Rock Climbing Equipment and Techniques
THIS PAGE DESCRIBES two ways of using ropes and equipment to climb safely. It also describes how to descend after climbing. Details about hand placement, foot placement, balance, and other technical climbing techniques are not described here.

Top-Roping and Belaying

A Climber and Belayer Toproping

In top-roping, a rope from the top of the climb always holds the climber, making most slips off the climb harmless. As shown above, the climber is attached to one end of the rope, the middle is passed through an anchor at the top of the climb, and the other end is held by the belayer.
The anchor at the top of the climb is assembled from loops of webbing connected to carabiners attached securely to the rock. The rope is passed through some of the carabiners, and the others are attached to either pieces of protection, wedged into a convenient crack, or bolts, which other climbers have drilled into the rock.
The anchor's carabiners with the rope passing through are suspended below the top of the climb to prevent the rope from rubbing. When bolts or protection are far from the top of the climb, substantial lengths of webbing are needed to place the carabiners correctly.
Not all climbs can be top-roped because of two requirements:
  1. There must be a safe way to the top to set the anchor before the climber starts. Most popular top-roped climbs have an easy way to hike to the top.
  2. The climb may be no longer than half the length of the rope; when the climber starts, the rope must cross the full length of the climb twice.
The belayer stops the rope with a belay device attached to his harness if the climber slips. The belay device makes it easy to apply enough friction to stop a falling climber. If there is some danger of the belayer being lifted into the air, he can be anchored down.
The belayer must keep the slack in the rope to a minimum since when a climber slips, any slack must be taken up before the rope can stop the fall. To take up this slack, the belayer pulls the rope downward as the climber climbs. While doing this, the belayer must never release the rope fully to ensure the climber could never fall far.

Lead Climbing

In lead climbing, two people, a leader and a follower, ascend the climb in pitches: sections of the climb shorter than the length of the rope.
First the leader climbs the pitch, wedging pieces of protection into the rock and attaching the rope to them with carabiners.


Once the leader makes it to the top, she anchors herself to the rock and belays the follower, who climbs the pitch, removing the protection. Finally, both the leader and follower are at the top of the pitch with all their gear, ready to climb the next pitch.


The leader's job is dangerous. Unlike top-roping, where slipping off the rock usually doesn't result in a long fall, a leader can fall twice the distance from the last piece of protection before the rope can help. The figure below depicts a fairly pleasant lead fall--the leader has fallen and is dangling in midair. More often, the leader will hit the rock on the way down--a common cause of climbing injuries.

A Lead Fall

A ``quickdraw''--two carabiners attached with a loop of webbing--is used to fasten the rope to a piece of protection. One carabiner is attached to the loop on the piece of protection, the rope is passed through the other. This provides some separation of protection a rope, allowing the rope to twist without dislodging the protection, pass more smoothly past the protection, and go more directly up the climb.
Ideally, so the rope is not forced to go around friction-increasing corners, the protection should be along in a straight line between belay stations. This is not always possible, so longer pieces of webbing in the quickdraw are used to make the path of the rope straighter.
Lead climbing places fewer restrictions on what can be climbed than top-roping. The two requirements are
  1. There must be places for a belayer to be secured to the rock (``belay stations'') spaced no farther than the length of the rope. Most popular lead climbs satisfy this.
  2. There must be places to attach the rope to the rock. In rock with many cracks, protection, especially SLCDs, can easily be used. Occasionally on smooth rock, other climbers have drilled permanent bolts into the rock that can be used with a quickdraw to attach the rope to the rock.

Getting Down

There are three common ways to get down from a climb: walking, rappeling, and lowering.


Often, climbers get down from the tops of climbs by walking. It is especially common to do this with top-roped climbs, since most have a way to hike to the top to set the anchor. Most multi-pitch lead climbs do not have a way to walk down from every belay station, but there is often a way to walk down from the top.



Rappeling is a scheme for lowering yourself with the rope. As shown above, the center of the rope is passed through an anchor at the top of the climb. The person descending wears a harness and attaches himself to the rope with a belay device, which he uses to control his descent.
Unlike climbing, it is best to be nearly horizontal while rappeling. In this position, the body is pointing more directly at the rock, giving the feet better friction and leading to more control.
Starting a rappel is the most difficult part. It is very disconcerting to switch from standing to being supported completely by the rope. Moreover, it is necessary to get below the anchor before the rope can help. If the anchor is below the top of the climb, climbing down is necessary.
Once everybody has descended, the rope is recovered by pulling it through the anchor. The anchor cannot be recovered, but this is not usually a problem. In many cases, other climbers have placed a permanent anchor at the top, often a pair of bolts drilled into the rock connected to a ring with some chains. Another possibility is to use the base of a tree as an anchor. Since the rope is under little tension when it is pulled through the anchor, this abrades the rope and tree only slightly, and can be done occasionally.
A single rope can only be used to descend half a rope-length, but two ropes can be tied together to rappel a full rope-length. This is useful, for example, when descending a multi-pitch lead climb via the same route used for the ascent. The belay stations, usually spaced a full rope-length, can be used as rappel anchors. Three or more ropes cannot be used to rappel in this manner, since doing so would require rappeling past a knot and pulling a knot through the anchor, which are generally impossible.


In a top-roped climb, the belayer can lower the climber. The climber places her weight on the rope, and the belayer slowly lets out the rope, using the belay device to control her rate of descent, much like rappeling.
This is the most convenient way to descend after completing a top-roped climb. Although there is usually a way to walk down, it can be inconvenient to finish a top-roped climb because you must climb above the anchor, which is often suspended below the top of the climb.


Getting Started

Last updated 970501

Written by Stephen Edwards.