Some progress capture pulleys and ascenders can be rigged to travel along a fixed line providing a self-belay for a solo top rope climbing experience. Solo Top Roping is a great way to get a lot of laps in and have a positive training day when you can’t find a partner, or are just looking for some solitude. As with all solo adventures keep in mind that the risks are all your own, no-one is there to help. As such, it is important that you understand the risks involved, and tailor your own experience in such a way that the risks you take on are well within your comfort zone.
What device should you buy? Check our our OutdoorGearLab article The Best Progress Capture Pulley or Ascender for Solo Self Belay Toproping Right now our favorite device is the Petzl Micro Traxion.
There are many, many ways of creating a self-belay system with varying degrees of safety, and complication. Ultimately, as climbers, we accept a certain level of risk and it is your personal responsibility to make sure that the level of risk is acceptable. The description that follows is a method of rigging that we found to be simple, effective, and within our own range of acceptable risk. It is pretty similar to the system Petzl Recommends and we highly recommend reading Petzl's article: Self-Belay for Solo Climbing With Fixed Belay Rope.
Below is by no means a perfect system, nor is it a tutorial designed to instruct you in setting up a solo top rope system, but a description of what our testers did to assess the products in the OutdoorGearLab review.
1. Fix the line
Find the midpoint of your dynamic rope and fix the line to the anchor at the top of the climb. Make sure it is a UIAA rated Single Rope and not a double rope or static line. (If you are using two separate ropes, the line that the progress capture pulley goes on can be static but the backup rope should be dynamic).
2. Use one strand of the hanging rope as the climbing strand, and tie backup knots in the other stand at intervals of your choosing. In order to facilitate smooth feeding of the rope through the self-belay device, it is helpful to tie a weight to the bottom of the climbing strand. We have used a full water bottle, a backpack, pieces of gear…whatever. Anything that will keep the rope from becoming slack.
3. Attach the self-belay device to the fixed line, and clip it to the belay loop on your harness with a large locking carabiner.
4. Every 15 feet or so tie a back-up knot in the strand of rope that your self belay device is not attached to. Use another locking carabiner on the belay loop to clip into your backup knots as you climb.
5. When you get to the top, clip into the anchor, unweight your self-belay device, and swap it out for the rappel device of your choice.
6. Rap down the climbing strand.
On Backing up the system:
What is the best method of backing up your self-belay is? Is it even necessary to backup at all? To this we say: please back yourself up somehow. Our preferred method for backing up the system is tying knots on the non-climbing strand of the rope. We feel strongly that backups should be independent of the main system that you are working with. As such, we feel that tying back-up knots in the line that you are not climbing on affords the greatest degree of redundancy. If, for any reason, the strand of rope that you are climbing on fails, you will have a back-up knot on an independent strand of rope that will prevent you from decking.
Backing your self-belay device up with another similar device (i.e. two Mini Traxions on the same line, Petzl Mini Traxion and Tibloc on the same line, Mini Traxion and Petzl Grigri 2 on the same line, or any other permutation of the same setup) will safeguard against the failure of one of your devices, but not against rope failure. The devices listed in this article make use of rope gripping teeth that sink into the sheath of the rope and prevent the device (and you) from sliding down. These teeth can also damage the rope should a fall of any length occur. In an instance of rope damage (and potential failure) having another device on the same strand will be rendered useless.
Another viable option might be placing an additional self-belay device on the other strand of rope, but you are then always relying on the proper function of the devices. We find it most reassuring to use good old knots and lockers as a back-up. Simple. Quick. Tried and true.
A few recommendations for the aspiring Solo Top Roper
1. Practice your rigging on flat ground
Before you go out and work those routes, make sure that you have all your rope-work, and rigging down while still safely on the ground. Choose a system that makes sense to you, set up a list of safety checks, and run through it every-time. Nobody is there checking your setup…you have to do it yourself. Take it seriously, do your safety checks every time, and before long it will become routine.
2. Stick to familiar ground at first
It’s tempting to immediately throw a Solo TR setup on your project so that you can work the moves without boring your belay slave. We recommend however, that you initially keep your solo adventures limited to areas that you are familiar with, and routes that are within your ability. Use Solo TR as a way to get many laps done. Familiarize yourself with all intricacies of your chosen system and then start pushing yourself.
3. Backup, Backup, Backup
Always backup your chosen self belay device. There can be no wiggle room on this one. Your self-belay device is your attachment point to the rope. Your anchor essentially. Just as you create a redundant anchor, make sure you create a redundant Solo TR setup.
4. Have an escape plan
If you get stuck, or injured, or anything goes wrong…you need to have an escape plan to escape your self-belay. Be it ascend the rope until you can clip the anchors then rappel down, or have some extra stuff so that you can escape the belay and head down immediately, you must be able to get yourself to safety if something goes wrong.