Pride and the Divinity of Toproping


Mandi Prout takes a “Walk on the Wild Side” (5.8) in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Derek Franz.

Maybe you were born with the ability to flash V13, but I guarantee you still have days when you can’t keep a grip on the milk carton while pouring a bowl of cereal.

It is a certainty that all climbers have good days, bad days and average days. This doesn’t make the bad days any easier for me to swallow. For one thing, I tend to expect my good days will last all summer long and that the periods of poor performance – the “bad days” – are just that, a single day, a fluke. I struggled to cope with this misguided outlook on a weeklong trip to Joshua Tree National Park last month.

“I SUCK!” I screamed, slapping the monzogranite as I dangled from a small Stopper for the umpteenth time in five days. The frustrated yell faded across the desert like a stray gunshot.

Before the trip, I was climbing as strong as ever, sending everything from steep limestone to Wingate cracks and boulders.

“You’re going to crush!” my friend said the day before I left for Joshua Tree.

I’d never been to J-Tree and I was making a conscious effort to approach the area with humility, but I felt in every muscle fiber that my friend’s assertion was correct.

My girlfriend and I rolled into the park on a Sunday afternoon. I rope-gunned a 5.7 near the parking lot called “Toe Jam.” I bumbled to find the right gear placements and misjudged the best stances to place the gear. Obviously I needed more familiarity with the rock before I hopped on any test pieces.

We rappelled over a steep 5.10 called “Bearded Cabbage.” Since the toprope was already set up, I figured I might as well run up the 5.10 while we were there. I’m used to onsighting 5.12 and had just seen the crux of “Bearded Cabbage” – a traverse from an overhanging flake into a crack – on rappel, so I didn’t think I would have any trouble hiking it on TR.

A moment later saw me swinging in space, grunting in disbelief that I’d just been shut down on 5.10c. The last time that happened was so many years ago I don’t remember it. In fact, I’d failed so completely on “Bearded Cabbage” that I fell too far away to pull back on. I lowered to the ground, shaking my head.

At least it gave me an opportunity to redeem myself. I fired the route smoothly after finding a key heel hook. The crux was only three moves but it was the most aggressive sequence I’ve encountered on 5.10. I told myself I’d merely underestimated the route and vowed not to let it happen again. Yet day after day, climb after climb, I found myself skidding off the rock onto small steel nuts and shallow cam placements. “Bearded Cabbage” certainly set the tone for my trip.

I should have done more toproping, but I was too proud. It was only after five days of getting slapped down that I admitted it would be more fun to toprope. My girlfriend became my role model.

As climbing partners, Mandi and I have an unusual relationship to the sport. She will hop off the couch to climb a nine-pitch 5.10 in the Black Canyon, but she has little interest in training or leading. She has no qualms about onsights and redpoints, or any pride points, really. She doesn’t feel the least bit bad about yelling, “Take!” Sometimes she seems downright wimpy when it comes to pushing her climbing limits. Then she’ll blow me away with her tenacity. I, on the other hand, am obsessed with perfection on the rock. I probably remember all the routes I haven’t sent more than any others. I train. I strategize. I plot redemption for every foot slip.

If I wanted to salvage any fun left to be had during my last day and a half in the serene, historical land that is J-Tree, I needed to change my mindset. Even after realizing this, I quietly cursed myself for being a gumby coward while setting a TR on a 5.12 dihedral called “Scary Monsters.” That attitude sent me skating from the crux on my first try. My anger became a perpetuating cycle that spun out until I couldn’t stick any of the moves I’d already done several times. I lowered to the ground to finish chewing a fresh bite of humble pie. At least Mandi and I had been alone in the middle of nowhere for all my tantrums. I was truly grateful for that.

“My goal for the rest of the trip is to not care about onsights or redpoints, or any of that magazine bullshit,” I told her. She just listened. I’m lucky to have a partner who is so tolerant and understanding of the emotions I have for climbing that she doesn’t.

I finished a snack and tied back in for another go on “Scary Monsters.” Floating up the blank stem corner provided the sensation I crave whenever I climb: moving up golden granite like wind over a landscape; fluidity without thought. But it didn’t count because it was on toprope. I toproped a few more world-class climbs that day and those didn’t count, either. There was no check box in the guidebook for “TR.”

“I can’t believe I haven’t been able to climb anything this whole trip,” I said to Mandi at the campfire. Thinking back, I roll my eyes considering that I genuinely felt I had climbed “nothing.”

A 5.12c finger crack called “Equinox” was my big goal for the trip. I’d put it off until the last day, hoping that would give me time to gain confidence for an onsight attempt. As I stared into the fire, though, I had less confidence than when I arrived a week earlier. I decided I would rather sample a world-class dream crack on TR than not see it at all.

