Bolting Top Down vs Ground Up
Top down or ground up?
The majority of new route inspections will involve abseiling down the line from a suitable point on the cliff top and in some cases the intended finish of your new route can be accessed from an adjacent climb or perhaps by lowering off an established anchor. Where gaining the cliff top or a particular point on a face requires ground up access then the degree of complexity and risk level increases.
Rock quality, angle of the dangle, vegetation and ability to access the cliff top will steer the decision whether to proceed ground up or top down. A single pitch climb on steep clean rock may be best-approached ground up using removable bolts where to proceed top down may involve carrying an impractical amount of rope.
There is merit in either approach and most climbers developing new routes often interchange between both styles and it is recommended to become proficient in either style.
Top down access is generally safer as it enables loose rock to be removed without the risk of striking a belayer, leader falls are not involved and the rope can be appropriately rigged to avoid rope contact against sharp rock. A single person can abseil into position, subsequently work independently and if necessary, be guided into position by a spotter on the ground who is not at risk of being hit by rock fall whereas most forms of ground up will require a second (patient) person to belay.
+ Can work independently
+ No risk of rockfall onto a belayer
+ No risk of climbing over potentially loose or suspect rock
+ No risk of long leader falls / poor protection
+ Can start cleaning loose rock and vegetation immediately
+ Easier and faster to access than aiding from the ground up
+ Focal top rigging point facilitates access to other sections of the same cliff without having to re-aid
+ Fixed rope combined with re-belays enables multiple people to work on the same line thereby reducing the timeframe for establishing big wall sport routes
- Requires cliff top access
- Must have sufficient rope to regain the ground
- Cliff top anchors can be interfered with
- May have to abseil over / through significant clifftop vegetation
- Harder to spot dangerous wildlife hidden under roofs (eg hornet nests)
Key point: Unless terrain prohibits top down access, for example an isolated limestone tower in Vietnam, then top down is suggested over ground up.
Ground up approaches will either involve equipping a single pitch or because this is the only way to gain cliff top access or another point on a large face. Aid climbing skills are integral to this method unless the terrain is easily climbed free whilst protected using traditional protection methods or a combination of aid and free climbing. Except for establishing single pitch sport routes on good rock, ‘going ground up’ can be slow and in most cases will involve another climber to provide a belay.
Due to the placement of bolts on lead, a light drill is preferable!
+ Only option (helicopter excluded!) where cliff top access is not possible
+ Good method for single pitch steep lines on sound rock with removable bolts
+ Potentially faster method than top down if the rock is clean
+ Eliminates abseiling over clifftop vegetation with potential wildlife risks
+ Increases the likelihood of spotting wasp and hornet nests located under roofs and inside small caves (whereas abseiling from above would not)
- Requires a belayer unless solo aiding
- Belayer exposed to potential rock fall
- Climber may be stopped by bands of loose / suspect rock
- Generally slower method of gaining access
- Does not easily establish access for other sections of the cliff (unless specifically aiding to a high point for that purpose)
- Slower method for gaining an overall assessment of the line
- Requires climbing rope and static rope
- Is likely to require more gear for aiding and protection
For equipping single pitch sport routes the developer ties into a normal climbing rope and is belayed from the ground, aiding up the intended line using a combination of removeable bolts and skyhooks (for support whilst drilling) until reaching the desired lower off location. The technique is heavily reliant on the use of removeable bolts however the shallow Climb tech variety should be used for direct aid (short hole saves drilling time, leaves less patching / scarring) and the deeper Climbtech Legacy for protection since these holes are likely to be reused later for permanent bolts (and this will save drilling too). Note the Petzl Pulse are not certified for use as running belays but for static rigging only and should be used in pairs.