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This is an advanced technique for experienced multi-pitch and alpine climbers. Be certain of your systems before taking this tactic to the mountains—and do not use it on busy routes. —Ed.
During the second free ascent of the Southeast Ridge on Cerro Torre in February 2016, Andrew Rothner, Mikey Schaefer, and I were all able to free climb one of the hardest alpine routes in the world despite carrying the extra weight of bivy gear, crampons, ice tools, food, and all the other necessary equipment. The secret to our success was having the followers climb on fixed ropes with Petzl Micro Traxions (a type of progress capture device [PCD]), rather than belaying each other from above using traditional methods. This system allows the leader to haul a pack, eat, keep hydrated, and stay warm while waiting at the belay for the followers to climb the previous pitch; the leader also conserves energy by not hauling the rope up. The energy savings adds up quickly on long alpine routes, leading to faster and smoother ascents.
Practice Toprope Soloing
Toprope soloing is when the climber is not tied into the rope directly. Instead, she sets up a fixed line from a solid anchor above the route, attaches herself to the rope with two PCDs (e.g., Petzl Micro Traxion or Camp Lift), and then climbs up while the PCDs move up the rope. If she falls, the PCDs will catch on the rope and arrest her fall. Practice your systems at the local crag on less-than-vertical terrain so you can get comfortable and familiar with it.
I use a Camp Lift held in place at my chest with a rabbit ear bungee cord looped around my neck and clipped to the top of my belay loop with a locking carabiner. The rabbit ear bungee is a simple length of thin bungee cord with two tiny loops tied at either end. Each loop is clipped into the carabiner holding the Lift and then the cord is put behind the neck. Some climbers prefer to girth-hitch a bungee cord to the PCD then wear the cord like a noose, but I find this method is slow to set up and disassemble, which can be a huge time cost when doing it on every pitch. Another PCD is clipped to the bottom of my belay loop with a locking carabiner. The two devices create necessary redundancy, and while there is no perfect system, make sure your chosen setup is quick, safe, thoughtful, and preferably light.
Once comfortable with toprope soloing on single-pitch routes, try the system on a multi-pitch rock climb. When the leader reaches a belay, he fixes the lead rope to the anchor with a clove hitch and yells, “Line’s fixed!” Note that the leader does not pull up any extra climbing rope. He should, however, pull up the tag line and put it through a separate PCD clipped to the anchor. He then yells, “Ready to haul!”
The follower should put extra items in the pack, then respond, “Haul away!” The leader starts hauling immediately. For hauling, I like to use a 6mm static tag line to keep weight low, and foot-haul the pack with this simple system (fig. 1). To haul, put another small ascender/PCD on the rope, clip a sling to it and use it as a foot stirrup. Step down and the rope should pull through the device at the anchor, then slide the second device up the rope and repeat.
When the leader starts hauling, the second is free to begin toprope soloing at their leisure. The follower should set up her system as high as possible on the fixed rope (with extra rope hanging below her), and as the follower begins climbing, the two PCDs she’s attached with should slide up the rope easily. The excess hanging rope should provide a bit of weight to keep the cord straight and the devices moving smoothly. When toprope soloing right off the ground or at the start of a long pitch when there isn’t much excess rope, clip a water bottle or extra gear to the lead line on a clove hitch, then pull it up at the next available stance when the rope’s weight has become sufficient.
The follower should clean the gear as she goes up, and there’s no need to tie knots while ascending. When climbing in a party of three, the followers should climb simultaneously on separate ropes at approximately five meters apart, depending on the speed of each climber. The second climber should leave directionals clipped for the third.
At the Belay
Since the follower is not tied into the rope, each climber should have a personal anchor system for clipping into the anchor. I prefer an adjustable daisy chain for this purpose because it’s easy to dial in the length, and it stores on your harness cleanly when not in use.
When the follower reaches the anchor, she clips in, removes the bottom ascender from the rope and belay loop, switches the direction that the rope is running through the ascender, and then clips it directly to the anchor. She then pulls a loop of slack through on the leader’s side.
Put the leader on belay in this loop, remove the chest ascender from the rope, and untie the knot that’s fixing the lead line to the anchor.
Now the leader unclips his personal anchor and starts off on the next pitch. As the leader climbs up, the follower keeps pulling the lead line through the anchor ascender so there’s a bight of slack to belay with. Leader and follower never have to flake the lead line, or pull up extra rope throughout the day. Once comfortable with this system on multi-pitch rock climbs, try it out on an alpine route. With the added gear and logistical complications of alpine climbing, the energy and time savings of this are huge.
A few important notes here: Since the follower is not tied in, it’s their responsibility to keep an eye on the end of the rope, and tie in quickly, should the team be forced to simul-climb. Also, this style of climbing works best when leading in blocks, as opposed to swapping leads. By leading three to four consecutive pitches, climbers rest longer, stay warmer, and the leader has ample opportunity to study the next pitch from the belay. Use comfortable belay ledges to swap leaders, and play to each climber’s strengths or lead preferences whenever possible. With this technique, the leader simply unties and the follower ties in to the top of the rope to swap leaders.
If your follower may want to be lowered to retry a section of a pitch, or will want a “real” belay for a brief traversing section, you can fix the rope through a Grigri (with a backup knot below) to belay/give slack as required.
Regardless of this system’s many advantages, there are instances when you should not have the follower toprope solo.
- Do not try this method without practicing on small climbs first. Make sure you and your partner carefully planned out when and how you will be using this system on a bigger route.
- As this is not a “closed system,” and the follower is not able to receive a partner check before starting up, this is not appropriate for beginner multi-pitch climbers.
- Do not use this method when it’s windy. With the rope dangling well below the climber, the cord can easily be blown off route and become snagged, a possibility that requires attention even with little or no wind. At best, you’ll have to rappel down to free it, and at worst you may have to cut the rope.
- Do not use this method on crowded multi-pitch climbs. Most people prefer to lead a pitch without a rope hanging in front of them, so respect fellow climbers and keep this tactic to uncrowded climbs.
- Do not use this method on steep or traversing routes. In these circumstances, the weight of the rope below the follower may pull at them awkwardly, or ascenders might not slide up the rope easily. I have bent two Grand Wall Uascend devices attempting to toprope solo this type of terrain. Again, communicate with your partner, and decide if it makes sense to use the traditional belay techniques before you begin the next pitch.
Preferred Equipment for Toprope Soloing
I use the Camp Lift as my top piece (instead of two Micro Traxions) for several reasons:
- Impossible to rig incorrectly. It won’t go up the rope when rigged upside down, and does not have a button that locks it open.
- Easier to disengage the cam lever to down jumar sections while working a route. (I use a Kong Futura, and double length alpine runner for this purpose.)
- The toothless lever is easier on the sheath than the Micro Traxion’s teeth.
- The Camp Lift works on snowy ropes, while the Micro’s teeth will clog with snow and eventually won’t catch.
I like Black Diamond’s Magnetron VaporLock as my top carabiner (sadly no longer in production), and an Edelrid Pure Slider as my bottom carabiner. Auto-lock carabiners are nice in these applications, and these two are some of the lightest. The VaporLock is HMS, so good for rapping at the end of the day. The new Grivel Plume HMS will probably be an upgrade over both, as the above can be problematic to open in icy conditions.
Josh Wharton has established huge routes in Alaska, Pakistan, and Patagonia. He’s climbed choss in the Canadian Rockies, 80 routes in the Black Canyon, and changed over 600 diapers in Estes Park, Colorado, where he lives with his wife, Erinn, and their daughter, Hera.