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Progressing from weekend cragging to long alpine routes can be intimidating for anyone, even strong and competent traditional climbers. While the most valuable knowledge is gleaned from experience, there’s plenty of real-world advice to learn beforehand. Alpinist Scott Bennett has many years of experience in the mountains and on rock, from the first ascent of the 2,000-meter North Pillar Sit Start (5.11) on Patagonia’s Fitz Roy massif to a five-tower link-up (in a day) in Castle Valley, Utah. Here, he shares his hard-won tips for climbers moving from rock to the mountains.
“Don’t take written topo maps as gospel,” Bennett says. “Use good judgment and trust your instincts.” Topos are an incredible resource and provide a plan for what you’ll encounter (e.g., a roof at 50 feet, followed by a hand traverse, and so on), but they’re not always entirely accurate, especially in places like Patagonia or the Bugaboos. Having different skills in your toolbox, like simul-climbing, belaying mid-pitch, and jugging (see fig. 1) will broaden your options in case you’re faced with adjusting your game plan last minute. “Change your perception; not every pitch needs to be belayed in a certain way,” Bennett says.
Reevaluate what you really need on a climb. For the North Pillar Sit Start, Bennett and his partner, Cheyne Lempe, shared a sleeping bag, ice tools, and even a toothbrush to cut weight for four days on Fitz Roy. Start with a light harness (“Don’t take those six extra lockers just because you always take them,” he warns), and build your rack based on what is required for your specific route. One thing never to leave behind? A headlamp. “Just make sure it doesn’t turn on in your pack [and die],” Bennett says. Don’t forget extra batteries, a lighter, a small knife for cutting a stuck rope, and plenty of extra cord for building rappel anchors.
“Often, climbers fail because they take too long,” Bennett says. Many alpine routes have pitches of easy terrain where you can gain some precious time by scrambling or simul-climbing. Keep moving all day; instead of stopping for a half-hour lunch break, eat while you’re belaying your second. Also, trim minutes from belay transitions: When swapping leads, stack the rope neatly as you belay. If you’re following, rack smartly as you clean so you can hand off the rack as a unit, rather than passing over one cam at a time. Saving five minutes at each belay adds up to an extra hour on a 12-pitch climb. “It can be the difference between getting benighted or not,” Bennett says.
Everything is on
In the alpine, time is key, and hangdogging often isn’t an option. Don’t be afraid to pull on gear or jug through a challenging section. Bennett says, “At a certain point, the ethics of free climbing go out the window so you can get to the top before conditions turn or the sun goes down.”
Think about your follower
Traverses and ridgelines are common in the mountains. It’s important to protect your second on these features so he doesn’t take a big swing if he falls. Extend your placements with longer slings to prevent rope drag, and consider placing extra pro directly above a difficult move so the second can easily reach up and pull through if needed.
Be humble and conservative
While you might lead 5.10 at your local crag, will you still be able to lead that hard at 12,000 feet after a five-hour approach and 10 pitches? Respect the mountains and climb well within your ability—if not below your usual grade. And because it’s likely you’ll be far from a trailhead or parking lot, wear a helmet to decrease your risk of injury.
Bail with grace
Whether you get off-route or benighted, the art of bailing is crucial to future successes. Noticing lightning in the area is a direct sign to find shelter or descend—fast. Rain is trickier because easier terrain can still be climbed when wet. If you’re still low on the route or at the crux, bailing is the best option to avoid climbing seeping pitches above. This means potentially leaving gear behind, so let go of the idea of descending with your rack intact. (Learn more about that here.) However, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done. “If you have at least one bright headlamp, you can do a lot at night,” Bennett says.
Jug quickly and easily
This setup is ideal for sections of a climb where it is faster for the follower to aid instead of free climb. This is an option if there’s a disparity in free-climbing level between the leader and follower; it’s also good for steep routes where the second might fall and swing out from the wall. You’ll need two locking carabiners, one non-locker, a 48-inch sling, a Grigri, and a Tibloc/Micro Traxion.
- Have the leader build an anchor and set the belay device in auto-block mode; this way, as the second, you can free climb while on belay or jug the rope when it’s locked up and effectively fixed.
- To set up mid-climb, hang in your harness. Attach the Tibloc to the rope about two feet above your harness. Clip on a locking carabiner and a sling to act as a foot loop.
- Stand up and clip your belay loop directly in to a non-locker clipped to the locking carabiner on the Tibloc. Use the slack between your harness and the Tibloc to put the Grigri on the rope, with the rope running up to the anchor coming out of the climber’s side of the belay device. Stand on the foot sling to unclip your waist from the Tibloc, and then sit back gently on the Grigri. Put the brake end of the rope coming out of the Grigri back up through the non-locker that’s still clipped on the Tibloc’s locker.
- Slide the Tibloc up as far as you can reach with your unweighted foot in the sling. Use your left hand to pull on the Tibloc’s locker and stand up in the sling. Then pull down on the rope coming out of the re-directed, non-locking carabiner with your right hand.
- When you’ve taken all the slack out, sit down in your harness and the Grigri will lock. Now slide the Tibloc up and repeat the process.
Before you venture to Patagonia or the Canadian Rockies, hone your skills at these “dress rehearsal” areas:
- Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. With loose rock, fickle weather, perpetual wind, and tricky route-finding, Eldo is the perfect training ground for long, alpine routes. Bonus: Many routes have a 10- to 15-minute approach, so it’s easy to pack in multiple climbs in a day.
- Tahquitz Rock, California. If it’s good enough for Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins, it’s good enough for you. The duo trained here in the winter to gain experience for long, runout routes.
- Snow Creek Wall, Leavenworth, Washington. With the majority of climbs in the five- to eight-pitch range, you can perfect quick and efficient belay changes. Try Outer Space (5.9), a six-pitch, wandering Fred Beckey route that finishes with a beautiful splitter.
- Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire. Bad weather, crumbly rock, and climbs up to 10 pitches make this area as alpine as low elevation gets. Work on everything from route-finding to weather-reading at the tallest cliff in the Northeast.
- Looking Glass Rock, North Carolina. This area’s North Side hosts a few aid lines where you can practice your jugging skills, and the rest of the crag’s unusual gear placements (read: you’ll get familiar with Tricams) will expand your trad skills.