In recent years, rock climbing has become more and more popular in the overall scheme of society. With the recent 2018 releases of The Dawn Wall and Free Solo films – I suspect that climbing will boom even further through 2019.
It’s an adrenaline-inducing sport and it is addictive – and these days (unlike the past when climbing was almost exclusively outdoors), anyone can roll into a local rock gym, buy a pair of shoes, and start bouldering. With indoor gyms, there is less of an obligation to climb outside all the while still being able to enjoy the iron pumping workouts and gratitude of sending a project that comes with climbing outside. That being said, many aspects of climbing are not available in rock gyms.
Most so, multi-pitch sport climbing is seldom seen in gyms and thus, the tricks of the trade need to be learned outdoors and on a big wall. But how does one just start climbing their first multi-pitch route? Well, here are a few tips to help get you out of the gym and up on a big wall. Enjoy!
What is a multi-pitch?
Assuming that you and your climbing partner (see section 3) already understand the basics of sport climbing, the next progression in the sport would be multi-pitch climbing… But what is multi-pitch climbing? To put it in common terms, multi-pitch climbing is multiple pitches of a route. What is a pitch?
Simply put, a pitch is a single route to a double set of predetermined anchors. Most sport routes are one pitch – where a climber ascends from the ground to a set of fixed anchors via the means of natural holds in the wall, all the while placing protective gear in the means of quickdraws (trad climbing is a whole other article) and clipping the climbing rope (which is belayed by a climbing partner below) to those quickdraws in the case of a fall. When the anchors are reached, the climber clips the anchors with quick draws, clips the rope to the draws and is free to lower.
In terms of a multi-pitch route, it follows the same concept of climbing single pitch route, but instead of lowering the ground after completion, the top climber will fix a belay station to the anchors of the pitch they have just completed and belay their partner from the ground to meet with them at the top of the pitch. Once secured at the top of a pitch together, one climber will begin climbing the second pitch until they reach the next set of anchors and the process will repeat until reaching the top of the route. Each route varies in the length and number of pitches. Multi-pitch = Multiple Pitches.
Comfort Level & Route Research
Having a basic understanding of multi-pitches is the first step to journeying down the road of big wall climbing. Once you are comfortable sport climbing – multi-pitch routes should come easily.
That being said, it is extremely important to understand your comfort level with climbing and to do proper research on the multi-pitch route in which you are about to attempt. In other words, before climbing your first multi-pitch route as yourself the following questions:
- What grade am I comfortable climbing?
- Is the route within that grade range?
- Do I trust my partner?
- Do we both understand proper clipping, rope management, and safety techniques for multi-pitch routes?
- Are we both comfortable climbing this route?
- What are the conditions of the route when we would like to climb it? (consider wet seasons and colder seasons to be more of a problem.)
- Do I understand how to safely descend from the top in the case that the route does not have a top-out and hike down option?
- Have we done enough research to understand the anchor placements on the route?
- Do we have MORE than enough gear to safely make it to the top and back down?
- Do we have an emergency plan in mind if the weather gets bad or we have to bail out?
If you can answer each of those questions confidently – then you should feel comfortable on the route that you choose.
Climbing Partner and Safety
Climbing partners are the life of any day of climbing. Being able to clip in and trust that the person belaying you with your life is an awesome experience – it can also be frightening.
A climber friend of mine once shared with me, his first multi-pitch route was in Oregon and he met his then climber partner on The Mountain Project. Before they climbed their 1st multi-pitch, they climbed a few smaller routes and tested each other’s belaying techniques by tugging on the rope at times and clipping further below or much above where he would comfortably clip before. In his case, he did not know his climbing partner except for a few hours hence such precautions are necessary. However, if you already know, have been climbing with, and trust your climbing partner just skip this section.
If you and your partner are new to each other – be sure go over proper knots, inspecting gear, inspecting rope, proper slang (SLACK! TIGHT! TAKE! CLIPPING! FALLING! etc.) and what to do if you have a problem while on the wall and wish to bail out. Most importantly, remember to stress the trust needed in each partner and the understanding of not having any shame in bailing out of a route.
Disclaimer: While the video is great in explaining the 2 types of switch-over of belaying from the anchor to the next pitch, one should always have a hand on the brake strand when belaying from the top with your second coming up.
Safety Check Before and During Climbing
Here are some quick questions to ask before climbing and while you and your partner are matched at the top of a pitch:
- How do our knots look? Are they proper?
- Bely devices in good shape?
- Quickdraws in good shape?
- Do we have our anchor systems?
- Do we understand our climbing slang? (some people say tension, some say take)
- How are we feeling? (Fatigued? Psyched? Pumped? Ready to send?)
Getting Down Safe and Sound
I personally believe that the easiest part of multi-pitch climbing is getting down. Most routes follow the same set of bolts from the bottom to the top and back from the top to the bottom. Some routes even have a top out option that will allow you to climb to the top and hike down along a walkable trail (OH THE JOY!)
However, in the chance that the route goes off axis and you and your partner need to ascend further than normal it is paramount to understand where the anchor sections are and how to get to them. Once at each anchor section, it is furthermore important to understand proper anchoring technique, proper rope management, and how to get the rope from one section of anchors to the other without dropping it (ALWAYS TIE A STOPPER KNOT!) Getting down, easy as it (physically) can be emotionally taxing and very mentally straining if you and your partner are not on the same page. Perhaps the most important aspect of climbing is having a firm understanding and trust between you and your partner – a trust that will navigate you both the Sendville.
Frequently Asked Multi-pitch Questions:
1: Anchors – What if one is loose or missing?
First thing, search for nearby anchors that you can reach safely without disrupting other climbers. Having a set of anchors to descend on is safer than only having one. Additionally, having a set of anchors that you can use as a belay station is safer than only having one. I bring this up because I have met pitches that have a missing or loose anchor at the top of a pitch. If it can be tightened using the edge of a spare draw or carabiner – do it! If not, leave it be and place a chalk X next to it to warn other climbers.
2: What if another group is climbing behind us?
Try, at all means, to avoid other climbers when descending. If you have to wait on the rope or at a set of anchors while another group passes… do it! It is best to avoid getting mixed up with other climbers gear, ropes, or endangering their climbing techniques with your descending process.
3: Where can I find information on routes?
Printed route guides tend to be the best option for information on mutli-pitch routes. However, there are countless sights that offer climbers beta, route updates, hold updates, and pitch information before climbing a route. Understanding a route is always better than going in blind!
In the end, Rock Climbing is an awesome way to enjoy the outdoors. Whether you’re climbing easy routes, multi-pitches, or projecting your dream route – it’s all about getting out there.