The Difference Between Top Rope and Lead Climbing

This article about top rope climbing is part of the e-book - Rock Climbing Basics: The Beginner's Guide.

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There are two main types of climbing system; top roping and leading. Both of these use the rope and gear to catch a fall, but in different ways. Most beginners start top rope climbing, as it's the safest and easiest way to learn. Once you've mastered the basics you can move on to leading.

Climbers at an indoor climbing wall

Top Rope Climbing: How It Works

Step 1
The climber ties into one end of the rope (it doesn't matter which end). Their partner (the belayer) attaches their belay device near to the other end of the rope.

Climbers top rope climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 2
As the climber moves up the wall, the belayer takes in the slack (extra) rope through their belay device. This is known as 'belaying'. It's important to learn this skill well before you trust someone's life to it.

Climbers top rope climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 3
If the climber falls, the belayer simply holds them where they are – the friction from the rope running through the belay device makes it easy to hold their weight.

Climbers top rope lead climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 4
Once the climber is at the top (or if they've just had enough and it's too hard!) then the belayer lowers them back to the ground by letting the rope slide through the belay device under control.

Climbers lead climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Lead Climbing: How It Works

Step 1
The belayer attaches their belay device on the rope next to the climber.

Climbers lead belay climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 2
The climber clips the rope into quickdraws on their way up the climb.

The belayer will need to switch between feeding rope out and taking it in, depending on whether the climber is below or above the quickdraw.

Climbers top rope climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 3
If the climber falls, the belayer holds the fall via the rope running through the top quickdraw.

Climbers top rope climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 4
When the climber reaches the top, they clip the rope through the top anchor.

Climbers top rope climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 5
The belayer lowers the climber to the ground by letting the rope slide through the belay device under control.

Climbers top rope climbing at an indoor climbing wall

Step 6
The climber unties and the rope is pulled down.

Climbers top rope climbing at an indoor climbing wall

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