Matt W. asked for a pictorial step-by-step for a simple top-rope setup. Here, after a month or two, it finally is. Thank you for your patience, Matt.
- One Stout Tree, provided by M. Nature
- One Static Line, 50 to 75′ long
- Two Locking Carabiners
- One Climbing Rope, at least twice as long as the route we’re climbing
Here we have the perfect scene for potential catastrophe: dirty, damp slab leading to a nice cliff. No sufficient cracks for gear anchors exist, but behind us, well back from harm, is a good, stout tree. It lines up nicely with our intended route, so we can use it for our anchor.
First, we’re going to fold our static line in half. Once we do this, we want to be clear on which end we’re using:
We’re going to tie the End Side around the tree, using a bowline knot. We use a bowline because it doesn’t slip, it is quick to tie, strong, and easy to untie, even if it takes a heavy load.
Take the End Side and fold it around the tree, with plenty of extra line for tying our bowline knot.
Make a ring or loop, near the tree, on the part of the rope opposite the ends, by grabbing it and twisting.
IMPORTANT: the loop must be made so that the side running toward the Bend End lies UNDER the side wrapping around the tree. In the photo, the left side of the rope has a loop in it, with the long end, running to our eventual belay point, underneath the end wrapping around the tree. I cannot emphasize this enough; if you make the loop wrong, things could go very badly.
Starting from the ground and going up, poke the end side through this loop. Then, wrap the end side around the rope heading toward the bend side (where our belay point will be), passing underneath it. Again, this is important to do in the right direction.
Poke the end side back through the loop, going toward the ground this time. For those of you who remember, imagine a rabbit coming out of a hole. It has to go back down the hole from the same side where it came out, right?
Pull the knot snug.
Back up the knot. In this case, we’ve used a grapevine knot tied to the rope.
Now, test your knot. Grab hold, and pull hard. REMEMBER: Don’t pull in a direction that kills you if the knot fails! That would be bad.
All good? OK, we’re affixed to our bomber tree. Still don’t want to go near that dirty slab, though, so…
Pay out enough of your doubled static line to reach where you want the Top-Rope point to be. Tie a BHK (Big Honkin’ Knot) there.
A BHK is code for a fat knot made with a double bight, that is, four strands of rope. Where you want your belay point to be, fold the already doubled rope in half, creating two bights, then tie this wad into a knot.
You can use a simple overhand BHK, like the one above, or…
Or a Figure 8 BHK, which will be a trifle easier to untie at day’s end, and doesn’t roll around as much.
In either case, the BHK gives us two loops of rope in which to place our belay, satisfying the redundancy rule.
Toss your rope over the slab. If the belay loops are where you want them, great. If not, readjust the BHK, toss and check, until it is.
Tie off your BHK, which may be as simple as clipping a ‘biner to the static line, or even clipping the end bend into the belay ‘biners (coming up).
Once you’re happy with the placement, attach locking carabiners, opposite and opposed, place the climbing rope’s center in those ‘biners, and lock ‘em up snug.
Tie one end of the climbing rope off, yell “ROPE!”, and toss the other end. If you have buddies standing below, have them tell you if the rope made it down properly. If it hasn’t, retrieve and retry.
Once one end is safely down, toss the other end, assure that it too, is down, then remove the knot.
If all is well, allow the master point to slide to its position. You may need to have your buddies on the ground pull both ends of the climbing rope to do this, or you may be able to coax it down with a bit of wiggling the ropes. Then walk on down.
If the climbing rope is tangled, stuck on a ledge, or something else needs doing, you can rappel your static line, clip to the anchor point (you’ll need a cow’s tail, PAS, or at least another locking ‘biner to do this), then transfer to the climbing rope to do what’s necessary to remedy the problem. Otherwise, you’re ready to climb. You haven’t had to go near the edge of the cliff unanchored, and at the end of the day, you can break down the system just as safely, far back from that skanky edge.
Shouldn’t We Use Two Trees?
Top Rope Anchor Clinics spend a lot of time pounding in the SRENE/SIREN catchphrase to the students, and of course, the “R” stands for Redundancy. Use two – or better, three anchor points, we tell our charges. And then, we glibly connect one rope to that redundant chain and climb on it.There is a point where redundancy is unnecessary, and for most of us, one climbing rope is sufficient. There is, I believe, another place where redundancy is also unneeded, and that is with tree anchors.
Don’t get me wrong, two trees may make a better anchor, especially if the route you’re climbing doesn’t line up with any one tree. BUT, if one bomber tree stands next to your line, that one tree is plenty good enough.
The crucial thing is that, if you choose to connect your anchor system to any tree, you should be firmly convinced that it can handle the entire load your system might experience.
If a tree is suspect, your anchor shouldn’t touch it. Chances are, if an anchor tree pulls over, your system will fail completely. Trees, along with the dirt and rocks stuck in their rootstocks, are extremely heavy items.
So look that tree over carefully. Give it a shove – does the rootstock move? Are there hidden cracks in the trunk? If it’s bomber, go ahead and use it.
But Isn’t Knot X better than a Bowline or BHK?
Maybe. But I’m striving to keep this simple. I’m not convinced the bowline is a great knot to teach – I’ve seen way too many incorrectly tied examples (and done one myself on occasion) – but tied properly, it is the fastest, most secure way to get around a tree; and I believe, an important knot for any climber to master. As for the BHK: it’s just plain dirt simple.
Lastly, you may notice that the crucial points I highlight in tying the bowline can be swapped, if and only if both are swapped. That is, if the initial loop is made so that the belay end is on top, the other end must go through the loop toward the ground, back above, then back in poking from the ground up. All true, and all more complicated to teach.