Many years ago, when I had more enthusiasm than knowledge, my idea of rigging climbs was just to tie knots. If I wasn’t too sure about it, I might either look to some kind soul nearby for some help or, just tie more knots. How I survived those experiences I will never know – other than I must have been very lucky!
In this article, with a bit more training and experience behind me now, I offer you some pearls of wisdom focusing on some good practice for rigging climbs safely. This post only skims the surface however. For a more in-depth look at the topic I recommend that you go out and buy Libby Peter’s excellent book: Rock Climbing: Essential Skills & Techniques Paperback – 19 Sept. 2011 or book a course with us!
Top roping, bottom roping and trad lead climbing
Ok, for the sake of clarity let’s just clarify what we mean here. First of all we’re in the realms of trad (traditional) climbing as opposed to sport climbing. With trad climbing there’s no bolts or gear already drilled into the rock face: how you safe-guard the climbing is down to your knowledge, skill and the equipment that you bring. (I’ve written a tad bit more about what trad climbing is here).
Top rope systems are where the belayer sits at the top of the climb by the anchor and brings up the climber towards them.
Bottom rope climbing systems are where there is an anchor of some sort at the top of a rock climb and the rope goes from the belayer (on the ground) up through the above anchor, and then back to the climber. ie The belayer is at the bottom.
As ever I choose to use different tools for different jobs. Bottom rope systems are quicker and easier to rig by far! But, if you want your climber to top out and complete the climb then you being up there to supervise them is a good place for you to be – especially if the climber is a novice or a child. Also, a nervous climber will be reassured to be able to climb towards you the belayer, rather than away from you with you stood on the ground. A well rigged top-rope system is also easier to escape from in case the climber needs rescuing in some way (ie en route they’ve found a ledge and they’re not budging!)
What equipment do you need for rigging climbs?
My first tip for you is to go out and buy a static rope. For climbing instructors working on single pitch crags, these non-stretchy ropes are essential kit for knitting together our systems. They’re a great bit of kit and because they don’t stretch as a dynamic climbing rope does, they are less susceptible to wear and tear when hanging over an edge. You buy these ropes by the metre and they tend to be cheaper than dynamic climbing ropes. Around 15m will be ample for most people. And as well as buying a static rope – buy a couple of rope protectors too, and then maybe your static rope will last longer than one season!
In addition buy yourself a set of wires, about three or four hexes, a couple of 240cm Nylon* slings, maybe a 120cm one too, some prussik cord for personal safety, and 6 screw-gate carabiners (including at least one that is a fat HMS carabiner) and this should see you through every rig you ever need to build. I tend not to use cams for rigging climbs, since they can “walk” and that loses the system its equalised tension. Finally, though they’re not needed for rigging climbs, they can be essential for getting your gear back: a nut key. It’s a false economy not to have one.
*(You can buy Nylon slings and Dyneema slings. Nylon slings come in different colours and are the fat ones. The Dyneema slings are predominantly white and are the thin ones. Dyneema slings and Nylon slings are both amply strong enough for the job. For rigging climbs, Nylon slings are probably better however. While Dyneema slings are lighter and soak up less water, Nylon slings are slightly more dynamic/stretchy, less susceptible to burning through from friction, will last longer and are cheaper! Read more here.)
What knots do I need to know?
I suspect you could get away with knowing just a figure of eight knot and you’d be fine. It would however take you an age to rig a climb and to equalise it. So for the most efficient systems that use the minimum of kit and that are quick and easy to rig, I’d suggest learning these three knots and some variations of them:
1. The Double Figure of 8
This knot is the mainstay of rock climbing. The chances are you already know how to tie this anyway. And while a simple overhand knot will often do, the nice thing about a figure of eight is that it is more easily untied after it has been loaded. The other great thing about the figure of eight knot is that once you have tied it, you will instantly know if it’s right or wrong. It’s simple and effective. A really useful variation of this is the double figure of eight knot which gives you two loops (bunny ears).
2. The Bowline
Whenever you have to wrap an uncertain amount of rope around a a fixed object such as a boulder or a tree, with a bowline you can simply tie the knot exactly where you want it. This is far easier than retying a figure of eight or overhand knot which may have to be adjusted to be in the right place. Two things about the bowline … First, you must be sure to get it right. It’s easily got wrong and an error is not easily recognised. Secondly, unless you’re a sailor, you must dress it with a stopper knot to make it safe.
