Trad Skills: Changing Leaders in a Party of Three

Internationally certified mountain guide Marc Chauvin gives a simple solution for addressing tangles and chaos during leader switches on multi-pitch climbs.
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Marc Chauvin and Rob Coppolillo trad climbing

It’s common now in trad climbing for parties of three to have the leader climb a pitch tied into two ropes, and then belay both followers up at the same time. With new belay-assist devices like the Black Diamond ATC Guide and the Petzl Reverso, it’s possible both to do this safely and save time.

However, often, when attempting to switch leaders at belay stations, these trios run into problems, such as tangled ropes, chaotic or messy switchovers, etc. While teaching trad clinics, I’ve noticed many people have a hard time with this process. The good news is, there’s a simple solution.

The usual approach

All three climbers have reached the belay station. The new leader is attached to one rope, and needs to tie into the second before going up. Since the former leader is still tied into both ropes, the new leader grabs one of the former’s ends in order to secure it to her own harness.

The problem here is that the former leader’s rope end is now at the bottom of the pile after he’s belayed both climbers up. So, as the new leader starts climbing, one rope is coming off the top of the pile while the other is feeding from the bottom. It’s all stuck together, creating a partially unflaked, nightmarish tangle.

A better way

When the first leader reaches the anchor, she attaches both ropes to the anchor, each with a locking carabiner and clove hitch. She then unties from one rope end and belays both followers up. The follower who will be leading the next pitch climbs below the other follower—in other words, whoever will be leading the next pitch is the “second follower,” and can remove and rack the gear as she goes in order to be ready to take the next lead.

When the first follower arrives, he ties into the rope end the leader untied from to secure himself. (All team members should be crosschecking each other during these steps, to eliminate confusion or catastrophic error.) Then, he unties from the rope end he was just belayed on while seconding, and passes that to the second follower/new leader once she arrives. Now, the new leader is tied into the two ends coming off the top of the piles and is ready to set off on lead, free of tangles and hassles.

With this simple fix, the party has unraveled the issue of tangles in the two ropes for the next lead.

Want more advice on trad skills and technique? Sign up for my online course, Intro to Trad Climbing.

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