Tech Tips: Adventure Climbing 101

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Illustration by Jamie Givens

Illustration by Jamie Givens

Nine ways to smooth the path

Adventure climbing: an eight-pitch jaunt up Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire; an all-day route in Colorado’s Black Canyon; a 1,000-foot line in the canyons of Red Rock, Nevada. On long outings like these, you want to be nimble, time-efficient, and physically and mentally ready for challenges and surprises. “Adventure” implies danger and unknown risks, and if you get caught in a storm, benighted, off-route, or otherwise thrashed, that’s part of the game. Nevertheless, there are ways to dial down your epic potential.

1. Tell someone your plan. Cell phones work in surprising locations, but batteries die. Let a relative or reliable friend know exactly what route you’re doing, and when you expect to be out. Suggest a plan of action if you’re late (and define “late”); specify who should be called if a search becomes necessary. Skilled climbing friends will have the best guess about what may have happened, and whether to call in outside help.

2. Scout. Don’t assume a topo will keep you from getting off route. Before starting up a big climb, stand back and trace the exact line up the rock. Identify major features—both on and off route—that you can track as you climb. Check out the descent, hiking to an adequate viewpoint if necessary. If you are bivouacking near the route, bring a small pair of binoculars to scope the line the night before. Plan your approach logistics to allow for daylight scouting.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. After a few hours on the rock, feet swell. Your tight, high-performance crag shoes become a liability if you can’t bear to weight your feet. On long routes, climb in looser, less agressive shoes. Velcro closures allow you to quickly pop out your heels while belaying and give sore feet a break.

4. Don't over-rack. Too much gear weighs you down, makes it hard to find the piece you want, and inhibits your movements in dihedrals and wide cracks. Go especially light on big cams—your least efficient pro—unless the route requires them. Don’t, however, skimp on free biners, full-length slings, or wired nuts. Biners free up your systems, nuts are light and serve as inexpensive bail anchors, and the slings do both. I’ve occasionally retreated because I lacked the right gear and couldn’t work around it, but almost always, a light rack makes me a faster, stronger, safer climber.

5. Place gear that's easy to remove and re-rack. Don’t over-cam or bury your units. Place cams instead of nuts if you’re sure you have enough, because cleaning cams is faster. When you add a quickdraw to a unit, leave the cam’s dedicated biner in place to speed re-racking. If the second cleans gear onto a sling instead of harness loops, you can hang that sling at the belay and quickly strip the gear for re-racking.

6. Pack smart. Climbing with two smaller packs may be more efficient than one big one crushing the follower. On steep and difficult pitches, hauling a bag often pays off. A super-light, waterproof/ breathable shell is your most efficient extra layer, functioning as a windbreaker, insulating layer, and storm gear. A headlamp and space blanket weigh next to nothing, and should always be carried. Water presents a dilemma: I prefer to fully hydrate before the climb, carry a liter or less on the route, and climb faster. Another issue is shoes for the descent. I’ll carry super-light running shoes or flip-flops, or descend in my climbing shoes, depending on the situation.

7. Focus. Speed comes from eliminating wasted time, not from rushing. Changeovers should be sequential, choreographed, three-minute affairs, with both climbers using both hands to accomplish complimentary tasks. When leading, do one thing at a time: climb, place pro, study the route. Muddled combinations of tasks kill efficiency.

8. Know when to belay. Many adventure routes do not have set belay spots or fixed anchors. After 40 meters or so, passing up a comfortable ledge with easy-to-place anchors will cost most teams time and energy; you can easily burn 15 minutes setting up a cramped belay at the end of the rope, and the uncomfortable stance will drain you. Distinct cruxes are best done as short pitches, allowing communication for both leading and following. Shorter pitches also allow a lighter rack.

9. It's all about the team. Finding a motivated, like-minded partner is a gift, so appreciate it. Learn the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Racking gear—right or left? Will his height make a difference cleaning a piece? Experiment, discuss, and compromise, dialing in systems. Always pay your share of gas, and consider a no-fault agreement to split the cost of any gear lost by the team.