Maybe you really want to go to a new climbing spot, but you can’t get to the top to set up an anchor, or maybe you are just ready for the next challenge in your climbing career. Whatever the reason, many climbers transition from only top rope climbing to both top rope and lead climbing at some point in their climbing career.
In this article, we’ll break down what exactly top rope climbing and lead climbing are, as well as discuss some of the similarities and differences between the styles. We’ll also talk about some of the risks involved with both and how to mitigate some of these risks.
First Things First: What is Top Roping?
If you generally climb with a rope at a gym, top roping is probably what you’ve been doing already. Top rope climbing is when the anchor is already set, and the rope is running through the anchor, with both ends of the rope on the ground. When you tie into the rope and are ready to start climbing, you will have your belayer on the other end of the rope taking in the slack as you climb, so that if you fall, you will likely only fall about a foot or however much your rope stretches.
Top rope climbing is how many people start out with roped climbing, and it can be done both inside or outside. If you want to climb outside a lot, top rope climbing can limit the number of places you can go, since not all outdoor climbing areas are accessible from the top. Many outdoor climbing places you will have to lead climb to get to the top.
Top rope climbing is generally thought of as a safe form of climbing since you are attached to a rope that is secured above you the whole time. It is a great way to push your climbing level and ability by challenging yourself on harder routes, without adding any risk to your climbing. Many people love top rope climbing because it gives them the freedom to try any level of route that they want.
What is Lead Climbing?
Lead climbing is climbing where you bring the rope up the climb with you, as opposed to climbing up towards the anchor where the rope is already attached. In lead climbing, you use quickdraws, active or passive protection, or ice screws depending on what style of lead climbing you’re doing to protect yourself as you climb up.
As you lead up a climb, you will attach the rope to the wall; you’re going up using quickdraws, active or passive protection, or ice screws. This creates almost a temporary anchor point that you will then climb above so you can create the next temporary anchor point and so on until you reach the top of the climb.
Lead climbing can be done in a variety of different sub-disci44plines, and this is where the different types of protection come in. If you want to go sport climbing, you will be using quickdraws to attach the rope to fixed bolts in the wall or rock as you climb up. If you want to go trad climbing, you will be using camming devices, nuts, and hexes, which are all pieces of gear that go into cracks in the rock to protect you if you fall. If you want to go ice climbing, you will be using ice screws to protect yourself as you climb up.
Regardless of the style of lead climbing you choose, there are more risks involved in lead climbing than there are in sport climbing. Lead climbing can lead to larger falls, which can sometimes hurt. Lead climbing also takes a lot more self-awareness than top rope climbing.
While some climbers dislike lead climbing because they can’t safely try every route on a wall, other climbers love lead climbing for the added mental challenge. Lead climbing pushes your mental climbing ability far more than top rope climbing does.
Lead climbing also allows you to go climbing at significantly more outdoor climbing areas than top rope climbing does, since many outdoor climbing areas are not accessible by top. You have to be able to lead up the routes at many climbing areas to be able to climb there, so lead climbing opens up a ton of new climbing areas for you to explore.
Is Lead Climbing Harder than Top Roping?
In terms of the grade of climbing that you’re doing when top rope climbing or lead climbing, neither is inherently harder. You can top rope a super easy route or top rope a super hard route, and the same goes for lead climbing. The grade of the route is not what differentiates between top rope climbing and lead climbing.
Lead climbing takes significantly more mental concentration than top rope climbing and has a greater likelihood of injury since you can fall much farther when you’re lead climbing than you can when you’re top rope climbing. Many climbers are scared of lead climbing more for the mental challenge than anything else.
When lead climbing, many climbers say that they get into what they often call a lead headspace. This means that you are more aware of your movements and are often taking fewer risks in terms of the moves you do and the routes you choose to lead. This is especially important to be aware of the first few times you lead climb since it can be a pretty daunting thing to start.
Lead climbing can push a climber mentally significantly more than top rope climbing but is sometimes viewed as harder to push yourself physically. If you want the biggest physical challenge in climbing and just want to climb the hardest route possible, top rope climbing is probably the best style of climbing for you. If you love the mental challenge of climbing, then lead climbing might be the best style of climbing for you.
How Far Can You Fall Lead Climbing?
Unlike top rope climbing, where you will only fall into the stretch of the rope, so usually about 6 inches to a foot, in lead climbing, you can fall much further. If you are above the last piece of protection or the last place you attached to the rock, and you fall, you will fall twice the distance of you to the last piece of protection. This is because you will fall the distance of you to the last piece of protection, plus that length of rope again going below the protection.
Say, for example, that your waist, where you are tied into your rope, is about two feet above your last piece of protection. If you were to fall from this distance, you would fall the distance from you to your last piece of protection and then that distance again. In this scenario, that means that you would likely fall about four feet.
While this might seem scary, there are ways to limit the length of your fall in lead climbing. If you pick routes that are well protected, that is to say, that the places where you can attach to the rock are not that far apart, your falls will be smaller than if the protection was really far apart. A route that is run-out is a route with protection that is far apart and will lead to longer falls.
One thing to be aware of when you start lead climbing, though, is that falling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a proper way to fall safely, and over time, you will begin to understand which routes have what is called “clean falls.” A clean fall is a fall where you are unlikely to slam into the rock or rub-down the rock on the way down. It’s a fall where you will only fall through the air until your feet meet the rock at the end of your fall.
How Long Should You Wait Before You Try Lead Climbing?
There is no hard and fast rule for how long you should be top rope climbing before you try lead climbing. Lead climbing is all about your risk management abilities and your ability to realistically assess your climbing level. It can be easy on top rope to overestimate your own abilities since the risk is low, but you can’t do that in lead climbing.
To start to transition from top rope climbing to lead climbing, start to think more critically about your movements while top rope climbing. You should also try to be as realistic as possible when you judge your own climbing abilities. We know it can be easy to want to say that you’re better than you are to impress friends, but this can be really dangerous in lead climbing, so it’s a good practice to get out of.
Another thing you can do to help with the transition and getting used to the lead headspace is to practice lead climbing by mock leading. This is where you are tied into two ropes at once and are top rope climbing with a belayer on one rope, and are clipping the other rope into protection as you go. This allows you to practice the motions of lead climbing in a safe environment.
Many climbers say that the biggest challenge with transitioning from top rope climbing to lead climbing, is the mental transition, so pretending that you are on lead by mock leading can be a great way to help this transition. Having your top rope belayer give you a loose belay can even begin to mimic the feeling of not having a rope going from you to the top of the climb, while still keeping you safe. This can also help you get used to longer falls since a loose belay will give you more fall room.
Summary: Lead Climbing vs. Top Rope Climbing
Lead climbing can seem like a completely foreign concept to a new climber, but with time it will start to feel like the new normal. Lead climbing allows you to go to so many more outdoor climbing places than you would be able to with only top rope climbing. Just remember to take your time with the transition and stay safe.
We recommend taking a lead climbing class from a guiding organization or your local gym to learn how to lead climb safely. This is one of the best ways to minimize the risks associated with lead climbing. Climbing is a risky activity, but if you take your time and learn how to safely do everything, you can minimize the risks associated with rock climbing.
If you think that you’re ready to start transitioning from top rope climbing to lead climbing, go for it! There are so many ways that you can safely start the transition, and it will allow you to explore so many new climbing areas. If you don’t think lead climbing is for you, that’s totally fine too. The wonderful thing about climbing is that there are so many different disciplines within climbing, that there’s something for everyone.
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