As many of you know, I’m a big fan of lead climbing with half ropes.
Lead climbing is great, and half ropes make it even greater. They take the true strength of lead climbing – the ability to take on really complex and wandering routes – and enable you to take it to its absolute limit.
It’s also why I love bouldering. There’s a strange synergy between the mind-tasking nature of bouldering problems and the deeply strategic nature of lead climbing.
However, I’ve got to say, I’ve really never been a fan of top rope climbing.
I’ve always seen top rope climbing as the estranged, witless cousin of lead climbing. I pretend it doesn’t exist. I want nothing to do with it.
“Why?” you might ask.
Well, you see, you can’t use half ropes on a top rope climb.
“Why the hell would that matter, you crazy fool?” you’re no doubt thinking. “You don’t need to use half ropes on a top rope climb – that’s the beauty of it.”
Well, let me tell you, that half ropes are about so much more than just reducing rope drag. It’s about what reducing rope drag enables you to do.
Reducing rope drag serves a grander purpose.
It enables you to take on the more interesting climbs out there, without any drawbacks.
Those climbs are rope drag magnets with how much they wander left and right. Half ropes turn them into a dream.
“But you don’t even get rope drag with top roping,” you reply abruptly, your eyes full of fire.
Yes that’s right. And you know why that is?
It’s because you skip all the bolts in top roping.
You see, top roping isn’t real climbing. It’s a watered-down version of climbing that gives a false sense of ability.
Time after time again, you’ll see top ropers climbing at a grade way out of their depth, scrambling up the route with a tight rope hoisting them up.
They ascend the route like they’re an astronaut in zero gravity, pulling themselves along as if the route were the corridors of a space station.
“Sure, that might be true for routes intended for lead climbing,” you say, “but with outdoor climbing, you can set up your top anchor wherever you want.”
And that really is true. However, there’s one huge drawback:
Top Roping is Really Boring.
“Why do you say that?” you ask, furrowing your brow.
Well, it’s for a wildly different reason than it just cheapening the route like I described earlier, because we’re talking about setting up a new route here.
The reason why top roping is boring, when it comes down to it, is the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to set up, for how little you get out of it.
With lead climbing, you just walk to the climb, get on belay, and climb.
With top roping? Well, it’s a real pain.
And that even goes for when you don’t have to set up your own anchor.
First of all, you have to hike all the way to the top of the climb.
Sometimes, this is impossible. Other times, it’s easy.
When it’s easy, it means your climb is going to be really short and barely worth the setup time. When it’s impossible, well, it’s impossible.
Once you’ve had the pleasure of hiking all the way to the top of the climb, you have set up an equalized top anchor.
You’re going to have to to scout around for suitable objects to build one off, because it’s not quite as straightforward as throwing a sling around a rock and calling it done.
You’ll need at least three sturdy rocks to create an equalized anchor off. If there’s a good strong tree then you could always use that, but it’ll eventually kill the tree if enough top ropers do the same.
Once the equalized anchor’s set up, you have to rig the rope and toss both ends down to your friend, at which point you have hike all the way back down again before you can start climbing.
Now that everything’s finally set up and you’re both in position, you get to climb a short, single pitch route before you get to take everything down again, which means – yep, you guessed it – another hike all the way back down. Fantastic.
Are Top Ropers Nihilists?
Because it’s such a pain to deal with all this hassle of setting things up only and taking them down again, top ropers tend to hog routes, trying to get as much as they possibly can out of their setup before they eventually take it down.
There’s a lot of hostility towards them for this reason. They’ll set up their top rope on a popular crag, leave their top rope up while they eat lunch, and continue to block everyone else from leading the route until they finally decide to pack up a few hours later.
You’d think that they’re arrogant, that they’re nihilists who think they own the crag, but really, they’re just ordinary climbers in denial, who are fed up with the chore of top roping, and haven’t quite yet admitted it to themselves.
If you’re one of these people, you should do yourself and everyone else a favor, and just start learning the basics of lead climbing. It’s really not that hard.
Leave top roping for the newbies. It’s just like training wheels on a bike: someday, you have to take them off to get the full experience.