Going Solo – A Solo Toprope Setup


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Rappel the route using your favorite rappel device (I use a GRIGRI 2 for single rope rappels).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Double-check your setup by weighting it and then climb!
  7. 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):

petzl setup

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…


18 thoughts on “Going Solo – A Solo Toprope Setup

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  2. I wanted to know why you didn’t use the grigri2 as an ascender? I am looking to do some solo as well and was considering the grigri2 along with back up knots. I intend to begin with very short and easy climbs to get use to the system and identify possible unsafe areas of it.

    • …because the rope won’t feed through the grigri as you climb. This means you spend time with rope management every time you want to protect a move. The rope feeds smoothly and effortlessly through the micro traxion and microcender.

      Note, petzl themselves do not recommend the grigri for this.

  3. Hi, I used your system for a while then switched to a two rope setup, no knots. I put a shunt on one rope and a grigri on the other. Completely redundant with the ability of rappelling down without removing devices.
    Thanks JT

  4. Hi, I am wondering if you were to replace the Petzl Microcender with a trango cinch so that at the top of the climb or if you want to lower mid way up, you could do so easily? This setup seems like it could work very well for doing laps.

  5. Not a bad idea, Tom. I haven’t used a Trango Cinch before so I don’t know how easily rope would feed through it when climbing on solo toprope. My guess is that it doesn’t feed as smoothly as the Microcender or Traxion. Also, I’m not sure how good a rappel device it is but I know that I *hate* the GriGri for rappels.

  6. Nice page Kevin. I’m considering a similar setup. What are your rope specs? I’m getting hung up dynamic elongation. Petzl cites a risk of contact with the ground if you fall early in a climb.

    • A dynamic rope is fine and the stretch issue is the same as for a top rope. I agree that > 10mm is best. I usually use a 10.2.

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  10. Quick question for you. I do quite a bit of top roping with my son who is much to light to belay me. Would there be an issue with tying in with a figure 8 like a normal situation and then using the traxion and microcender on the belay side of the rope?

    • Not sure I understand the setup you’re asking about. If you are concerned about your son’s weight then you can anchor him to the ground and have him use autolocking belay device such as a GriGri. I would not recommend using the traxion and microcender on the belay side because they are not designed for lowering. If you’re setting up a toprope anyway and are concerned about your son belaying you then why not just toprope solo as described in my post?

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