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Assessing potential lead climbing partners for competence and safety asserts that a lead climb belay is more complicated and has higher potential for a serious accident over a top rope belay.

Is this the case?

Are top rope belays inherently simpler and is the potential for a serious accident much lower than with a lead belay?

Further, in the context and risk of an entire climb, what part does the extra complexity (if any) of belaying a lead vs top roped climber play in the overall safety of climbers?

Note: I am interested specifically in the risks of the belay and not the inherent risk of top roping vs lead climbing. As this is about comparison to top rope, it's reasonable to exclude multi-pitch considerations from answers.

41

Yes. No question.

With top-roping, the belayer can be spacing-out quite a bit and still do their job with a minimum of risk. With one hand on the belay tool, and another sensing the tension of the rope to the climber, you feel when there is some slack, then haul it in without even thinking. If the climber falls, it's rare the fall with be more than a foot or two.

On the other hand, the lead belayer has to be paying much more attention to what the climber is doing. Instead of hauling in the slack as in top-roping, in lead the rope is paid out as the climber ascends.

If the climber suddenly lunges upwards in top roping, faster than the belayer can haul it in, it's no big deal, there will be a little slack, and if they fall, they'll fall to about where they were before lunging, hardly cause for concern. Since the rope is paid out in lead, the belayer has to anticipate how much rope the climber will need. As a result, lead belayers maintain a fair amount of slack in the line. Few things are as demoralizing as making a complicated move while climbing, only to get yanked down because you've run out of slack and the belayer is slow to pay out. This especially can happen when the climber is trying to clip in, where the excess rope is the greatest, and therefore one of the most dangerous times to fall.

When a lead climber falls while climbing, they'll fall whatever the distance to the last anchor is, plus the slack. If the climber falls while struggling to clip in, they'll fall double the distance down to the last anchor. On many routes than can be several feet, equating to a drop of 6 feet or more, before the rope begins to tension. When it does, that can easily yank the belayer up off the ground, and the belayer must be anticipating it or they're going to be having a bad time. I've been climbing with a friend where he slipped while clipping in, and I was suddenly about 4 or 5 feet off the ground hanging off the wall by the time the two of us came to rest. That would not have gone well had I not been paying attention.

So as I am belaying, I must be watching what my partner is doing. When he is climbing, I keep the slack as low as I can without impeding his progress, and when he is ready I pay out more so he can bring the rope up to clip in, anticipate any trouble, then when he is successfully clipped in, haul in a bit of the slack in preparation for him to resume climbing. I have to be careful how much slack he has, as if I have too much near the bottom of the route for example, he could hit the deck, or me, before the rope even tensions. In outdoor climbing locations, varied terrain may present that hazard along the route, and in those situations I must communicate and coordinate the slack/speed relationship with the climber through those portions of the route. In top roping, I barely have to do any of that.

Additionally, as he is climbing, I must keep an eye on every time he clips in, to make sure he does it properly. When fatigued from a difficult climb, it could be easy to clip in backwards, for example. If a clip-in isn't done properly and he falls, the anchor could release, which obviously can be very dangerous. In top toping, I don't even have to look up at all while my partner is climbing.

Ropes are rated for a particular amount of falls at or above a given fall factor, after which the rope must be retired as it is no longer safe. If climbing exclusively top-roping, you will basically never approach a fall factor high enough to even bother thinking about whether it crossed the safety threshold. When lead climbing, that can happen on any route.

  • 3
    "lead climber falls [...] whatever the distance to the last anchor is, plus the slack" -> shouldn't that be: lead climber falls twice the distance to the last anchor + slack? – cbeleites Sep 5 '17 at 6:47
  • Also worth pointing out that, when belaying a lead the belayer may need to pay out and take in slack at different points in the climb (e.g. if the leader clips low-down blots/pro above head height, that turns the next little section into a top-rope until the leader passes the bolt). So there are two different basic techniques in use. – aucuparia Sep 5 '17 at 8:37
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    Also, on top rope a catch is a catch, more or less. On lead, a good belayer can provide a "soft catch" when possible but also break hard if the climber migth hit hte deck or some obstacle. Also, a good belayer is not only belaying, but also keeps keeps an eye out for mistakes by the climber (like letting the rope run behind a leg) – Guran Sep 5 '17 at 8:42
  • @cbeleites Good point. There's also the distance that the belayer is pulled upward plus the amount that the rope stretches. – Qudit Sep 5 '17 at 8:54
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    "On many routes than can be several feet, equating to a drop of 6 feet or more, before the rope begins to tension." Make that 6 metres or more, and you'll slowly start to get into realistic dimensions for typical outdoor routes ;-) – anderas Sep 5 '17 at 9:07
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If a climber on top rope, takes a fall, there isn't much force at all compared with the forces that are generated when a lead climber falls. That force has the potential to pull the belayer into something or even off the ground and into the climber.

