The sport of rock climbing involves a lot of jargon, which can make it seem intimidating or hard to get into. So, let’s break down some of the terms to help you know exactly what someone is talking about when they say ‘lead climbing’ or ‘top roping.’
Lead climbing means that you are bringing the rope up with you as you are climbing, and will always be climbing above the rope. Someone needs to first lead climb a route in order to establish a top rope setup. Then, other climbers can top rope, which means they are supported at all times from above by the rope.
Confused? Don’t worry, let’s break down each type of climbing in more detail before we go over the similarities and differences. We’ll finish up by answering some FAQs.
What is Lead Climbing?
In lead climbing, a climber will tie into the rope while on the ground, with the rope not yet anchored to anything except the belayer. The belayer then feeds out rope as the climber ascends the wall. The climber attaches the rope to the wall periodically using either trad protection (cams, nuts, etc.) or for sport climbing, by clipping quickdraws into existing bolts.
These protection points will catch the climber if she falls, although the fall distance will be twice the distance of her harness hard point to the last bolt or piece of protection, plus however much extra rope the belayer has fed out, plus a little bit more from the rope stretching under load. So, lead falls can be pretty significant and quite scary.
Once the lead climber makes it to the top of a route, they will set up an anchor system of some kind, and then be lowered to the ground by their belayer. At this point, the rope is stretched from the coil on the ground to the belayer’s belay device, up the route through all the pieces of protection, through the anchors at the top, and then back down to the climber’s harness as they stand on the ground. This means that the route can now be top roped.
What is Top Roping?
In top roping, the climber ties in to the rope, which is already strung up to the anchor points at the top of the climb (thanks to the lead climber) and back down to the belayer. As the climber ascends, the belayer simply pulls the slack out of the system. If the climber falls at any point, the belayer can catch them immediately, so top rope falls are generally never big or scary. Once the top roper reaches the top, he can either be lowered or he can clean the route and rappel down if no else in the party plans to climb that route.
Similarities Between Lead Climbing and Top Roping
Whether you are lead climbing or top roping, you are still climbing and making most of the same moves on the wall. Both activities can take place on the same route, which means that if you are new to climbing, you can first top rope a route to be sure that you feel confident on it (assuming you have a more experienced friend to lead climb it for you first), and then you can decide if you want to attempt leading it.
In rare cases, you can even walk up the back of the routes and set up a top rope without ever having to lead climb if you don’t want to. This can be a great way to get climbing outdoors even if you aren’t yet confident in your leading abilities, or if you want to project a harder route.
Differences Between Lead Climbing and Top Roping
There are several key differences between lead climbing and top roping:
Lead climbing is generally harder, even when you compare leading and top roping on the same route. That’s because when you are lead climbing, you have to stop periodically, find a stable clipping stance, and use one hand to set your protection and clip the rope to it. Pausing like this and the fact that you are essentially towing the rope up the route (it can add lots of weight and drag) and carrying a trad rack or a bunch of quickdraws means you need greater stamina and strength to lead climb versus top rope.
Speaking of gear, you also have to be sure that you have enough quickdraws for the route or enough/the right kind of trad pro clipped to your harness before you begin climbing. While climbing, you will also need to be constantly on the lookout for bolts or places to set up trad pro, and make sure that you are following the route exactly. And, you need to ensure that you are clipping the rope correctly (not back-clipping or Z-clipping). Finally, the mental aspect of lead climbing is more difficult, because you know that falls can be big.
The risk level is significantly higher for lead climbing, since falls can be so much more serious. With top roping, the risk of getting injured when you fall is pretty minimal, since your belayer should catch you right away. However, when lead climbing, the risk of injury is far greater because of the distance that you are falling and the potential for other compounding factors.
For instance, unless you are climbing a steeply overhung route, you have to worry about hitting the wall when you fall. You might either skid down the wall or pendulum into the wall once the rope catches you, or you could even hit the ground – all very unpleasant scenarios.
You also need to be aware of where you are placing your feet when lead climbing, because if you get your foot or leg caught behind the rope when you fall, it’ll flip you upside down which is even scarier and more dangerous. Finally, even though climbing ropes are dynamic (stretchy), you can still whiplash yourself pretty good if you fall far enough.
While this all sounds scary, lead climbing within your ability range and with some proper instruction and preparation is actually quite safe – and fun!
One of the biggest differences between lead climbing and top roping is where you can use each method. With top roping, you are largely limited to the climbing gym, to outdoor crags where you can walk up the back and set up a top rope (rare scenario), or to climbing with friends who can set up a top rope for you.
Once you learn to lead climb (and amass enough gear to do so), so many more options open up as far as where you can climb.
To top rope, essentially all you need are your harness and climbing shoes, since presumably someone else has brought the rope and set up a top rope with their own gear. However, to lead climb, you will need the entire kit – at minimum: a climbing rope, quickdraws or a trad rack, your harness and shoes, a belay device, and a competent partner to belay you.
The belay technique is also different between lead climbing and top roping. When belaying a lead climber, you will be feeding rope out to them as they climb. With a top roper, you’ll be pulling in the extra slack as they climb. Lead belaying requires a much higher skill and attention level than top rope belaying, so it’s always best to lead climb with an experienced lead belayer.
Frequently Asked Question
Is lead climbing harder than top rope?
Yes, lead climbing is harder than top roping. This is because you are climbing with a lot of extra weight (rope and gear), you have to pause to clip periodically, and the consequences of falling are much greater.
What is the point of lead climbing?
Lead climbing is the only way to climb a sport or trad route, unless you can walk up the back and set up a top rope or have someone else lead climb it for you. In almost all cases, someone must lead climb a route in order for anyone else to subsequently top rope it.