Sometimes the most ridiculous challenges are the best ones. One day last winter Bronwyn Hodgins and I decided to try a one-day link up of seven full-height routes on the main wall in El Chorro, Spain. It amounted to about 1500m of climbing, 50 pitches and one insane challenge. The day before we’d tied three ropes together and fixed from the top of the crag to the ground, allowing us to zip down and skip the tedious descent. It felt outrageously fun to be running up the cliff before whizzing back around for another go, giving in to the childish voice in my head shouting “again, again, again!” By the end of the day my hands and feet were on fire but I had a huge grin on my face.
The feeling of moving quickly and efficiently over a big, blank rock face is so exhilarating it keeps many climbers coming back for a lifetime. More importantly moving fast is often the key to safety on long routes in the mountains. It can mean the difference between a “shiver bivy” on a sloping ledge, or clinking beers and watching the sunset back on the ground.
Over the past couple of years I’ve climbed hundreds of multi-pitch routes; from ridiculous challenges in Spain and long sport routes in Morocco to big walls in Yosemite, Norway, Greenland and Canada. Here is a list of ten things I’ve learned that have helped me move faster on these climbs.
1. Don’t rush
Climbing fast on long routes is not about racing, it’s not about throwing caution to the wind and running it out, it’s about moving over the rock as efficiently as possible. Moving efficiently requires tactics, communication and organisation. Ultimately I find I move faster if I take my time and think everything through, rather than rushing and getting into a tangle.
2. Scope your approach and descent the day before
Often you can save an hour in the morning by going for a stroll the day before and finding the first pitch. You can even dump your rack and rope at the base to save having to carry it in on the day. If you can’t scope the descent, at least make sure you read the guidebook and talk to anyone you know who has done it; you’ll thank yourself when you avoid hours of bushwhacking in the dark!
3. Have your anchor set-up dialled
It’s important to know what you plan to do at the belay prior to arriving. On climbs with bolted anchors I like to lead with a 120cm sling on a screwgate, I use this to quickly fashion an equalised master-point (make sure you utilise the “belay shelf”). Obviously on routes without bolted belays this won’t always work. If you’re swinging leads then using the rope to build your belay is a good idea, but if you’re leading off again it might be better to bring a long cordellette or 240cm sling.
These have been an absolute game changer for me and I’m amazed more people don’t use them. I bought some cheap walkie-talkies at a hardware store in the States and they’ve been perfect. (Just make sure they have something you can thread to make them clippable).
It removes so much stress being able to have a conversation with your partner, rather than yelling “ONNNN BEEELLLLAAAAAAYYYY” into the wind for the fourth time.
5. Ditch the bag
Sometimes there really is no other option, but I have definitely found that I move faster when I’m not encumbered with a backpack. The key is having zip pockets (like on the Torque Pants), in which I stuff a few bars, the topo and things like car keys. I then have extra layers that pack into a pocket or small stuff sack and I make everything else like shoes and water bottles “clippable” so that they can be attached to my harness. You can do this really easily with a little 2mm accessory cord and some duct tape.
Simul-climbing is often considered highly dangerous, something only for crazy people who are willing to take insane risks. But for experienced teams with modern gear and a good knowledge of their limits, it can be very effective. Autoblock belay devices have changed the game in terms of simul-climbing and in my opinion the best of the bunch is the Kong Duck. By putting one of these on a bolt or non-directional piece of gear between the two climbers, it provides some protection to the leader if the second were to fall. Another good tip is for the second to belay the leader with a Grigri and keep it on the rope once they start climbing. That way, if they start to move faster than the leader they can yard in slack into a big loop dangling at their feet.
7. Be slick at changeovers
This comes from practice. The trick is to always be doing something. Belay your second with a Reverso in guide mode; this gives you free hands to be doing things. Organise the belay, sort the rack, eat a snack, look at the topo and have a drink of water. By the time your partner arrives at the belay, you’ll be ready to move off straight away.
8. Wear comfortable shoes!
Over the past few years the climbing shoes I wear have increased in size from a 42 to a 44 and there’s been no noticeable difference in what edges I am capable of standing on! Quite simply, the need for super tight shoes to stand on small footholds is a myth; a snug fit is enough. This is even more important on long routes as it’s incredibly difficult to climb at your limit when your feet are in agony after the first two pitches!
9. Bring the right clothing
The trick is lots of lightweight, packable layers. On a multi-pitch route you need to be wearing a harness almost all of the time, so it makes sense to have most of your temperature control going on in your top half. For trousers I like the Torque Pants, since they are lightweight but still provide some wind resistance at breezy belays, with Meco 120 Pants underneath if it’s really cold. On my top half I wear a wicking layer like the interval T or a Meco 120 base layer to climb in. For cold belays I always bring a Continuum Pull-On for insulation and a Flashpoint Jacket for wind and water resistance. Both of these are great because they pack up into tiny stuff sacks, which you can clip to the back of your harness and forget about until you need them. Combined they only weigh about the same as four regular quickdraws!
Multi-pitch climbing can be uncomfortable and scary. There is a level of commitment high on a wall that you just don’t find on single pitch routes or boulders. But like anything, the more you do it the more comfortable you feel. As you gain experience you will shave seconds of thinking time off of every action and this can amount to a lot of time saved over a long route. It’s also important to practice with specific partners. Even if both of you are very experienced things won’t always flow perfectly. I find it normally takes a few climbs to get both members on exactly the same page with systems and communication.
Bonus tip (and perhaps the most important):
11. Stay relaxed and have fun
I climb a lot better when I’m enjoying myself. Sometimes when I’m feeling really tired or scared, I like to say something like “This is AWESOME” out loud to remind myself that I love what I’m doing and I appreciate where I am. It sounds daft, but it really helps to keep those nagging fears at bay.