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I'm starting to learn how to rock climb, and there seem to be two types of climbing, top-rope climbing and lead climbing. What's the difference between the two, and what would be better for a beginning climber?

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Top Roping:

Top roping has an anchor at the top of the climb. The rope goes from the belayer at the bottom, all the way up to the top, through the anchor, and back down to the climber. If the climber falls, he or she only falls they only drop a little bit, provided the belayer has taken up all the slack. Additionally, the belayer pulls the rope up and brings it in to take up slack on the climber.

Top roping is most definitely the way to go for a beginner.

Lead Climbing:

With lead climbing, the rope isn't always above the climber. Using fall protection either attached permanently to the wall, or placed by the climber, the climbing climbs, and periodically clips the rope into the protection as he or she ascends. If the climber falls, they will fall a distance equal to twice their height above their last placed anchor, plus the amount that the rope stretches, which may be a significant distance. Opposite to top-roping, in lead climbing the climber pulls the rope up, and the belayer lets the rope out to allow the climb.

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"only fall as far as their last placed anchor" <-- should be a minimum of twice this distance + rope stretch, which will be substantial the further up the climb they are. So if you are 3M above your last protection, your minimum fall is 3M + 3M + rope stretch. –  Ryley Jan 25 '12 at 20:02
    
and climbing rope will stretch 30% - plus, slack in the system... this is how I almost ended up on the floor of a climbing centre from the top of a 12 metre wall... –  HorusKol Jan 25 '12 at 22:45
    
I edited the answer to correct the mistakes pointed out by Ryley and HorusKol. –  Ben Crowell Apr 14 '13 at 14:24
    
Top-roping is an accessible way into roped climbing, but I've met many climbers who would challenge the idea that it's how beginners 'should' start. If your ultimate objective is to lead, finding a leader who'll let you second them will probably teach you more and quicker; bouldering is probably better for learning how to move on rock; and there's no fundamental reason you shouldn't start leading from the beginning, if you have competent supervision and access to suitable routes. –  nekomatic Sep 16 at 11:56

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