I travel to Las Vegas fairly frequently for business and when I’m there I usually try to get out for a few hours of climbing with my friend, Larry. But Larry isn’t always available, so I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the idea of solo climbing on a top rope. So I did some research to determine the base (and safest) way to do it. After reading a bunch of articles online (including one from Steph Davis, one from Matt Samet, and one from Petzl) I decided that the best setup was to to use two different ascenders (or progress capture devices).
I chose the Petzl Microcender and the Petzl Micro Traxion. I use the Microcender as the primary device because it doesn’t have teeth that could potentially damage the rope sheath (which would be highly unlikely due to the small forces involved in a top rope fall).
Here’s how the basic setup works:
- Find a suitable route that has an accessible anchor point at the top, follows a fairly straight line, and doesn’t have sharp edges that could damage the rope when it is weighted (when rappelling or climbing). If you’re climbing alone, it’s also a good idea to choose a route that isn’t too remote and/or will enable you to get help by phone or yelling if something unusual were to happen.
- Create a bomber anchor and fix the rope to it (I use a figure eight knot). If the route is shorter than half a rope length, attach the rope at its midpoint and hang both strands down the route (see #7 below). If the route is longer than half a rope length, attach the rope at its end and hang the entire rope down the route.
- Rappel the route using your favorite rappel device (I use a GRIGRI 2 for single rope rappels).
- Set up your progress capture devices as shown above and below. Shoulder slings and a short length of webbing or cord are used to keep the primary device up and away from the secondary device. This cord is not load bearing so it doesn’t need to be beefy.
- It helps to weight the bottom of your rope with a water bottle, pack or something else to make sure that the rope runs smoothly through your devices.
- Double-check your setup by weighting it and then climb!
- OPTIONAL: If you have two strands of rope hanging down from your anchor (see #2 above) then you can tie loops (e.g. overhand on a bight) at 10-15 foot intervals on the second strand and clip into these loops as you climb. This provides redundancy for the rope in case it is severed. In my opinion this is not necessary in most cases. I would do this if I felt that the chosen route had high potential to damage my rope if I fell.
Here’s another view of my setup:
And here’s an image from Petzl showing a similar setup (my setup is a slightly simplified version of this):
I tried this setup for the first time yesterday on a route called Chicken Eruptus at Willow Spring. I anchored my rope to a large tree, rapped the route, and climbed it 3 times. It was almost 200 feet from the base to my anchor so I was able to climb about 600 feet in 20-30 minutes. The self-belay setup worked very smoothly and I felt just as safe as I’d feel on a toprope with a partner belaying me.
The only improvement I’ll make to this setup is to use carabiners on the progress capture devices that are designed to prevent cross-loading such as the Black Diamond Gridlock or DMM Belay Master 2. These carabiners will keep everything nicely aligned and tidy.
This setup combined with common sense provides a safe way to climb outside without a partner. With all the business travel I do, this will open up some new possibilities…