The gap between top rope and lead climbing boils down to one difference with significant implications: the possibility of a leader fall. Here’s the information for making the transition to lead climbing and belaying.
Most new climbers don’t face many things scarier than taking a whipper. In top-roping, you’re always climbing below the anchor, so the consequences of a fall are functionally zero. But when you climb above your last bolt or piece on lead, you commit yourself to a host of unknown variables.
The length of a fall, obstacles that might be in the way, quality of gear or hardware, and your belayer’s experience are all factors. That’s not to mention the psychological aspect: a leader fall can be stimulating to the point of terror, especially if you’re new to it. Early on in your lead climbing, even low-risk falls can seem daunting. We’ve all been there — trust me.
This resource lays out the key differences between top rope and lead climbing, along with proven methods and helpful suggestions for making the transition. It considers factors like how to interact with lead falls, give a good lead belay, and communicate with your climbing partner effectively. It also includes various external resources to help develop your rock climbing. Parts 1-3 cover lead belaying. For tips on lead climbing, see Parts 4 and 5.
Primer: Functional Differences Between Top Rope and Lead Climbing
In top-rope climbing, the rope is already threaded through an anchor at the top of the route. The climber ties into one end of the rope on the ground. The belayer attaches a belay device to the other side of the rope, securing the slack.
The belayer progressively takes in slack as the climber ascends. The system essentially guarantees safety for the climber. If they come off the rock, they won’t fall far, if at all. And they can ask for a “take” and rest at any time.
To lead, the climber ties into the rope on the ground before threading it through any protection on the wall (stick clipping notwithstanding). When the leader passes their last bolt on a sport route or last piece of gear on a trad route, they expose themselves to a real risk in the event of a fall.
Obviously, the longer the distance between bolts or gear placements, the bigger the potential fall. As a rule of thumb, fall consequences get more severe as falls get longer.
In the United States, climbers borrow the Motion Picture Association’s film rating system to rate fall severity.
If you see “PG-13” attached to a route grade, it means falls are safe but may stimulate some audiences. “R” means bolts or placements are spaced significantly, and a fall in the wrong place will likely result in injury. “X”-rated routes are objectively dangerous — falling from a critical area on an X-rated route will result in severe injury or death.
Of course, none of that matters if you’re top-roping.
Before You Tie In, Find a Climbing Partner You Trust
You must trust your belayer when you’re climbing on lead. Regardless of their experience, they should focus intently on your safety while you’re on the sharp end.
You should communicate openly enough with them to navigate adequate safety checks. And they should be undistracted while you’re climbing so that you can communicate back and forth when necessary.
Taking a lead fall with a random person on belay can be a serious proposition. It works out most of the time — that’s what safety checks (see Part 2) are for. But I think of it as, “While I’m climbing, my belayer is responsible for protecting my life. Do I trust them with it?”
You’ll also climb better if you have 100% trust in your belayer. When you’re in the crux, above a bolt, the last thing you want to creep into your mind is whether you’re safe if you fall.
If you’re unsure, vetting an unknown belayer should start with the question: “Have you lead belayed before?” Then, you can ask them about their experience and evaluate their methods.
While I’m doing that, I pay attention to the state of the person’s gear and their general level of comfort with handling it. Say I’m tied in, and my belayer goes to load their ATC, but they load it the wrong way. Personally, that’s a cue for me to untie and reevaluate. If you’re not confident that you can teach someone how to lead belay, don’t put yourself in danger to try to do it.
Part 1: Applying Top Rope Belaying to Lead Belaying
Top rope belaying is light years easier than lead belaying. The best belayers pay attention to their technique, seek feedback from their climbers, and generally hone their process throughout their entire careers.
You can apply principles from top rope belaying to your lead belay methods, but it can’t teach you everything you need to know. Here’s the rundown.
Top Rope Belay Technique
To give a solid top rope belay, you should always check your system for safety, then follow the PBUS protocol (see below) to belay.
Once you have loaded the climbing rope in your belay device and attached it to your harness, the safety check follows three steps:
- Make sure the device is loaded the right way. Generally speaking, the climber’s strand should be on “top” of the device, and the brake should be on “bottom.” Most devices have engraved diagrams to sort out any discrepancies.