There is also a risk, when the lead climber first starts out of falling (before clipping anything) and decking on top of the belayer.

Beyond that you want to pay much closer attention to the climber when leading, since you have to pay out enough slack that the climber is not held back, while at the same time not having too much out. The slack on a top rope climber can be done just by feel for the most part.

So yes, it is more difficult and has a higher potential of injury.

2

I agree with everything said above but nonetheless one should not underestimate the false sense of security when belaying someone climbing on top rope. Because top roping is "safer", there is a greater risk of distraction which can lead to accidents. It would be interesting to look at statistics. Additionally most beginners start climbing on top rope and belaying with little experience. Another factor to consider is which belaying equipment is used. Lastly the risk of rock fall onto the belayer should be equal or perhaps even greater with top rope than lead climbing.

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    On Stack Exchange, "above" and "below" aren't very useful when referring to other posts, as the display order changes between readers and over time. Consider an edit to your post to use a different term (e.g. "in other answers", or similar). – Toby Speight Sep 5 '17 at 16:35
  • Why would the risk of rockfall be greater for top rope climbing? If anything, I'd think that it would be worse for lead climbing since you have to stand closer to the face to avoid being slammed into it in the case of a fall. – Qudit Sep 5 '17 at 21:51
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    re rockfall, two possible reasons: 1) while top roping the rope itself might dislodge a rock above the climber. 2) top roping climbers might be less careful with what they grab. You wouldn't pull hard on a potentially loose rock on lead but on top rope, you might try and go for it. – Guran Sep 6 '17 at 7:29
2

In addition to the good answer from @whatsisname, don't forget about the possibility of gear and/or placement failure.

If you're leading, you have precisely one piece of gear catching your fall. If that doesn't hold, you'd better hope the one below does - and that the extra slack you now have is less than the distance from that gear to the ground. If you've got a bomber gear placement, then you're probably good. If all you've managed to place is a tiny wire, and/or the rock is weak and may let your gear pull out, you need to be looking for your next placement ASAP. And don't forget that gear may come dislodged as the leader pulls the rope through. This all makes your gear placements a long way from perfect.

Conversely, standard best practise for top-roping is a three-point gear placement. You've got plenty of time to choose the best places to fix your gear/slings/whatever, and you can test them to make sure it's secure. Even a two-point setup drops the risk by orders of magnitude; with a three-point setup, the risk of injury through failure of the belay itself is astronomically small. The weakest point in the link now is the belayer doing their job properly.

2

I'm a bit late to the party, but I'll add my two cents.

Some gyms have actually have a portion of the top-rope belay test where the belayer must catch two unannounced falls without looking at the climber. It is fairly simple to belay on top rope where you are not looking at the climber or your hands. As another answer mentioned, you can feel for slack, and then pull it in. While you never want to get so confident that you become lax in your belay technique, top rope belay does not usually require constant attention.

You could in no way belay on lead while not paying attention to your climber. Between feeding slack, taking it in, checking that your climber hasn't screwed up, and more, belaying on lead is a whole different level. Also, as the fall factor is generally greater, more care has to be put into where you stand as you belay, since you will get pulled towards where the rope is headed, which more often than not, pulls you towards the wall and upwards. While that is a concern top roping, leading has greater fall forces and can pull the belayer off the ground. In fact, I have seen a belayer and climber collide in midair during a fall. As a belayer, that means it is even more critical to hold onto the rope at all costs, since you have a significantly higher chance of hitting something while belaying.

Top rope belaying is inherently simpler, as there are fewer things to pay attention to at any given time. Lead belay has additional things to keep track of, including greater fall factors, as well as everything that is required for top rope belaying.

1

As others pointed out, as a rule yes. Here are a few cases where lead belay is actually easier:

  1. on a well-drilled route with crux (like a roof) close to the bottom and bolt above but within easy clipping range. In that case, the lead belay will make cruising the crux pretty safe while the toprope belay can lead to grounding because of rope stretch.

  2. a traverse with well-drilled anchors before key moves. In that case, the key moves will be well-secured on lead while you need to unclip (and get the danger of a pendulum swing) before the key moves when following. Assuming that the draws are still in...

Now (2) is obviously unpleasant for the climber but if the traverse happens over a ridge, the belayer needs to catch the climber before he hangs in unclimbable terrain (you can use slings for ascending on the straight rope part but might not easily get past the ridge if there is no bolt or other fixture in reach).

So while as a rule lead climbing and belay are harder than toproping, there are a few rare exceptions.

  • 1
    These cases don't suggest that lead-belaying is easier, they suggest that it's safer (if done correctly). – Beanluc Sep 5 '17 at 20:46

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