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10 Tips for Better Multi-Pitch Rock Climbing

Multi-pitch climbing requires good planning, a strong team, route-finding, rescue skills and a way down

It’s multi-pitch rock climbing season and there’s going to be thousands of climbers heading up high on rocky faces in Canada for the next few months. If you’re a seasoned pro at multi-pitching, then you don’t need to be informed about much of this. But if you’re new to it, these 10 pointers are good to keep in mind.

Study the Weather

Multi-pitch climbing is more committing than cragging, which means you’re more at the mercy of the weather. Check multiple sources about the weather for the day you’re heading up high. Monitor it throughout the day, on the approach and the climb. If it might storm, then have a plan-b and know at what point you can retreat safely from the climb.

Know the Route

Look at every available topo online and in the guidebook. Routes change over the years, so a belay ledge or fixed piton might not be where it was 10 years ago. Know how many pitches the climb is, the grade breakdown, where it goes and if there’s any special beta you need. The last thing you want is to be five pitches up and starting up the 5.12 variation when all you had to do was traverse left to the 5.10 crack.

Grand Wall topo

Bring Enough Layers

You only want to bring layers that you will need or might need if the weather changes. Bring a light rain shell and light insulated layer, but in the summer you don’t need much else unless the forecast is calling for some dramatic changes. All of your layers should pack down small enough to fit in the bottom of your pack.

Carry the Right Pack

Too many climbers are heading up on three- to five-pitch moderate rock climbs with big packs. You shouldn’t need a 40L pack for a short day on the climb. Start with a 15 to 25L bullet pack and see what you can fit. If you can’t fit it (ropes, helmet, shoes, water) then clip it to the outside of the pack or wear it. There’s nothing worse than having too much on your back on those crux pitches. And if you ever have to head up a chimney, you’ll be better off with a slimmer pack than a bulky one.

Climbing with a bullet pack Photo Mark Cushman

Bring Enough Calories

You know how much food you need, so bring enough. And before you head up, make sure your partner has some food, too. It’s good to have snacks that you can eat at the belay ledges, that way you never get that hungry and always have calories going in. Good multi-pitch foods: trail mix, cheese, chocolate, granola, chips, chopped veggies,  energy bars, meat jerky, peppers and hummus and sandwiches.

Bring Enough Water

There are two ways to carry water up a climb: in a hydration bladder or in a bottle. However you prefer, be sure you bring enough. Some climbers use plastic bottles with some cord and duct tape and rig up a system to clip to your harness. Bring an extra litre or two for the car. When you get to the climb, chug lots of it, so you won’t need to tap into your reserve for a while. When you do start drinking your water, keep in mind how many pitches you have to climb and the descent. Consider putting some electrolytes to add taste and to keep your energy up. Ration what you have, especially if it’s hot out. Don’t rush through it, or you’ll be asking your partner for theirs. Then, when you get back to your car, crack into whatever beverage you brought along to quench that post-climb thirst.

Bring enough water for long days

Be a Belay Pro

Multi-pitch belaying is different from cragging or gym climbing because you’re roped to your partner the entire time.

When you’re belaying a leader: Be comfortable, have the rope flaked to feed easily, don’t stand on the rope. If the lead climber falls they’ll pull you into the rock very hard, so be aware of what’s in front of your face. It there’s a roof then position, so your head won’t hit it if you get pulled up.

When you’re belaying a second: Know how to belay using a guide-style device, always equalize the anchor, manage the rope in a tidy way, keep the rope tight (no slack) and help the second through any cruxes by being attentive.

Rescue Techniques

The best climbers in the world have had serious accidents happen on simple multi-pitch climbs, so be prepared for the worst. Anything can happen: a hold could break, gear could pull, weather could come in, you could climb into another team having an epic. Rescue techniques can go a long way, such as hauling, lowering, tandem-rappel and how to escape the belay are skills everyone should have. Ask your partner if they could save your life if you fell and were knocked out. Rescue techniques are as important as carrying a beacon and shovel into avalanche terrain. Bring a radio, cell phone (know if there’s coverage on your route before going), SPOT or inReach. Watch AMGA guide Patrick Ormond explain how to raise a climber from above using a 3:1 system:

Communication

Having good communication on a multi-pitch climb is essential to reaching the top, especially if there are other climbers around. Always use each other’s names when communicating, some examples:
“Sarah, I’m off route and need to down-climb so take in some slack.”
“Hey Dave, I’m secure!”
“Michelle, You’re off belay!”
“Sonnie, haul me up, I can’t do the crux that you made look easy.”
Also, good communication at the belay ledges is important. Be sure you’re on belay before unclipping from the anchor and be sure your second has clipped in before taking them off belay.

Wear a Helmet

Helmets are light, affordable, fashionable and can save your life. Why should you wear a helmet multi-pitching? Rock fall, climbers above could drop something, you could fall, the lead climber could fall onto you, you could be pulled into the rock head first, and so on. Wear a helmet.