Roped climbing usually involves two people: a climber and a belayer. The climber climbs while the belayer controls rope to catch the climber if she falls or wants to be lowered. Belayers feed the rope through a mechanism (creatively called a “belay device”) which is attached to their harness to create a mechanical advantage and make it easy to hold the rope even when the climber’s full weight is on it.
There are two types of roped climbing: top roping and lead climbing.
Top roping is the type of climbing most people are familiar with. With top roping, the rope is already in place going through an anchor at the top of the climb (thus the term “top rope”). The climber ties into the end of a rope closest to the wall and the belayer is attached to the other end of the rope (via their belay device). As the climber ascend the wall, the belayer takes the rope in. If the climber slips, the belayer holds the rope and the climber barely drops at all – the rope stretches a bit but the climber shouldn’t fall any distance if the belayer is doing her job (if the wall is overhanging, then the climber will swing out into space). At any point, the climber can hang in the rope to take a rest while the belayer holds their weight. When the climber is ready to come down, the belayer lowers her in a controlled manner.
Lead climbing is a more advanced type of climbing in which the rope begins on the ground and the lead climber ascends with the rope, clips it through protection that is affixed to the wall as she climbs. Different from top roping, when lead climbing, the belayer lets out rope as the climber ascends (since the rope begins on the ground the belayer has to let rope out as the climber gets farther and farther up the wall). Another difference between top roping and lead climbing is that lead climbers may well fall quite a distance. Imagine being just 3 feet above your last piece of protection. This means that there is 3 feet of rope between the climber and the last place that the rope is connected to the wall. If the climber falls, she will drop the 3 feet to the last piece of protection and then 3 feet past it (remember that there are 3 feet between the climber and the protection). The rope will also stretch, there’s usually at least a little bit of slack in the system, and the belayer might be lifted off the ground by the impact force of the fall. Therefore, a slip just 3 feet above a piece of protection will probably be a fall of 7 to 10 feet.
At N3C we have plenty of both top roping and lead climbing. We also have TrueBlu auto belays, which are basically a form of top roping where a mechanical device provides a belay instead of a person. As the climber ascends the wall, the device retracts the line that the climber is attached to. When the climber lets go or falls, the auto belay lowers her at a controlled rate to the ground.