Learn to Climb Trad: Knots, Rappelling, and Logistics

More fundamentals for multi-pitch awesomeness to get you to the top—and back down—safely.
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Julie Ellison
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More fundamentals for multi-pitch awesomeness to get you to the top—and back down—safely.

This is part four of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner's Guide.

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The Clove Hitch

The clove hitch is the knot of choice for clipping into an anchor because you can adjust its length without untying it, and it’s easy to untie even after it’s been weighted.

1. Make a loop. This can also be done on your hand.

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

2. Make a second loop stacked on the first loop.

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

3. Move the second loop from the front to the back.

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

4. Clip the two loops and pull each strand to tighten. 

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Figure Eight on a Bight

You can also tie in to the anchor with this secure knot, although it doesn’t have the same benefits (adjustability, easy untying) that the clove has. Some people prefer to tie a clove hitch onto an initial piece and a figure eight on a bight into a secondary piece.

1. Form a bight (or loop) in the rope and bend it behind the strands

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

2. Pull the bight over the strands.

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

3. Run the bight up through the top loop from underneath.

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

4. Pull the bight all the way through and tighten.

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

"My best advice to new trad climbers is to fall. Obviously make sure you know how to make a bomber placement, but once you do, climb above it and fall. It’s important to know that trad gear really does work!" —Jonathan Siegrist

Extending Gear

Extending Gear Good Bad Trad is Rad

Illustration: Supercorn

Even if a route goes mostly straight up, gear placements are often found to the left or right of where you climb. Imagine placing a piece and clipping the rope to the left, then the right, then the left again. Not only does this Z-shape formation create a lot of rope drag (bad!), it can also tug sideways or even upward on your gear and cause the piece to lever out (worse!). You want your rope to run as straight as possible—even a slight bend in the rope could put enough pressure on the piece for it to pop out or “walk” in the crack and into a bad placement. The solution is to extend your gear with quickdraws and long slings (aka runners) so the rope runs straight (more tips: Extension Basics).

"My best advice is that when you are learning, practice placing and testing your pro a lot. After all, traditional climbing is just rock climbing without bolts. The crack is there to assist you on movements and offer protection during the climb. Try all kinds of systems for racking your gear until you find the setup that allows you the most access and agility while climbing." —Rob Pizem

Protecting the Second

As you begin leading, it’s important to choose gear placements that not only protect as you lead, but also protect your follower. This is especially true on wandering routes and traverses. As you place gear, think about how your second might fall if he or she were to remove that piece of gear. If it involves a huge pendulum swing into an obstacle or a sketchy fall at all, try to add more pro so that swing is minimized. 

Getting Down

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

Photo: Brennah Rosenthal

There are two ways to get down from multi-pitch climbs: rappelling or walking off. The latter is just what it sounds like; there will usually be a trail that leads off the top all the way to the bottom (you’ll probably want to carry descent shoes for this). The former is a bit more complicated, as you likely need to do multiple rappels to get to the bottom.

The basic idea of multi-pitch rappels is this: You’re at the top anchor of a climb. You rappel down to the next anchor or rap station (fixed gear like bolts or permanent slings that have been left at certain spots so you can rappel without leaving your own gear) and clip into them directly. Yell up to your partner that you’re off rappel, and then your partner rappels down to where you are. You pull the rope and repeat until you’re on the ground. Although this is the basic process, there are finer points to this (see below) that you’ll quickly learn once you’ve done it a few times in a real-world setting.

The two basic types of rappels are:

Single-rope rappel. This is when you use one rope. Keep in mind you can only rappel as far as half your rope length. So a 60-meter (197 feet) rope can do up to a 100-foot single-rope rappel (thanks to a little rope stretch).

Double-rope rappel. Using two ropes tied together at the anchor (connected by an overhand knot with at least 12” of tail, pictured above), you can rappel the full length of the shortest rope. With two 60-meter ropes, you can rappel about 200 feet.

"My best advice is to do a lot of aid climbing. I don’t mean using pitons, beaks, and a hammer; I’m talking about easy, clean aid, like leading splitter cracks, thin, wide, steep, and steeper. When I was 19, I was climbing 5.14 sport routes but only trad climbing 5.11 because I had no faith in gear, or in my ability to place it well. Aid climbing gave me the confidence I needed, and I soon began climbing at my limit on gear-protected routes. It really doesn’t have to be hard aid-—it can be a 5.9—but instead of freeing it, aid it. Treat this like mental training; the idea is not just to get to the top, but to place as much gear as you possibly can. The concept behind this exercise is that you are forced to weight every single piece of gear, and by doing this you will start truly to trust your placements and realize what works, what doesn’t, and why. You shouldn’t need any special gear; a standard double rack should suffice. Just make sure never to fall or hang on a single piece of gear; in case it rips out you don’t want to hit the ground, so you always need a backup." —Sonnie Trotter

Finer Rappel Points

  • Climbing mistakes may result in injury; rappel mistakes result in death. When rapping after a long day of climbing, you’ll be fatigued and hungry and ready to get down. Stay sharp and make sure you double-check everything about your rappel setup and your partner’s before you unclip from the anchor. The easiest way to do this is to set up, pull as much rope as possible through the device, and weight it so you can clearly see you’re weighting the device and not your anchor tether. One more visual inspection and you’re good to go!
  • Knotting both ends of the rope with a triple barrel (see: Preferred Knots for Rappelling) will prevent you from rappelling off the end. But pay attention as you go to pull the rope from a lower anchor, and make sure you’ve untied the knots. Otherwise someone’s gotta go back up there to get it.
  • Once you’ve threaded the anchor to rappel, coil each side individually and toss them separately. This will prevent tangles and knots.
  • When pulling the rope through an anchor above, pull as smoothly as possible until it clears the anchor—don’t whip it through at the very end.
  • Rappelling with a skinny rope? To create additional friction and slow down the ride, clip an extra carabiner through your belay loop and the rappel ropes, adjacent to your main rappel biner.
  • If you’re with a less experienced partner, consider extending or pre-rigging his rappel device so you can double-check his setup before you leave the anchor (see Essential Skills: Pre-Rigging Rappels). You can also offer a fireman’s belay from below, meaning you hold the ropes and pull them tight if he gets out of control.
  • For tons of tips, tricks, and advanced rappel skills, check out our guide to rappelling.

To learn more trad climbing skills, see the rest of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner's Guide.