Protecting the first steps into leading: Ghost Roping

Ghost Roping on a Jamming Crack


Like many of us I am frequently called on to teach trad leading in a single pitch environment such as the Peak District. Good movement skills, efficient gear placement are the foundations of the safety chain when teaching leading. As such, at single pitch venues, I have found using a bottom rope as a ‘ghost rope’ to be a useful and effective method of developing novice leader’s confidence and skills. There are other methods, but let us look at Ghost Roping in more detail.

Taking a competent second on the journey towards being a lead climber involves several skills (some, but not all, are detailed below).
  • Route reading.
  • Good movement skills.
  • Learning to efficiently place gear on the lead.
  • Physcological assessment - are they mentally ready to lead? - Acceptance of Risk.
  • Understanding the limitations of equipment
  • Endurance
  • Self Control & Confidence

In order to learn, the instructor or coach needs to be able to create a safe learning space where their student’s mental, physical and psychological capacity is freed up enough for them to experiment and hear or process advice. In order to achieve this learning environment a ‘whole-part-whole’ coaching progression can be used where they go through the whole process followed by parts of the process before linking the parts back together as a whole. Building in the gear placement ‘part’ of the process is commonly referred to as ‘Ghost Roping’.

What is it?

  • Safeguarding a novice leader in a manner to allow them to practice movement, placing gear and clipping runners in a safe manner.
  • Can be achieved using a bottom rope with the instructor and belayers on the ground below. Can also be achieved by the instructor pre-climbing the route and belaying from above.

Bottom rope set up

A pre-rigged bottom rope is placed to safeguard the novice leader while they climb the route.
  • Instructor on the ground and, potentially if ratios allow, out of the system.
  • Positioned on the ground the instructor is able to see clearly and offer the novice leader coaching support on their movement, body position whilst placing gear and clipping gear and their footwork.
  • The instructor is able to also see and offer direct feedback and support to the novice lead belayer.
  • When lowering the novice leader back to the ground they can spend some time reassessing the protection they placed as they are removing it.
  • Often after the novice leader has climbed the route and has looked ‘steady’ I will remove the top rope and they will lead the route with me jumaring next to them.
  • Breaks up the process of leading into different ‘chunked’ activity where movement and placement of runners is done in isolation from belaying a second and building the belay.
  • Works well with three clients or in those situations where you only have one client.
  • The instructor cannot closely examine and assess the gear that has been paced (unless they climb the route on the Bottom rope).
  • To finish the route the novice leader will have to climb past the top of the bottom rope - not to be advised. It is normal practice for them to be lowered off once they reach the top of the bottom rope.
  • Difficult to achieve if the route has a traverse.
  • The climber doesn’t go through the whole process of leading in once go.
Generally, I use this technique as part of a ‘Whole-Part-Whole’ coaching progression, to help develop the novice leader’s confidence in their movement and ability to place protection whilst climbing and then lower them back down once they have reached the top of their ‘ghost rope’.

Ground Clipping SessionA ground based clipping session.
A top-bottom ghost rope system in use at Stanage Edge.
From the ground the climbers bent right arm and body position can be clearly seen and coaching advice can be given.
Ghost Roping at Stanage

Top rope set up

The instructor climbs the route, safeguarding themselves by placing protection. Once safe the instructor belays the novice leader from the top. Basically, as if we were climbing in series on a multipitch route.
  • The novice leader finishes the route and builds their belay under direct supervision from the instructor.
  • Novice leader goes through the whole process – climbing placing protection, building belay, belaying rom the top – on one route.
  • Instructor in the system and remote from the novice lead belayer.
  • Can be difficult to see body position and footwork to offer coaching advice.
  • Instructor’s preplaced gear potentially prevents novice leader from placing at least some of their own protection.
  • The instructor cannot directly see and examine any gear their student paces.
As always in our role helping develop our client’s skills and judgement in climbing, the choice of technique used is situational.

Potential Progressions

Any progression will be contingent on the context and on the instructor knowing their client’s specific needs. For example:
  • Do they lead indoors?
  • Have they led on bolts outdoors?
  • Can they lead belay?
  • How is their general movement on rock?
I will often go through a progression involving some or all of the points outlined below on an Learn to Lead course.

  • Introduce and practice lead belaying.
  • Demonstrate or model leading by climbing a few routes with my clients. Normally using parallel ropework.
  • A workshop on gear, and gear placement. If necessary, clipping.
  • Use a bottom ghost roping system to allow clients to place gear whilst simulating leading. During this session lead belaying can be coached as well.
  • Practice this way for a few routes to develop confidence in placing protection while climbing.
  • Anchor selection and belay building session.
  • If the client is ready they will do a ‘live’ lead with me jumaring next to them.

About the Author

Simon Brocklebank is a full member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors, and holds the Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and Winter Mountain Leader Qualifications with 20 years experience as an outdoor instructor in both centre and educational based settings. He is currently setting up his own business (Elemental Mountaineering) and is involved in delivery of Mountain Training Rock Climbing Instructor qualification as a course director.

Thanks must be given to Paul Lewis of Peak Mountaineering and Dan McKinlay of McKinlay Mountaineering for their advice and support in the writing of this article.

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