3. The Clove-hitch
When I rig a climb I tend to start with a fixed knot, usually a bowline, I run the rope to the edge and tie a double figure of eight, and then run the rope back to the second anchor. In order to get the tension just right so that the system is equalised I use a clove hitch. It’s another solid climbing knot and the joy of it is that you can easily adjust it in-situ.
For safe rigging of climbs think IDEAS
I – Independence
When we climb on a rope, we often climb at or beyond our limit (unlike lead climbing for example). To that end, when we rig a bottom-rope or top-rope system we rig it knowing that it will very likely be tested and loaded. With this in mind get into a habit of working on a ‘belt and braces’ basis.
Start by looking for two (maybe three if needed) solid independent anchors. By independent we mean two separate boulders, trees or placements etc. If one fails then it should have no impact on the other anchor(s). The anchors of choice don’t move under any circumstances. Make sure you make your selection carefully and the word “bombproof” should always spring to mind.
Attach to each anchor your static line and tie this into your system so that each anchor is independently attached to the carabiners through which your dynamic climbing rope will pass. When you tie your system ask yourself if each rope can hold the load on its own (ie independently)? Knot the rope with a double figure of eight so that there is even independence where the climbing rope runs through the carabiners. And, use two carabiners, hanging over the lip of the rock face with their gates hanging down and back to back. Everything should be rigged with independence in mind.
D – Direction
Consider now the direction of the system. When we rig a top-rope system with a leader bringing up a second we have an ABC system – anchor, belayer, climber. It’s just the same with top and bottom-rope rigs. What we are looking for is a system that when loaded won’t budge at all. Multiple anchors also help afford a degree of stability so that the rope hanging over the lip of the rock-face doesn’t wear through. Think also about the direction that any gear might be pulled when it’s loaded: we don’t want wires or hexes being pulled from their seat!
E – Equalised System
Rig your system so that it is equalised. Having each rope that is attached to each anchor equally loaded means that each anchor is sharing the load. This in turn means that each anchor is even less likely to fail. In the worst case scenario, if an anchor did fail, then we don’t want the other anchor(s) to be shock-loaded. Also, try and not use cams for rigging since they can walk and thus affect the equalisation of the system.
By tying our system so that it is equalised we achieve another crucial layer of safety.
A – Angles
Rigging two anchors to the attachment point for the climbing rope should ideally form a triangle. A triangle is good for stability so that the attachment point doesn’t run along and over the rock edge in a horizontal direction. The greater the angle at the apex (rope attachment point) the weaker the system. The smaller it is though, the less stability there is. Hence we’re looking for angles that are ideally around sixty degrees.
S – Safety
Think safety from the beginning. Because we’re climbing with a rope above us it’s very easy to think we’re immune to danger. By far the people I teach first aid to who see the most accidents are those who work at climbing walls: not the rock climbing instructors who work outdoors. This is because the more safe people think an activity is, the more complacent they become about safety.
When you arrive at the crag, stick a helmet on. The chances are that if you’re at the bottom of a crag where your mate is rigging a climb above, then at some point rocks will come tumbling down. So stick a helmet on.
Be as efficient in rigging as possible. The less kit you get used to using the fewer links in the system to go wrong.
As soon as you have tied a rope into an anchor attach yourself to it with the use of a prussik. A prussik allows you to move up and down the length of a rope but should snatch and hold you, should you trip, thus keeping you safe near an edge.
Check and ensure that all screw-gate carabiners are done up before you start climbing.
Climbers on the whole are a lovely bunch of people. Climbers are generally easy-going and respect that we’re all at different places on our own respective paths. Using bottom-rope and top-rope rigs is normal for learners, for people seeking to improve their grades, and for the elite climbers trying out new lines that have yet to be climbed. The key to getting on with other climbers is good communication and also to respect the rock.
So before I ever drop a rope down a route I make sure that no one else is about to climb up it. Often I will talk to other climbers at the crag and we’ll agree between us what we want to do and what we will be climbing. Saying hello goes a long way to forging a good relationship.
Climbing on a top-rope system allows you to climb pretty much risk-free: on these climbs there are no consequences for us as climbers if we can’t do a move. But this means we need to be thoughtful about the damage we might be doing to the rock if we persist in our efforts. To that end, always climb in rock shoes (and not big boots or trainers) and if you can’t do it, save the project for another day. This way you won’t polish the rock unnecessarily and others around you won’t get cross waiting.
- Rock Climbing: Essential Skills & Techniques Paperback – 19 Sept. 2011
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