Top rope climbing is a fantastic way to build confidence and learn new routes. While lead climbing pushes your limits, it’s top rope where you will learn movement basics. Top rope climbing helps you to train specific techniques to a level where you can rely on them. The short answer to the question: Yes, you absolutely can belay someone heavier than you top rope. Read more about it in detail in this post.
Top rope climbing is a lot safer than lead climbing when it comes to belaying, as you usually never take an uncontrolled fall. That’s why the maximum falling distance is usually not more than 2 feet when doing top rope climbing. But what if you climb with your spouse or friend who is a lot heavier than you? Could a weight difference of 50 lbs or more still mean trouble? I’ll give you some tips and considerations because I faced the same problem with my wife belaying me.
Why can a fall be a problem when you belay someone heaver than you top rope?
A lead climber who is a lot heavier than his or her belayer can be a problem. Because of the weight difference, the weight of the climber can lift the belayer off the ground. When she catches the fall it can make her lose control of the rope.This can also lead to injuries for the belayer. The first anchor will basically just brute force stop her. Both situations can make the belayer lose the rope and safety device, which means the climber takes a fall to the ground. Thankfully, for top rope climbing, this scenario usually does not play out that drastic. The falling distances are not so big when top rope climbing.
With a maximum of only 2-3 feet when taking a fall, exerted forces are not so strong. But even with only 2-3 feet, there can be some painful surprises when the climber falls off, especially with more considerable weight difference or 50lbs or more. Lowering a very heavier climber can pose a problem too. As the bigger weight difference can lead to uncontrolled and fast lowering which is risky and gives the belayer rope burn. It’s good to keep some of the following tips in mind to make belaying someone heavier than you top rope safe and convenient!
Tie yourself to the ground if possible when belaying someone a lot heavier than you top rope!
This is my primary recommendation for those of you belaying climbers who are A LOT heavier than you – think 50lbs or more. If you tie yourself to the ground, it minimizes the problems mentioned above as you cannot move when the climber falls. While the abrupt stop of the fall usually means a more painful fall, this is no problem when top rope climbing. Thank the short falling distances for it.
Wear gloves when belaying some heavy!
This is another excellent tip that can save you a lot of pain. When you lower a heavy climber, this usually happens with higher speed and rope friction, and anything above just some inches becomes painful. Why? The extra speed and weight cause more friction, which means more rope burn than normally. Good belaying- or climbing-gloves can save your skin as they avoid rope burn. And they give you extra control when lowering.
They also make lowering with a device like Petzl’s GriGri (my favorite auto stopping belay device, as it’s dead simple to use and exceptionally safe), where you have only one hand under the device, even safer too. Why? Because they improve grip to the rope while lowering also. If you need suitable gloves, any nice working leather glove that fits well will do. I myself use these black diamond crag gloves, as they’re less than 20$, robust and have fantastic grip. You can also use them for mountaineering and via ferrata.
Get a really comfortable and maybe even padded harness.
Top rope means you will have someone climbing not safe in the route or trying out the route as a project, which means there might be long rests and breaks. Maybe there will even be some closer inspection of crux passages or potential good holds. All these situations typically have the belayer keep the climber arrested for an extended time. And this can be painful as the extra weight of the climbers can make the harness cut into the soft skin of the thighs and hips where the harness rest. So get a nice and padded harness where you feel comfortable sitting in for more extended amounts of time.
Wear a sandbag as extra weight.
Another useful technique for indoor climbing, not so great outdoors as you have to carry around the sandbag. But there are some refillable ones so that you can fill them up at the crag. The extra weight minimizes the weight difference and reduces rope friction and forces exerted when the climber falls. You can clip the sandbag to your material loops with a carabiner.
Stand closer to the wall than normal.
Any distance from the wall means extra distance you will get pulled in case of an uncontrolled fall, which makes a lighter belayer smack into the wall. Reduce that distance to the wall, and it will also make you lift UP instead of INTO the wall. But be careful not to stand too close to the climber while he or her approaches the first anchor, or you will get hit by his feet when he slips during the first feet of the climb.
Keep the reduced rope drag of top rope in mind when lowering – more than 50lbs of weight difference can end in uncontrolled lowering.
When climbing top rope, there is usually not a lot of rope friction braking the lowering. As there is only one anchor point, most of the rope is not touching quickdraws and rock, which means less rope drag. This is especially true for indoor gyms. If the climber is a lot heavier than the belayer, like 50lbs or more, this can lead to a lot of force dragging on the belayer when he opens the safety device for lowering the climber. And it can even lead to uncontrolled rope slippage. Keep this in mind and be extra careful when lowering a heavy climber.
Get a quickdraw that adds friction – it makes arresting a fall and lowering much safer and controlled.
If the belayer and climber weight difference becomes greater than 60lbs, you should get an assisted braking resistor that adds extra friction to the rope. A device like the Edelrid OHM, can be clipped to the first anchor and works great for top rope climbing too.
The Ohm is an assisted-braking resistor that you install at the first bolt in the safety chain. If the climber falls or gets lowered, the OHM increases rope friction so that a lighter belayer can hold a heavier partner without being suddenly pulled off the ground and thrown against the wall. When top rope climbing, you can have the climber clip the OHM to the first bolt like she would when lead climbing, and you’re okay to go.It’s an excellent device for lead climbing too, as it makes falls above the first anchor safer also, decreasing the chances of a ground fall.
Belaying someone heavier than you top rope is not a problem if you keep these tips in mind. I doubt, always wear some extra weight and try to tie yourself to the ground, wear gloves, and consider getting an assisted-braking resistor.
Happy climbing, top rope is so much fun for newbie climbers, and make sure to read my other articles about building good top rope anchors and climbing pant selection.