Tips for efficient multi-pitch climbing

Tips and techniques for efficient multipitch climbing

Moving quickly and efficiently whilst multi-pitch climbing is a real art, and will greatly improve your experience.

Learning how to move quickly and efficiently whilst multi-pitch climbing is a real art, and will greatly improve your experience. Bad stance management and lack of planning can lead to all manner of problems, and the longer the route, the more serious this becomes.

Prior planning and preparation prevents particularly poor performance.

Research your routes.

Plan your routes thoroughly before you leave, including descents and alternatives if your chosen route is busy. Having a good understanding of a route before you go will mean that you can also have a good idea of the type of rack you'll need. If it's a lot of crack climbing or lower grade stuff, then you can leave the micros at home. If it's a face or slab, then you may not need any large cams, and if it's polished limestone, then swap your cams for hexes. The route description will really help you make some of these decisions.

Photocopy (and laminate) the relevant guidebook pages and maybe leave the guide book behind or put it in the second's pack. Make at least two copies in case you lose one. Making notes on the back of the photocopy on descent, gear, and important beta like belays and tricky route-finding can save you lots of time. If you know someone who's done the route before, then have a chat with them before you leave.

Why take 500 pages when you only need two? You're more likely to get out a piece of paper and check the route than a whole guide book, and it's a lot easier to do this when you're halfway through a pitch. Attaching it to a bit of cord will mean you won't drop it. You and your second can easily access it and ensure you don't waste time going off route. It will also save you time at the bottom of the route, and means you don't waste time pouring through the guide book.

Pack right.

Organise and pack your kit the day before, not in the car park or at the bottom of the route. Time spent sorting out your gear and changing clothes is time spent not climbing, and if you leave it till the last minute, you're much more likely to have forgotten something vital.

Pack your kit so that when you arrive at the crag your helmet comes out first and goes straight on your head, followed by your harness. Then the ropes for your second to flake while you gear up.

When you’re packing your gear, think about how you like to rack it. Maybe clip all your quickdraws together, so when you pull them out they can go straight on your harness and not in a mess on the floor. Clip nuts and cams together in separate bunches, and arrange your slings so they are ready to go with karabiners already on them. Another option is to group your gear together according to the gear loop it's going to go on, so when you pull it out it goes straight on the relevant loop. It's not about rushing, but about a minimum of faff. 

If you're going to be carrying rucksacks up the climb, it can be useful to have one that will fit inside the other, enabling the leader to climb without a pack.

Warm up your body and mind.

If it's a short walk in to the crag then warming up can be tricky. If you're driving to the venue then keep the car warm or wear a belay jacket to keep your body temperature up. I usually wiggle my toes, fingers, wrists and ankles to get them loose and lubricated. When walking in start mobilising the bigger joints - the aim is to mobilise and loosen up but not stretch. If it's a longer walk in then use the time to discuss the route and get warm.

It's also a good idea to get your climbing head on during this time. Put aside other thoughts or stresses and start thinking about the route description and the types of moves that might be needed (lay backs, jamming etc). Try and remember (positive) experiences on similar rock and grades. So much about climbing is psychological, and taking time to focus properly will mean you begin the climb in the right frame of mind.

Get on with it.

It's amazing how fast the time can go when you're at the bottom of a route, but if you've prepared properly before you get there, then it should really only be a few minutes before you're climbing.

Whilst the leader sorts the gear, the second flakes the ropes and sorts their personal gear and packs or stashes the rucksacks away. Once you've both tied on and checked each other, have a quick reminder of climbing calls or rope pulls to make sure that you're on the same page, and then the leader puts on (pre-cleaned) rock boots, opens up chalk bag and heads up.

The second will often keep approach footwear on but may loosen off the laces and have rock boots laid out ready or if cold keep 'em stuffed in their jacket to warm them up. Once leader shouts 'safe' the second needs to be in their boots and totally ready to climb by the time the rope is pulled tight so that when the leader calls 'climb when ready', you are!

Beginning your route with this level of efficiency will put you in a great position to maintain it for the rest of the climb.

The big one - stance management.

A lot of time is wasted at belays and on multi-pitch climbs and that time can add up quickly. This system doesn't require you to move any faster but will allow you to leave the belay and continue climbing more efficiently.

Make sure you both know how you like to rack your gear on your harnesses (have a system, even if you adapt it for different routes). This can be talked through on the walk in or the day before. Doing this will mean that at belays you can both be doing something to enable the leader to get going again asap. The leader should be sorting the ropes while the second re-stocks the leader's harness. If the second hands it to the leader or clips it to the belay then the act of re-racking involves more movements and actions than is necessary.

Here's what normally happens:

The second arrives at the belay, clips themselves into it, and then takes the cleaned kit (usually in a mess) from their harness and hands it to the leader. The leader sorts it accordingly which takes longer than it takes the second to remove it from their harness leaving the second waiting. Or the second takes the kit and clips it to the belay, and then the leader unclips it from the belay and racks it on their harness. Two people doing one job. Then, if you're leading in blocks (same leader for the whole route) the ropes need back-flaking. Once flaked and the leader on belay, only then can the climbing can resume.

Andy arriving at the stance - Lots of time can easily be wasted at change overs...

What if we did this instead?

As the second climbs the pitch they strip and sort the gear and rack it neatly on their harness in a way that will enable them to re-rack the leader's harness. I put all wires onto one krab, re-sling sling draws (60cm slings tripled up), cams on one side or on one part of my harness. If using the Yosemite racking technique (see Tip: Yosemite racking) then as a second I can rack the quickdraws in the Yosemite way ready to put straight onto the leader's harness - in one movement three or four quickdraws can be transferred from the second's harness to the leader's. Any cams or large nuts with extendable slings should be shortened in readiness. I rack all of my cams on individual krabs and if I need to extend the cam with a quickdraw, I'll leave the krab on the cam to make stripping and sorting easier.

Upon reaching the belay the traditional roles can be reversed somewhat because the second knows how the leader racks their kit. Because they have organised the stripped kit onto their harness, the second is in the best position remove it and re-rack the leader. The leader back-flakes and sorts the ropes - why? Because they're the ones who have spent the last 5, 10, 15 minutes coiling or stacking it at the belay! So surely they know best how to back flake it (and can't blame anyone but themselves if there's a tangle!).

The system above is based on the same leader, leading for the whole route, but even if you're leading in relay (swinging leads) the system doesn't really change that much. There should be no need to re-flake the rope, but instead of doing this the new second (already at the belay), can rack the new leader with the kit that wasn't used. While the new leader can be looking at the route description for the next pitch. If the second is to lead the next pitch then they should be stripping and sorting the gear from the route onto their harness ready for their lead as they climb.

This system involves less actions/movements and gives defined roles to each person depending on who's best placed to carry them out. Basically, the second deals with the gear, the leader deals with the ropes. If one finishes their job first, then they can help the other (this system obviously assumes a fair amount of competence on the part of the second).

After all, we go rock climbing for the climbing not to faff about on belays.

Maximum effect minimum effort.