- Make sure your device is attached, right side up, to your belay loop (not your harness’s hardpoints) with a locking carabiner. If you have to twist or contort the belay loop to manipulate the device, it’s likely rigged upside down.
- Make sure the gate of the carabiner is locked. If you’re using an assisted-braking belay device, make sure the assisted brake function is working correctly (usually, I check this by yanking the rope out from the climber side of my Gri-Gri without holding the brake).
Top rope belay follows the PBUS method — “pull, brake, under, slide.”
To start, pull the slack out of the rope by pulling the climber strand down with your nondominant hand and the brake strand up through the device with your dominant hand. Move it below the belay device with your brake hand in the same spot on the rope. Then, grab the brake strand underneath the brake hand with the nondominant hand.
Slide your brake hand toward the belay device, never relinquishing the grasp on the rope, to reestablish the starting PBUS position.
Climbers consider PBUS effective because it teaches new belayers never to take their hand off the brake strand.
In terms of safety, that’s the most crucial thing the belayer does for obvious reasons. Applied downward force on the brake strand is the only thing that arrests the climber after falling (barring particular circumstances or assisted-braking devices).
In top rope belaying, that’s pretty much where it ends. Generally, the belayer only gives the climber slack if they want to lower. And catching a fall is just a matter of holding the brake strand and letting their weight counterbalance the climber.
The principle of always holding brake applies to lead belaying, but there’s also much more to it.
Lead Belay Foundational Techniques
Climbers should perform the safety checks (see above, or full explanation in Part 2) no matter whether they’re top roping or lead climbing.
During a lead climb, there will more than likely be short periods where you’ll be belaying your climber on what amounts to a top rope. If they’ve clipped a draw or piece above their harness, their fall risk is mitigated (like it would be on top rope). In those moments, the lead belayer should use the PBUS method.
From there, the similarities between the techniques drop off.
Functionally, lead belaying means giving your leader slack so they can move up the rock while also keeping your hand in the brake position (below the device if you’re using a tube device or in the manufacturer-prescribed position for assisted-belay devices).
ATC (or tube style) lead belay technique is relatively straightforward.
Because the braking action requires friction, the rope can slide through the device freely as long as it’s not loaded. So, the belayer keeps their hands positioned above and below the device and feeds rope through as needed. Again, never let go of the brake strand; instead, slide your hand along it to advance it.
Belaying with assisted-braking devices means following the manufacturer’s instructions. The best way to learn the hand positions for lead belaying with a Gri-Gri is through a mentor, professional, or video — explanations without demonstrations tend to mean little. It’s essential to get comfortable with the so-called “home position” as prescribed by Petzl.
Belaying: How to Transition Between Taking and Giving Slack and Catch Falls
The lead belayer has a lot of responsibilities, but the most important ones are to effectively catch lead falls and safely transition between taking and giving rope slack.
To safely catch falls, the belayer needs to pay attention to the amount of slack in the system. Keeping a “soft J” shape in the rope between the belay device and the first piece or quickdraw is a good rule of thumb.
A big “U” shape is usually too much, and the climber might fall too far; a straight line means they’ll whip hard back into the wall if they fall, or the belayer might pull them off if they make a big sudden move.
This belayer is giving the leader just the right amount of slack:
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Keep in mind that until the climber gets past the first bolt or two on a sport route (15-20 feet), you might need a little less slack in the rope to keep them comfortably off the ground. When your leader does fall, you might come off the ground. I’ve done this a lot, at my give-or-take 125-pound fighting weight. In this or any case where the climber falls, your most important job remains the same: Do not let go of the brake strand.
The other primary job is to smoothly, quickly, and safely transition between taking and giving rope. You’ll have to swap between hand positions to do it, especially if you’re using a Gri-Gri or similar device.
Paying attention to your climber and establishing good communication (see step four) helps a lot because your effectiveness boils down to reaction time. The faster you can give your climber what they need, the better; so, if you can anticipate what they’re about to do, you can get ready for it.
Of course, the critical functional principle remains the same in a transition from giving to taking: do not let go of the brake strand.
Methods for Easing Into Lead Belaying and Climbing
You might want to ease yourself into leading before you go to the crag and turn the dial to “full send.” Here are a few ways to do that.
