up slack on the rope and keeps falls from being very far if the climber slips off the wall.

Most gyms will employ a top roping setup for convenience, but there are also places that only allow top roping because they don’t want to put permanent protection into the rock.

Setting up a top rope outdoors can be difficult or sometimes impossible. You need to be able to get to the top of the cliff, set a good anchor point, and throw both ends of the rope to the base of the climb.

How Safe is Tope Rope Climbing?

Generally top roping is very safe. Your anchor point is always above you and your belayer should keep the rope relatively taut. If you do slip off the wall, you shouldn’t fall far at all before the anchor and belayer catch you.

The belayer also has the option of helping you come down off the wall. By letting the rope slowly slide through the belay device the climber will descend in a nice controlled fashion.

What is Needed for Top Rope Climbing?

The gear needed for top rope climbing is fairly standard and can all be found on our climbing gear list. We’ll briefly go over a few essentials!

  • Climbing Shoes: These shoes are specifically designed for climbing and have sticky rubber soles.
  • Harnesses: Both the belayer and climber will need a harness to attach the rope to.
  • Helmet: It’s always a good idea to wear a helmet while climbing because falls are always better when you don’t get that bad whiplash!
  • Rope: There are many different types of rope but a 10mm low stretch rope is perfect for top roping.
  • Carabineers: Carabineers are a must for both setting up the anchor and the belayer. 5-10 is enough for most routes.
  • Belay Device: There are a TON of different styles to choose from. I prefer an assisted braking device for an extra layer of protection.
  • Chalk: For anyone with sweaty palms, chalk is a must have.
  • Cordelette: This is a nylon cord that is about 20 feet long. It can easily be coiled up smaller for easy storage and doesn’t stretch much at all. It’s also super durable, so it’ll last longer than other types of rope.

The only two items on the list we consider optional are the chalk and the cordelette. Everything else is fairly standard, the good news is it can be used for both top roping and lead climbing as well.

Is Top Rope Climbing Lead Climbing?

Top rope climbing is not lead climbing. The difference is slight, but significant. As we’ve already said, in top rope climbing your anchor is above you and the rope runs through the anchor to your belayer, who is attached to the other end of the rope on the ground.

Lead climbing is preformed by clipping into protection that is placed at various places on the wall. This means that you are often climbing above your last clip point, and if you slip you fall twice as far.

Lead climbers have additional skills and responsibilities they need to worry about. This includes how they attach their quickdraws, when and how to clip in, and rope management.

Belaying a lead climb is also more challenging. Belayers will have to switch between giving and taking slack from the rope depending on if the climber is above or below their last quickdraw.

The Last Pitch

Top roping is a great way to get comfortable with the sport of climbing. Whether you’re just getting started or need to brush up on your skills, it’s great if you can find somewhere nearby that has an outdoor top rope setup.

Most indoor climbing gyms will be set up this way as well. Indoors or outdoors, the most important thing is to get your hands on a wall!

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Our resident climbing gym and bouldering expert, Melissa uses climbing to destress and relax when away from her tech job in the Berkeley, CA area.

Melissa picked up climbing while in college at CU Boulder and has never looked back. Melissa writes all of our content on female climbing gear and much of our bouldering articles!