7 Tricks for Speedy Swaps at Multi-pitch Belays
When swinging leads on a multi-pitch route, the belay transitions are often the biggest time suck. But they don't have to be.
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One of alpinism’s best-known adages is “Speed is safety,” useful wisdom that reminds us the less time we spend on route, the less likely we are to run into thunderstorms, get benighted, or otherwise epic. Likewise, make good time and you’ll have more of it to deal with the unexpected: a snagged rope, cryptic route, or slow party ahead. But the thing about climbing quickly is that it’s not necessarily about the climbing—it’s more about doing everything else efficiently.
When swinging leads on a multi-pitch route, the belay transitions are often the biggest time suck. The goal is to have your team in synch, with both climbers working together to get the leader moving. (Imagine NASCAR pit stops: each crew member knows what needs to happen and when.) Here are seven tricks for ramping up a lightning-fast, full-pro “pit crew” for your next multi-pitch, lead-swinging adventure.
Bring a Sling
Have each climber carry her own gear sling. When you’re following, carefully re-rack the pro as you clean. Then at the anchor, you need only deal with getting the remaining gear from the leader before setting off. Added bonus (if you prefer to lead with a gear sling): you don’t have to compromise on your gear sling’s length and style, significant if you’re of different statures. Of course, like all good rules, this one is meant to be broken. If you’re seconding at your max, it’s often more efficient to harness-clip the pro (and sort later) than to pump out as you fiddle with a racking system.
Agree upon a system for gear swapping. Some people hand over all the gear at once on a long sling, while others prefer piecemeal. Pick a system that works and stick with it. While you’re at it, also talk about how to deal with the topo—Do you want to switch it back and forth? Have one person keep it the whole time?—as well as the food and water (say, in a small pack).
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Switching off devices with your partner saves time by avoiding having to clip the second into the anchor. This trick works best if you belay your second off the master point with a self-locking belay device (Reverso, ATC Guide, etc.). When the second reaches the belay, tie off the rope’s brake side with an overhand on a bight (clip this off to an anchor point or back it up with a carabiner if you wish). While she re-racks, nab her belay device and put her on lead belay off your harness’ belay loop. Now you can de-rig the original device on the anchor—but give it to your partner before she takes off!
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Silence Is Golden
It’s tempting to chat at belays, but you burn precious time giving a blow-by-blow account of that crux you just unlocked. Get moving : save the debriefing for the hike down—or later at the bar.
Stack ‘Em Up
Carefully stack the rope as you belay. It sounds obvious, but sometimes when you move quickly, you end up rushing things that need careful attention. If you have to hang coils off your harness, a sling, or foot, make them as long as possible given the terrain and wind conditions—fewer coils make it easier to avoid tangles. Also, shorten each consecutive coil to avoid catching extra loops when you feed slack on the next pitch. Depending on the stack’s size, I like to shorten each coil by 6 to 8 inches—long enough that each loop is easily identified.
Need two ropes for the descent? One solution is to climb on twins or doubles, but if you’re not used to them, they can require a bit of effort. An alternative is to have the leader trail a thin tagline (7.5 to 8mm range). Once at her belay, she pulls up the remainder of the tagline before she reels in the lead line. This way, if the tagline gets snagged, the second can free it. Plus, if the leader needs any gear or the crag pack, the second can tie it into the tagline for easy hauling.
This is a trick taken from big-wall climbing. On long aid pitches, the leader will yell “Five minutes!” when she’s less than 10 minutes from the belay. This lets the belayer transition into seconding mode — putting shoes back on, packing up any food or water, etc. Although it’s usually unnecessary to yell “Five minutes!” on shorter free pitches when the leader’s in sight, the belayer should aim to button everything up before the leader reaches the next station (while maintaining a vigilant belay, of course).
Sarah Garlick is a freelance writer based out of North Conway, New Hampshire.