- Take a Lead Belay Class From Professionals: Most gyms and guide services offer instructional clinics on lead belaying. If you hire a guide, chances are you’ll belay them on lead at some point during the day. It’s the guide’s responsibility to teach you solid methods. Especially if you’re used to climbing indoors, lead belay classes at gyms are another generally safe option. There, instructors can teach best practices in a safe environment.
- “Mock” Leading and Fall Practice: Another technique to learn lead climbing without throwing yourself onto the sharp end is to practice with “mock” leads. The climber ties into a top rope and a lead rope simultaneously in a mock lead. The system works with one or two belayers. One belayer tends the top rope, and another (optional) belayer handles the lead line.
- Fall practice can be the next step. Try to identify a safe location for a leader fall — a few feet above the second bolt on a gently overhung route, for instance. Then, have the leader climb to the spot and take a fall. You can prearrange details like whether the leader will announce the fall, etc. You can even put a crash pad down for extra security — but, of course, the idea is not to need it.
- Getting on the Sharp End: Once you’ve confirmed your belayer is qualified and you feel confident in your safety, the time comes to pull off the ground for a real lead. Before any climb, you should always (read: ALWAYS) go through a series of safety checks.
Note that anyone at any experience level can utilize these techniques. GearJunkie climbing editor Seiji Ishii has climbed for decades, but a recent bout with knee surgery complications kept him off the rock for over 2 years. When he came back, he started rebuilding his confidence by top roping first, and then relying on his most trusted partners for support.
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Part 2: Equipment and Safety Checks
If there’s a mantra in roped climbing, it’s “always check your knot.” That means: before you climb, inspect your knot to make sure it’s safe.
Do this every time you climb — with no exceptions.
The knot check applies to all climbing, top rope or lead, single pitch or multi-pitch. Most climbers tie in with the figure-eight follow-through.
Check out how to properly tie and dress one here. Your figure eight should go through both of your harnesses’ tie-in points, and you should be able to count 10 strands in the knot.
If you don’t get those results, untie and start over.
***Note: You should never concentrate on anything except tying your knot while you’re tying your knot. Improperly tied knots can come untied.
Once the climber is tied in, and the belayer has their device threaded, it’s time to go through safety checks. Here are all the steps in the sequence. They can go in any order, as long as they all happen, and the climber and belayer should both confirm each one:
- Check the belayer’s harness and the climber’s harness.
Belayer’s harness: waist belt closure should be double backed. The belay device should be attached with a locking carabiner to the belay loop.
Climber’s harness: waist belt closure should be double backed. The knot should be tied through both hardpoints.
- Check the climber’s knot. Count 10 strands altogether.
- Check the belayer’s setup. Make sure the device is threaded the right way. If it’s an assisted-braking device, test the assisted brake by pulling slack out sharply. Make sure the gate of the carabiner is locked.
- Make sure there’s a knot in the loose end of the rope (the slack behind the belayer). I take this to the extreme: even if I’m climbing a 30-foot route with a 70m rope, I’ll check to make sure there’s a stopper knot at the end every time. Why? I would deck before the stopper knot became a factor in that situation. But good habits can save your life — I’ve been in other situations where stopper knots were critical. Tying one every time helps ensure I always have one when I need it.
- Make sure the climber has the adequate gear to make it to the top of the route and back down safely.
Once you’ve confirmed all that, you’re ready to climb.
Part 3: Establishing Communication and Route Commands
The climber and belayer also need to agree on ways to communicate once the climber is on the route. There are a lot of ways to communicate while climbing, but commands are the most critical way.
The leader can ask for whatever they need from the belayer with a command. The belayer’s responsibility is simply to obey the command.
For introductory lead climbing, commands can be simple. In the standard sequence to start climbing, the belayer says “belay on” to let the climber know they’re ready. The climber says “climbing” when they start up the route, and the belayer acknowledges that with “climb on.” (Variants include “on rock,” “rock on!” and so forth.)
It’s fairly typical to hear commands yelled between climbers at the crag. You should only raise your voice to give commands when it’s necessary, like on a big wall where wind or pitch length may be a factor.
In tight amphitheaters or slot canyons like the Black Corridor at Red Rocks, one loud party can cause other parties to have to yell, too. Soon, voices are echoing off the walls and it gets hard to concentrate (and, by extension, prioritize safety). At crowded cliffs, it also helps to use names along with commands.
As soon as the climber pulls off the deck, they get the belayer’s full attention. From there, the climber can dictate what the belayer does with two simple commands.
