Friday, July 9, 2010

A Top-Roping Guide to the Trapps

Until very recently, I looked down upon top-ropers.

I was a trad climber. I was working my way up the grades, doing every climb as an "on-sight." I worked through Gunks 5.6 this way, then 5.7, then 5.8, and into 5.9. Along the way, I had some very exciting moments on the lead working through moves that were totally new to me. This was purely accidental; my partners were no more experienced than I was and I liked pushing things, challenging myself. I had no one to take me up harder climbs so I had no alternative but to get after it myself. Even though I had no choice about it, I still regarded my path as morally superior to rehearsing climbs on top-rope before leading them. Certainly it seemed more exciting.

And then I broke my ankle while climbing last fall, gained 15 pounds, came back this spring and found myself struggling on some of those 5.8's. I started fretting about my frame of mind on lead. One day I'd feel fine, another I'd place five pieces of pro in fifteen feet and have to hang because I didn't want to commit to the totally protected crux.

And I started to ask myself: why not forget these worries and work some harder routes on top-rope? Is there really anything wrong with it? If I top-rope, I might lose some excitement in my life. I have thus far made it a point to avoid top-roping Retribution (5.10b), for example, because it has always been my plan that one day I will feel the urge to walk up and lead it on-sight. If I throw a top-rope on it and work out the moves before I lead it, I will lose forever that experience of discovery on lead.

On the other hand, will I ever get to the point where I feel comfortable walking up to Retribution and leading it without working on some real live Gunks 5.10's on top-rope first? At this point I'd have to say the answer is probably no.

After thinking it over I came to the conclusion that my climbing will progress much faster if I'm not so doctrinaire about the top-roping thing. And so I put it into practice recently, top-roping Phoebe after leading Ken's Crack. And the heavens did not fall. It was actually quite fun and instructive.

But while top-roping may no longer be on my "don't" list, I do think a few rules are in order. Most of these are well-known rules designed to minimize conflict at the crag. One I have created out of my own desire to preserve as much excitement in climbing as I can.


1. At the Gunks, top-roping is best practiced on a weekday, especially if you plan to occupy a popular climb or the chains above a popular climb. Getting in the way of people who wish to lead is a no-no. Don't do it.

2. If you are using fixed chains for an anchor, do not run your rope through the fixed gear. Use your own equipment to save wear and tear on the fixed chains.

3. Set up super-safe anchors for your top-roping pleasure. Please, be careful. When you top-rope, by necessity you test the anchor. It must be solid, and should be redundant. Don't fall into the mentality that it doesn't need to be bombproof because it is "only top-roping." That is a recipe for disaster.

4. Think about which routes you want to top-rope and save some for the on-sight! There are some routes that are easy to set up for top-roping, but which I really want to save to lead, and so I don't intend to top-rope them. Two examples: MF (5.9) and Retribution (5.10b). In fact, for me I think top-roping will be mostly reserved for routes with poor protection, which I'll never want to lead. Routes like Coronary (5.10b) or even easier R-rated routes like Fitschen's Folly (5.8).

Finally, I offer a resource, a chart I created of many easy top-rope setups in the Trapps. It focuses on 5.10's, but there are harder climbs too and some easier climbs, most of which were chosen because of their reputations for poor protection. You should know that I have personally tested very few of these and that some of them are set-ups I believe should work but which may be hard to put into practice without creating a damaging situation for your rope, or which may require directionals that are difficult to place. But most of them should work just fine. As always when climbing, your own judgment must be your guide. Don't blindly trust in my judgement, or in anyone else's, for that matter.

I intend to update this chart every time I test one of the set-ups and get more useful information. If you'd like to get a copy of it as a Word document, contact me here and I'll email it to you.

2015 Update:

This post has been one of my most popular. It gets hits all the time and I feel a little bit uneasy about it because I haven't revised this document in over four years and I have no intention of doing so. I also occasionally shudder at the thought of some climbing newbies taking this document and getting themselves in over their heads somewhere. So I'm going to reiterate and highlight the caveats that I already stated above:

I haven't tested many of the setups contained in this document! I can't guarantee that they are all practical or safe!

If you do not know what you are doing, hire a guide! Don't create an unsafe situation for yourself or others just because a piece of paper says you ought to be able to set up a top rope somewhere.

That is all.
Trapps Toprope List


  1. Great read, and thanks for the link!

  2. Hi SethG: I am taking my 13 yr. son to The Gunks on Saturday for the first time. He is the climber and I just belay for him. Having never been there before, could you offer any advice? I think he mainly wants to top rope there and maybe try some easy trad? thanks, Doug

  3. Hi Doug, I gather your son does some trad leading? If he does then you could look at the numerous easy climbs in the Trapps that reach a fixed station at the end of one pitch for rappelling.

    The Gunks isn't really the best place for toproping although it is possible. At the left end of the Trapps cliff there are many lines that can be set up by walking around to the top, although it will not be easy to find these locations if you are unfamiliar with the area. Peterskill, which is part of Minnewaska State Park, is a much better area for toproping, as it is easy to walk around to the top of the cliff and there are many bolted stations from which to set up ropes. But even at Peterskill I would still be a little worried about the two of you, since you do not climb and your son (I'm guessing) at 13 has little experience in setting up these systems. Even with bolted stations some skill is needed to set up a rope properly (these bolts are often flat on the rock, requiring the user to extend the set-up over the lip of the clifftop), and the area in which you do the setting up is quite exposed.

    If you are interested in Peterskill go to Rock and Snow on Main Street in New Paltz and buy the little pamphlet guidebook.

    Have you considered hiring a guide for the day? This really might be your safest option for getting a rewarding experience without worry. There are several reputable guide services. I've had good experiences in the past with Alpine Endeavors. Here is their website:

    Good luck!

  4. Seth: Thank you for your response. Would you have time for a call so I could ask you a few more questions before we make the 4 hour drive? If so, I will post my phone number. thanks again, Doug.

  5. Hey, just saw this. I'd be happy to talk with you, but it seems wrong for you to post your phone number. You could send me an email at We could "talk" on email or you could send me a phone number, whatever you like.

  6. Hi Seth, May I suggest that you add to your comment about anchor chains - not only use your own gear, but don't put them through the rings at the end of the chains so people can still rap off of the chains.

    A great addition to top roping opportunities at the Gunks is Dickie Barre in Peter's Kill. The Clamshell wall is tall and you can hike to the top and set up TR's at the bolts placed at the top of each climb. Bring some cordalettes or long slings so the biners can hang below the edge. The climbs on that wall vary from 5.6 to 5.10.