The Quiet Art of Solo Toproping
Which is worse: training on the same old greasy boulder problems or losing your climbing partner in a fight over unmarked gear? Either way, climbing alone is a fact of life. If you want a new way to train or work your latest project without the inconvenience of a partner, try solo toproping.
Solo toproping is not rocket science — the techniques are straightforward, and the only special gear you need is a device for the belay. However, some specialized rigging is required, so follow the steps below for a safe solo experience.
Unlike conventional toproping, solo toproping requires only a single strand for the belay. However, a back-up line fixed to the anchor makes the whole operation easier … and safer. If the pitch you want to climb is more than half a ropelength, bring a second rope for rigging your back-up system. Warning: If your route of choice is located at an area primarily used for lead climbing, you’ll want to toprope from an anchor on the cliff face, rather than above, to avoid knocking down loose debris. If it’s a sport route you’re climbing, this shouldn’t be a problem. For a trad line, it is best to locate an anchor placement beforehand.
1. You’ll have to build a rappel anchor, so gain the top of the cliff and set to rigging. Be sure to warn everyone nearby beforehand — you’re a serious hazard and they should give you a wide berth. Once the top anchor is secure, rappel over the cliff’s edge on a single strand, to your toprope-anchor location. If rigged properly, it’s very unlikely that your solo belay device will fail. Nevertheless, ensure that the back-up line will keep you from hitting the ground or any other obstacles such as ledges. To do so, pre-tie loops in it at regular intervals — tie as many as you think you’ll want. If you don’t have a second rope, you can tie back-up knots into your main rope, below the solo device.
2. Clip into the anchor — if it’s a trad line, you’ll have to build it first — back yourself up and tie off the summit line to the anchor. Leave it slack, so it won’t dislodge rocks as you climb. Now, fix your back-up rope to the anchor and drop it down.
3. Next, rappel your main line to the ground. Attach your solo belay device to the rope, weight the rope end with a light pack or extra gear to help it feed, and clip two locking carabiners through your belay loop.
4. You are now ready to climb. Clip one of the lockers to your first backup loop at about the 15-foot level. Use the other locker to clip the next loop before unclipping the first, and so on. If you ever feel the need for a closer backup, simply tie one where you want it, taking tension from your main belay rope as needed.
An endless debate rages over which solo devices are best. Possible options include the Petzl Microscender and Minitraxion (the Valley favorite — probably because it’s a great lightweight hauling device); the Yates or Troll Rocker; Wild Country Ropeman; and the Ushba Basic and Wren Silent Partner, both popular because they do not have sharp-toothed cams like the other devices. Some devices will require a chest sling to keep them oriented and running correctly. Whichever device you choose, climb with an extra ascender and a foot sling so you can unweight your device and/or ascend the rope if necessary.
Avoid large accumulations of slack in the system — this can precipitate a violent shock load if you fall, causing severe rope damage or failure. Scenarios in which this can happen include topping out a route above and to the side of your TR anchor, or climbing traversing or very overhanging routes, on which the amount of rope slack may not be evident. Also, icy ropes and solo belay devices don’t mix; if your ice-climbing partner bails at the last minute, go skiing, or be especially vigilant with your back-up system.
Jeff Achey, Climbing’s Editor at Large, has been doing a lot of solo toproping of late.