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3 Ways To Set Up a Top Rope Anchor

Learn how to set up a top rope anchor, and the world is your climbing gym

Setting up a top rope anchor is the easiest way to get in a ton of climbing outdoors without having to lead routes from the ground up. It’s one of the first skills you’ll need as you transition from the gym to the crag, and it’s a good one: Learn how to set up a top rope anchor, and the world is your climbing gym. All you’ll need is a few basic materials, an understanding of what makes a safe anchor, and a crag with bolted anchors and easy access from the top of the cliff.

There are dozens of methods for setting up top rope anchors, but we’ll go over three of the most common. Before you start building any of these, make sure to tether yourself securely to two bolts, a thick (live) tree, or another solid anchor point at the top of the cliff so you can tinker with your anchor without risk of falling.

Qualities of a Good Anchor

There are dozens of ways to set up a top rope anchor on two bolts, but they all share the same basic tenets, sometimes referred to by the acronym SERENA or SERENE-A.

  1. They’re strong enough to hold a fall from a heavy climber.
  2. They ensure the load is equalized, or equally distributed between both anchor points. In other words, when the anchor is loaded, both sides of it should be pulled equally taut.
  3. They have redundant elements in case one bolt or piece of cord fails.
  4. They’re simple, efficient to set up, and easy to double-check.
  5. There’s no extension or sudden shock-loading if one element fails.
  6. The anchor’s “legs” (the lengths of material clipped to each bolt) should form an angle that’s less than 60 degrees, which minimizes the load on the bolts.

The Quad

The quad is a favorite of recreational climbers and guides alike because it’s sturdy and easy to set up. It’s also self-equalizing, which means the carabiner can slide from left to right within the anchor, making sure the load is always evenly distributed between both anchor points.

You’ll need:

  • 25 feet of 7 mm cordelette tied into a loop with double-fisherman’s knots
  • Four locking carabiners

The setup:

  1. Clip a locking carabiner to your first anchor point.
  2. Take the loop of cordelette off your harness and double it over.
  3. Clip one end of your doubled-over loop to the hanging carabiner. Lock the carabiner.
  4. Pull the strands of the cordelette loop until they’re even and the double-fisherman’s knot is just an inch or two from the locking carabiner.
  5. Tie an overhand knot in your doubled-over loop, about one-third of the distance from the locking carabiner.
  6. Tie a second overhand knot about a third of the distance from the first.
  7. Clip the far end of your doubled-over loop to the second anchor point with a second locking carabiner. Lock it.  
  8. Now your knots should be even, and the section between them should be hanging down between your bolts. Grab this center section and clip your remaining two locking carabiners through three strands of the rope. (They should be “opposite and opposed”—clip one on from the right and one on from the left, so that when the carabiners are both hanging from their narrow ends, their gates are on opposite sides.)
  9. Clip the center of your rope through these carabiners, lock them, and toss down the ends of the rope. (Always check for climbers below and yell “Rope!” before throwing.)
  10. Lower, rappel, or hike to the bottom of the cliff to begin climbing.

Expert tips:

  • If your bolts are staggered with one slightly above the other, tie the overhand knots closer to the lower bolt. When the anchor is weighted, the two overhand knots should be even with one another.  
  • You can also use a quadruple-length (96-inch) Dyneema or Dynex sling as a more svelte alternative to a cordelette.
Photo:Valmedia/Shutterstock

The Double Sling

You can also set up a top rope anchor with two slings, which can be faster and easier than using a cordelette, though it’s a little harder to equalize if the bolts are staggered.

You’ll need:

  • Two nylon or Dyneema slings of equal length
  • Four locking carabiners

The setup:

  1. Clip locking carabiners to each anchor point.
  2. Clip one sling to each hanging carabiner. Lock the gates.
  3. Clip each of your remaining carabiners through both ends of the hanging slings so they hang together in a “V.” Again, the gates of these two lockers should be opposite and opposed.
  4. Clip the center of your rope through these carabiners and lock them. Yell “Rope!” to warn anyone below before tossing the ends.  
  5. Lower, rappel, or hike to the bottom of the cliff to begin climbing.

Expert tips:

  • You can also use two locking quickdraws instead of slings, provided they’re long enough to create at least a 60-degree angle to one another when the anchor is built. If you do a lot of sport climbing, you may also see climbers using two non-locking quickdraws, which is also safe as long as the gates are opposite and opposed.
  • If one bolt is higher than the other, tie a knot in the lower sling or double it over, or put a longer piece of material on the upper bolt—whatever you need to do to ensure the load is evenly distributed between both bolts when the system is weighted.

The Equalized Webbing

You can also use a long webbing sling to set up an anchor. This is a great option for both parallel and staggered bolts because you customize the equalization every time you tie your knot.

You’ll need:

  • 1 double-length (48-inch) loop of tubular webbing
  • Four locking carabiners

The setup:

  1. Clip locking carabiners to each anchor point.
  2. Clip one end of your webbing loop to each of the hanging carabiners. Lock the gates.
  3. Slide the bar-tack so that it’s just an inch or two from one of the carabiners. Then grab the middle of the loop. Pull both strands down together in the direction that your climber will ascend.
  4. Tie an overhand knot on a bight directed such that when the anchor is weighted, both legs will be taut.
  5. Clip your remaining carabiners through the bight and lock them. They should be opposite and opposed.
  6. Yell “Rope!” When you’re sure the coast is clear, toss the ends of your rope down.
  7. Lower, rappel, or hike to the bottom of the cliff to begin climbing.

Expert tips:

  • Slip the spine of a small non-locking carabiner through the overhand knot before tightening to make it easier to loosen later.  
  • You can use one locking carabiner and one non-locking carabiner to hang your rope instead of two lockers. If you do this, make sure the non-locker is smaller. That way your cheaper carabiner will take most of the wear and tear.

Remember: Always inspect bolts before weighting them. You should be well versed in belaying, lowering, rappelling, and cleaning anchors safely before you venture outdoors. Finally, let this be your friendly reminder that no article can fully substitute supervision or instruction from an experienced professional.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.