Last Updated on March 5, 2020
I love long multi-pitch rock climbs. You get lots of climbing in a day, with the elements of route finding, figuring out the anchors and in many cases a whole new adventure finding your way down. Since you can be up on the rock for hours, being efficient and quick can be the difference between a fun day out and being benighted on the cliff. Huddled with your climbing partner on a ledge overnight can be a bonding experience but only has to be experienced once for you to really focus on speeding up your processes.
The key to fast climbing isn’t to climb faster but minimize the time you aren’t climbing. If one partner is almost always on the move, you will cover a lot of ground quickly.
The following are a few tips I’ve learned the hard way
When you first get to the climb, the second should be flaking the rope while the leader racks up the gear. This gets everyone ready to climb that much quicker. At the top of each pitch, the leader should do neat lap coils over their tether so all they have to do is flip the rope onto the second’s tether for them to start climbing. If you are swinging leads, then it is already to start feeding out once the leader is back on belay.
When belaying the leader, keep an eye on any tangles that might be upcoming from the rope stack. Even with neat stacking, some twists can happen, but you want to keep the rope feeding smoothly. While still keeping a hand on the brake rope, untangle the rope before it gets to the belay device. The leader already has their hands full (no pun intended), so do whatever you can to keep the rope feeding smoothly without too much or not enough slack. Not enough is annoying and can pull your climber off if they are near their limit. Too much slack can lead to them taking a longer fall than necessary which can be particularly dangerous near the ground or above ledges.
Make use of the downtime
When the leader calls “Off Belay”, you should be getting ready to climb immediately so when the rope goes tight on you and you hear “Belay On” you can start climbing as soon as you have the anchor taken apart. Have a drink, put your pack on and be ready to move as soon as you are on belay.
Streamline the changeover
I find the easiest way for my second to rack the gear they clean is on a sling over the shoulder. Once they are up to the belay, they just pass the sling to the leader or can just start racking the gear if they are leading the next pitch.
I find using a gear sling for the whole rack is quickest if swinging leads but prefer to rack gear on my harness if I’m leading all the pitches of climbing in blocks.
Once the second is up to the belay, you can tie off the brake strand and go hands-free to start prepping for the next pitch while they clip into the master point.
If you are swing leads and you belayed them up with an ATC style device in guide mode, then once they are tethered in, remove the device from the master point and clip to your belay loop and they are ready to climb one you untie the brake strand.
If leading in blocks, once the second is anchored in, remove them from the belay and rerack your belay device. If you are leading the next pitch, flip the rope onto your second’s tether, have them put you on belay and you are ready to go once you have the gear racked on your harness or sling.
Practice your placements
Whether placing protection on the pitch or building an anchor, the quicker you can choose and place good gear the faster the climb will go. If you have to try a bunch of sizes before you get the right one, not only does it take longer but you will often get pumped hanging around. Practice figuring your sizes based on what part of your fingers or hand fits the crack. Always look for tapers for nuts and practice placing on the ground to the point that you pick the right size the first time.
When it comes to the building of an anchor. if the spot you picked doesn’t have good placements, move up or down a few feet to find good placements rather than spending a lot of time trying to knit together a next of marginal gear. We tend to get myopic and don’t see what is just outside of vision.
As much as possible, simplify your anchor building. The more complex the anchor the longer it will take you to build and the longer it will take the second to take apart.
And if possible, don’t use multiples of the pieces of the same size as you might need a #1 on the next pitch and if you used them on the anchor you won’t have them.
Pick the right Shoes
If you are going to be doing long climbs, leave your tight bouldering shoes at home. Get a flattish, trad shoe like the La Sportiva TC Pro fit comfortable enough that you can wear them all day long. If both the leader and second are having to take their shoes on and off every pitch that can add up to a lot of time over the course of the day. The key to efficient transitions is to shorten the time not climbing so when the leader calls “On belay” you should be right on taking the anchor apart and starting climbing. Plus taking your shoes off increases the chance of dropping a one which I have seen happen to someone 500 feet off the ground. Go here to read more about choosing the right climbing shoe.
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast
Each of these techniques will save seconds or sometimes minutes per pitch. Since these things are done multiple times it adds up over the course of the day. Saving 10 minutes per pitch on a 6 pitch climb just cut an hour which can be the difference between hiking out as the sun goes down and dealing with the sketch situation of finding your way down a rappel by headlamp. If you’ve been climbing for any length of time, you will have done it but it is definitely less safe than doing it in the daylight.