The Tao of Toprope
Fill in the blank: lowballing is to bouldering as _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ is to route climbing. The answer? Toproping. And like lowballing, it can’t get no respect.
I’ll admit, I haven’t set up an honest-to-god toprope since I was 15, grabbing greasy limestone at an old freemason quarry in Ohio. (Sadly/ironically, climbing there is now verboten, due to a fatal top-rope-set-up disaster.) And yes, I hate the feeling of a fuzzy cord tickling my nose and smacking me in the eye when my belayer takes up slack too quickly as much as the next guy. So it’s hard to see past toproping’s rap as the bumper bowling of the vertical kingdom. But not so fast...
If you’ve read my thoughts on lowballing and its oft-overlooked virtues, you’ll know I believe that even the lowliest of pursuits has its place and value. In fact, during the recent Horsetooth Hang (HTH; www.horsetoothhang.net) event, in Fort Collins, Colorado, I discovered topropping has the power to show you how strong... and what a coward you really are.
This was my first trip to the HTH, an outdoor competition and fundraiser at a reservoir-side sandstone bouldering spot in Larimer County. Horsetoooth is home to some of Colorado’s oldest bouldering and, like the Gunks, sports a handful of dynamic John Gill problems. (One of the problems, the Gill Pinch, is the best known in the area and involves a jump from a not-so-hot right hand pinch to a down-sloping top, followed by a hair-raising, crux mantel top out.) When I got down to the boulders at the HTH, I found that my pad was useless — all the problems taller than head height were rigged (via elaborate boulder-top webbing rigs — cams, nuts, slings... the works) with topropes. “OMG,” I thought to myself. “WTF?”
Undeterred, I recited the mantra of my Total-Zen climbing philosophy (i.e. climbing is climbing — choss, lowballs, plastic) and ran back to the car, switching pad for harness. I returned to the Mental Block boulder, home of the Gill Pinch, where a standing-room-only crowd of boulderers had congealed, among them members of the Five Ten Team and a few dedicated volunteer belayers wearing cowboy hats and jeans (the HTH has a Wild-West theme). I tied in to the 10-foot TR. The belayer standing next to me (a guy) had braces and wore Daisy Dukes and a mesh football jersey. Another volunteer with a toy frontiersman’s rifle and overalls stood listlessly in a sandy corner, firing blanks. Time did not stand still. No one held his or her breath. I grabbed the starting pinch and looked up to the distant lip, which was obscured only by my toprope.
My first attempt was an abject failure. My belayer, a friendly fellow named Peter, informed me that the sanctioned Beta allowed jumping with one foot on the ground. “That’s a dab where I come from, pardner,” I thought to myself — but when in Rome, right? Take two: with one toe on a legit hold, the other planted on terra firma, I took flight, latching the lip. I held the swing, kicked up my foot in a contortion equivalent to putting your leg behind your neck, and did a mantel press so tenuous and terrifying that, had I notbeen on TR, I would have backed down without a doubt.
I stood, victorious, atop the Mental Block. Sort of. I was now faced with a strange paradox: I had done the boulder problem; I had not done the boulder problem.
What I’d done was toproped the boulder problem, negating an essential aspect of its boulder problemocity. I had climbed a strange simulacrum — a toprope route with the exact holds and moves of a well-known problem. No longer was there a threat of flying into talus as I levered my limbs over the lip of the climb — I was safe, and the fear that always weighed on my bouldering go-or-don’t-go equation was gone. So when I climbed the Gill Pinch on TR, I used all of my strength and technique in the way they should be used. I climbed with total faith in my capabilities. Of course, this is a totally unnatural state for me — fear makes me overgrip, back down, and generally louse up sequences... and it keeps me from crossing that line over which you’ll find compound fractures and trips to the hospital. I later roped in to Left Eliminator, a sideways dyno to a flat jug. The crux: holding a wild, helicoptering swing after hitting the jug. The price of failure: a flying, sideways landing on hardpack and rubble. Bolstered by my thread of courage, I pulled on and stuck the iron cross dyno first go, smearing wildly unto the finish. I was momentarily proud of my V5 flash, and then remembered the magic invalidator: the rope. Ah well, at least I learned I was physically a match for the prob.
One might ask whether a layer of pads and some good spotters could have the same effect as a TR, and I feel the answer is no. While reducing the likelihood of injury in the case of a fall, pads and spotters don’t keep you from decking. You can still break a leg if you land wrong, or crack your skull when your sketchy spotter drops the ball. No, truly the prophylactic effect of a toprope is unique in the climbing world, removing almost all danger from an otherwise risky pursuit. A toprope isolates the climb it protects from its usual consequences, thus transforming it into a surreal, dangerless version of climbing. Not useless — because much can be learned while on toprope — but invalid in some sense.
Nonetheless, a lowly toprope taught me with great clarity how much fear changes my approach to a climb, for better or for worse. And another thing: in its rope-dabalicious, bumper-cars way, it let me stop giving a second thought to potential falls and just enjoy the moves, which is actually a very sweet feeling, and a big part of why I climb anyway.