- “Slack” means the belayer needs to give the climber more rope. They might be getting ready to make a big move or clip.
- “Take” signals the belayer to take slack out of the system. I like to eliminate gray areas when I give this command: “take a little,” which means I’d like the rope a bit tighter but not as tight as possible. “Take hard” means take all the slack you can; I’m about to hang on the rope.
Climbers can also announce that they’re clipping or falling.
And once they’re at the top of a route and have clipped the anchor, they can request the belayer to lower. That command changes if the climber plans to lower by rappelling (a separate topic not covered here).
Of course, variations on all these themes are possible. Some climbing partners have enough candor to hold conversations or heckle each other during a lead.
However familiar, any good climber/belayer relationship (or “belaytionship”) is built on a foundation of trust rooted in fundamental principles. Good communication boils down to the climber’s confidence that their belayer can answer their commands and competently react to unexpected outcomes, like surprise falls.
Part 4: Climbing on the Sharp End
Compared to a belayer, a lead climber needs to keep track of relatively few items. But the mental game of leading is vast and challenging.
After you’ve gone through your safety checks (including making sure you have enough gear to get up and back down), your tasks as a climber get pretty bare. Ask for slack if you need it; ask for a take if you need that; otherwise, keep climbing and clip gear.
Simple, right? In a lot of ways, yes; but what happens to you on the sharp end depends a lot more on how you prepare for it, and whether you can maintain a positive headspace while you’re climbing.
It’s usually pretty easy to identify climbers with bad vibes just by watching them. Rigid or shaky movement, blurting or yelling to communicate instead of talking, fussing with gear or stopping a lot, and consistent pain face (as opposed to happy face) are all fairly reliable indicators of a climber’s bad mood.
A lead climber with a positive mindset generally climbs fluidly and with good pacing. They typically communicate in even tones and smile or laugh. They may generate intense effort during cruxes but don’t overexert themselves elsewhere. They stop to clip and/or rest periodically, and then proceed smoothly back to climbing.
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A relaxed leader gives themselves a better chance to make moves and link sequences than a tense, nervous one does. And if they do fall, they may even stand less of a chance to hurt themselves because they could be more relaxed in the air and during the landing.
The question: how do you generate good vibes on lead?
Arno Ilgner’s “The Rock Warrior’s Way” is a time-tested manual for developing a positive attitude as a climber. It teaches far too many lessons to relate here, but going through a few basic steps can help you get started.
- Visualize yourself climbing well before you get on a route. Picture yourself climbing easy sections effortlessly. Then, when you come to a crux, picture yourself accepting the challenge with the mindset of making it through, climbing your best, and continuing to breathe steadily. (The antithesis is to imagine yourself pumping out, breathing erratically, and taking catastrophic falls. Instead, commit to moving away from negative fixation.)
- For the very new leader, assess fall risks while you’re still on the ground. Does the route have any widely spaced bolts with sections that look blank? Are there any ledges you might fall onto? If you’re concerned, talk it over with your belayer or even ask around at the cliff. In the early going, build confidence by seeking out relatively safe routes. Accept that you might fall, and then move on; do not fixate on the possibility of a fall.
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- Breathe steadily. The cadence of your breath can help you move fluidly, conserve energy, and stay calm.
- Commit to the moves on the route as soon as you pull off the ground. If you’ve already accepted the possibility of falling and have an idea of the fall risk, you don’t need to think about it anymore. Now, concentrate on climbing well and enjoying the process.
- (The author’s personal approach): Have fun. Genuinely enjoy the adventure. Smile, and talk if it makes you comfortable. Sing if you want. Laugh if something’s funny. As long as you’re not so absent-minded that you skip bolts or create huge runouts by forgetting to place gear, having fun while you’re climbing will help you stay loose and keep the task in perspective.
- Be open to changes. Maybe a sequence appears to work a lot differently than you thought, now that you’re up here instead of on the ground. Give your new idea a try! You are in the process of learning; go ahead and learn. Your belayer will take care of the rest.
When you’re on lead, remember that your belayer is well-equipped to keep you out of harm’s way and enjoy the adventure.
Part 5: How to Take a Whipper and What Not to Do on Lead
If anyone tells you that taking leader falls doesn’t scare them, don’t believe them. It’s elementally scary; you literally fall off a cliff.