The hike out to “Equinox” was beautiful and just scrambling up the back to set the toprope was an adventure. At last, after years of imagining what this perfect crack would feel like at my fingertips, I was knuckle deep inside it. I flashed it on TR (or as I like to say, I TRashed it). It felt so good; I lowered to the ground and did it again. Maybe I should have led it, but I didn’t. I was enjoying myself and leading sounded like painful work. It was time for something else.

Mandi and I went over to Sports Challenge Rock for the afternoon. I tied into the sharp end and styled a classic 5.12a called “Leave it to Beaver.” I was finally in the zone! Every move was bliss. A peanut gallery of climbers looked on, and Mandi told me later she heard them talking in admiration.

“It must be nice to walk up to a route like that and say, ‘I’m going to climb this,’ and then just do it,” she overheard one guy say.

I can’t help but chuckle at the irony. No one saw my ugly fits of failure. Then I have one good performance and someone assumes it’s that easy for me all the time.

Thank you, sir. I’m flattered, but it took me 20 years of climbing, plus a lot more, to reach that fleeting moment.

Next time your confidence is so low you’re dropping the milk carton, don’t underestimate the effectiveness of toproping. It leaves nothing to brag about, but maybe that’s why it helps – it can take ego out of the equation and remind us why we climb in the first place. And that’s not “nothing.”

Derek Franz writes a blog for on the first Monday of every month.

18 Responses to Pride and the Divinity of Toproping

  1. Great post. And great reminder, TR can be a wonderful thing, as can be swallowing pride.

    Hilary April 7, 2014 at 10:53 am
  2. This is my favorite thing I’ve ever read on Splitter Choss.

    Katie Boué April 7, 2014 at 10:54 am
  3. Get stronger, and cruuuuush!!! hahah, this guy will get you there!

    Anthony April 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm
  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone. BJ, I wish I could have seen you at the cliff that day. It’s not everyday I see a woman with such exquisite chops! Anthony, I assure you, my recent experience at J-Tree had very little to do with muscle power and everything to do with the strength of my mind – which was why toproping helped in the end – but thanks for introducing me to a website I didn’t know about.

    Derek April 8, 2014 at 6:52 am
  5. Nice article Derek.
    Jeff and I talk about the value top roping has in helping manage fear in our new book Vertical Mind. I you are interested in writing a book review of Vertical Mind, let me know and I’ll send you a copy.

    See you in Rifle…

    don mcgrath April 16, 2014 at 6:04 am
  6. Great article, top roping is a great way to improve your climbing!

    Joe McLoughlin April 21, 2014 at 9:27 am
  7. Pingback: Top Rope Tough Girl - The RV Project

  8. Definitely had a personal connection with this article. I’ve been down this road many times. Our own egos can be such a setback while climbing, hard to let go sometimes. Very well written article, nice work!

    Mike May 7, 2014 at 8:33 pm
  9. Thank you, Mike. It’s great to hear what readers are connecting with.

    Derek May 9, 2014 at 10:12 pm
  10. Joe, thank you, too.

    Derek May 9, 2014 at 10:13 pm
  11. Derek,
    A great article. Have you seen Take It To the Limit? Perhaps the worst/best climbing movie of all time. It inspired me to write a piece in Rock and Ice on top-roping a few years ago. Here is the link to that


    dave meyer May 22, 2014 at 11:13 pm
  12. Thanks, Dave. I remember “Vertical Limit,” if that’s what you’re referring to. It was a new low in a sport about the ultimate high, eh? Thanks for posting the link to your funny essay.

    Derek May 26, 2014 at 8:49 pm
    • Derek, Take it To the Limit was actually something different. Not a mainstream Hollywood release, although a movie that actually still got made nonetheless. You need to see it at all costs. It’s so bad that it’s good.

      BJ Sbarra May 27, 2014 at 10:05 am
  13. Derek, A ditto on BJ’s endorsement of Take It to the Limit. If it were any better it would just be bad. As it is, it is so terrible that it is brilliant. An amazing mashup of Karate Kid style moralizing, after school special storyline, and some tragically mis-guided technical climbing sequences. No climbers life is complete without a viewing. One caveat: Don’t watch it alone. For maximum enjoyment fill up a room with climbers so you can all relish the absurdity.

    dave meyer June 1, 2014 at 9:05 pm
  14. Just Googled it and watched the trailer. Looks as classic as you say. I’ll check it out.

    Derek June 2, 2014 at 7:35 am
  15. +1 for Take it to the Limit. The most classic line from the movie is: “yeah, let’s go top roping!”

    I have it on DVD, it’s that good! Let me know and you’re welcome to borrow my copy.

    Mike June 3, 2014 at 2:57 pm
  16. Thanks, Mike.

    Derek June 4, 2014 at 9:12 am
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