Belaying from the Top while Toproping

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Contributed by: Marty Comiskey (

Best useful for:   Top rope    X    Trad         Mountaineering

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Last week a group of PATC members (~10-12) got together to climb at Great Falls, Va. The river was still running high and most of the bottom areas of the cliffs were still underwater. Rather than calling the day a bust, we decided to climb, but we would lower climbers, from the top, down the cliff and then bring them up belaying from the top.

For some of the PATC climbers this was a new experience and as such we saw various inefficient

(and potentially unsafe) practices:

- some established their masterpoints below the cliff edge as if they were setting up a normal slingshot top rope system (makes setting up the belay anchor/stance difficult)

- some tried to set up their belay devices in Guide mode (works fine for bringing up the climber, but not very efficient for lowering the climber)

- some tried to lower climbers directly off their belay device at their harness (not the most comfortable set up)

- some belayers failed to "tie in" to anchor (often OK when belaying from bottom, but not advisable when belaying from top)

- some tried to lower climbers with load strand re-directed through a high masterpoint, but failed to use a backup (i.e. lose control of belay and climber being lowered falls to bottom)

Some of the more experienced climbers very quickly gave some critique/lessons on how to better set up these top rope systems.

The consensus of opinion that day seemed to be:
- belaying from the top for top roping is similar to the anchor/belaying system as if you were bringing up a second in a trad climb. The obvious difference being that we first had to lower the climber before we could belay them.

- As such, you would be better served if your masterpoint was situated at chest level or higher and situated above the cliff edge

- Using a Reverso or BD Guide in guide mode is not always a good idea - lowering the climber is often difficult. It is workable, but often awkward and "rope system" dependent; not something that you would want to do all day long.

- Using a Munter hitch to both lower and belay the climber is very efficient and was the method most of us used that day (we are assuming here that one does not have a Grigri or similar device available which would work if a redirect is used)

- if using the Munter hitch off the masterpoint it is imperative that a back up be used. This is analogous to using a back up friction knot while rappelling. One can use an autoblock or a prussik/friction type knot below the Munter hitch and attached to the belayer's harness to protect the climber being lowered in the event the belayer loses control of the belay strand.

- the belayer should be tied into the anchor with either the rope or a sling/PAS (this is to protect both the belayer and the climber)

One other advantage to belaying from the top as opposed to being at the bottom is that all the belayers were in the shade and quite comfortable on this hot day. Usually, the belayer is down at the bottom in the sun and heat.

Climb safe.

P.S. following suggestion was forwarded by Bill Dudley - i.e. get the best of both worlds - lower with Munter and belay with ATC in guide mode:

"I like lowering with a munter and backup. When I am with friends I know that I'm sure can get back up, I'll just belay them back up with a munter, but if I'm not sure of their climbing ability, I'll lower them down with a munter and when they get to the bottom and unweight for a second, I'll put my ATC guide in autoblock mode on the brake strand of the munter and then take the munter out, belaying them in normal ATC guide autoblock mode. Going to a 3:1 haul system to help them through a crux is a 30 second fix off this setup and I like to be able to convert to it seamlessly; going to a 3:1 off a munter really takes a bit more time." 

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