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But, there are ways to acquaint yourself with it; preparation and practice can lead to mental calm, which can go a long way.
***Note: In some situations, a leader fall is objectively dangerous. X-rated routes or pitches may simply be unprotectable; there are slab pitches approaching 200 feet in Yosemite with only one bolt placed near the anchor to prevent a factor 2 fall. Obviously, falling almost anywhere on these pitches would be catastrophic.
One way to develop your relationship with lead falls is to cherry-pick terrain where it’s safe to take one. Gently overhanging or steep routes with tightly spaced bolts are ideal. Intuitively, you fall into space when you fall on steep terrain — instead of potentially crashing back into the rock like you would on slab.
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Especially for a new leader, tightly spaced bolts can reduce the sensation of exposure.
Some climbers like to take practice falls (covered in step one) to get used to it. The method has a pretty solid track record, and multiple professionals adhere to it. For instance, accomplished British climber Hazel Findlay’s mental training program teaches fall practice to climbers who want to improve their head game.
The other way to start falling is to climb a route that forces you off. The logic is that if you climb at or above your limit, you’re eventually going to fall (maybe not on every route, but at least on some). So, accept the potential outcome of a fall while you’re still on the ground, and then simply keep climbing until you do fall.
If you’re going to do it that way, you also have to reckon with a “never say take” mindset. The method only works if you’re committed to climbing above protection into moves that might spit you off.
Overall, we’d recommend safely pushing your limits at first. Generally, you’ll know when you’re ready to start trying riskier routes.
What Not to Do: Never Do These 4 Things on Lead
- Thread your finger through a bolt hanger. If you fall, your finger might not come down with you.
- Climb above a draw that is back clipped. Back clips are dangerous because falling above one can unclip the carabiner, leading to a longer-than-anticipated fall. Check out this video demonstration on proper clipping technique versus back clip. Remember to grab the climbing rope somewhere below your knot and clip it through the carabiner so that the strand attached to you comes straight out from the carabiner. If the strand connected to you is between the carabiner and the rock, it’s back clipped.
- Step behind the rope. If you’re climbing above the last bolt or piece and the rope threads behind your leg, you will most likely fall upside down if you fall. It most commonly happens when you’re climbing diagonally up from the last piece of protection. Instead of letting the rope get behind your leg, grab it below your knot and pull it over your thigh.
- Z-clip. This happens when you pull the rope from below the last piece of clipped protection to clip one above it. This is most common on tightly bolted sport routes. If you don’t catch it and correct it (or somebody, like your belayer, doesn’t), it can result in a deck or so much drag that the leader cannot climb further.
Falling With Style: Your Best Chance for a Safe Whipper
Safe leader falls start with assessing risk on the ground first. The next steps are proper clipping and not stepping behind the rope. To put yourself in the best position possible to take a safe whipper, you can also practice these techniques.
- Never assume you’re going to fall. Generally speaking, assuming falls is a failure-based mindset. More specifically, it tends to engender fear. If you’re scared, you’re tense. If you’re tense, you’re less pliable during a fall and more prone to kicking the rock or landing rigidly, which can mean injury.
- Try to fall in an athletic position; arms outstretched, knees bent (see Findlay at the top of this section). Avoid grabbing the rope. Let the rope take your weight, and land on the rock as softly as you can.
Generally, accept that falling is part of the climbing process. To keep developing as a lead climber, you’ll need to do it. You don’t want your relationship with it to be rooted in fear.
Finally: Don’t Just Talk About It, Be About It
A healthy climbing mindset revolves around knowing when to commit. As soon as you’ve established a secure foundation with a belayer you trust and techniques that are solid, there’s only one thing left to do: tie into the sharp end.
The idea is to relax and enjoy the stimulation. If you’re new to leading, you might find yourself highly stimulated. But the more you trust your belayer and the more solid your plan is, the less that stimulation feels like fear. And as you continue to build up experience on lead, you give yourself access to more and more terrain.
That’s probably the coolest part about lead climbing: it’s a technique for exploration.
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Rock climbing is dangerous, sure; but it’s also fun. The way I see it, I want to prepare for the danger while I’m still on the ground. By the time I’m in the air, all that’s left to do is enjoy the ride — whether I’m on my way up to the chains or down to the bottom of a whipper.