04 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Being able to move swiftly on rock isn’t just useful when mountain cragging or Alpine climbing, it’s also highly enjoyable as you feel much more adept at moving quickly and safely over steep ground. Moving fast isn’t like climbing harder as it’s not about getting stronger fingers or more supple limbs (although that will help), no speed climbing is primarily cerebral and can be learnt. So here are some tips to move you along.
Moving fast isn’t actually about moving faster, just as running a marathon isn’t about sprinting off at the start line, if you do you won’t get there faster, in fact, you may not even get there at all. Like a marathon runner, you need to find a rhythm that allows you to move as fast as possible and at a speed, you can maintain for the distance. Unlike Dan Osman, who would jump from hold to hold you need to move at a steady pace where one limb is always moving, moving, moving, meaning you are always moving upward. Now, this can’t be learnt when climbing at your limit, as your own sense of self-protection won’t let you do it. What you need to do is practise by climbing long routes that are well below your limit. If you’re an HVS leader then try a multi-pitch V Diff or Severe and once you feel that you’re moving well move up a grade. Some speed climbers start the year by climbing say 100 Diffs, followed by 100 V Diffs and so on and so on. This means that they are turning their bodies into moving swiftly so that by the time they reach their limit their body and brain are fine-tuned. This means that instead of having a handful of routes under your belt by the beginning of the year you have a couple of hundreds. Now many climbers are reticent about going down in the grades, the fact that you are moving fast means that you are swapping one type of difficulty for another and I’m sure most climbers will feel this change in climbing beneficial.
Get yourself a watch and see how long it takes you not only to lead and second but also how long it takes you to sort out or strip a belay, get the rack organized or sort out the ropes - you may get a shock at how long you take. Firstly, the team must have systems worked out that takes a minimum of time to complete. Whether you are racking gear, setting up a belay, or stacking a rope balancing speed with safety is crucial. A good example is when you reach the belay don’t relax. Set your belay, clip in your magic plate, yard in the slack and shout “Climb.” Once the second is underway you can rest. This way only one climber is ever doing nothing. Using a magic plate means that the leader can stack the rope, or sort out the rack, have a drink or a bite to eat while safely belaying. For the second, by the time the rope comes tight they should be ready to move off the belay. This means that unlike normal pitching, where the second only starts stripping the belay when they are ‘on belay’, speed climbing means that by the time the leaders shouts “Climb” they should have partly stripped the belay, meaning they can rip out the piece and speed up the pitch. One way this is achieved is by the leader shouting “Close” when they are almost at the belay - meaning that the second should get ready to strip the belay, or even half disassemble some of the belays if there is plenty of pro between the two. The reason to shout “Close” rather than “Nearly there” is because if the second just hear the second half of the sentence they may confuse it with a signal that they are ‘there’ at the belay, in fact, clear and simple communication is key, especially when stringing pitches together. Teamwork is also important in that it is the team as a whole whose sole job is to keep the team moving. This means that the second helps the leader rack the gear, or stacks the rope while they sort themselves out. Basically, there should never be a moment when everyone isn’t moving towards the goal of getting up the cliff - apart from the odd drink of water that is. If you follow this kind of tight routine then you can literally knock hours off a route. Don’t believe me? Well imagine a six-pitch route where the leader takes 10 minutes at every belay and the second takes five minutes to strip the belay, well that’s at least an hour that can be shaved off - which could make a real difference if days are short or a storm is closing in.
The best way to avoid wasting time is to reduce the complexity of systems. Go for a 60m skinny single rope (some may even go for a single, thick half rope to reduce drag), or a 50m rope if you want to link pitches by moving together, so as to reduce the weight of your rope by nearly 20%. A single rope also reduces the time it takes to stack, coil and sorts the rope which again could save you time. It’s important to avoid snags and tangles so the rope should be stacked unless it’s safe to let it just hang.
One modern way of stacking a rope is instead of looping it by feeding it through a sling clip it off to a large karabiner via bights in the rope. Starting with the rope closest to you create a big loop (five or six metres) and clip this to the karabiner via the knot seen in the photo and repeat until the rope is stowed. The belayer lets out rope by simply unclipping the rope as they need it, with the knot simply coming undone once it’s removed from the karabiner (a large keyhole karabiner works best). If you are climbing in blocks then, by twisting the karabiner around, the first loop becomes the last loop, meaning the rope will feed out from the top. Although this is a great way of stacking ropes, remember that the aim is to keep it simple, so if you can just stack it around your feet then do so.
Rack wise keep it minimalist if the grade of the climb allows. Stick to perhaps one full set of wires and a full set of cams. If at all possible go for cams, as they are both faster to place and faster to clean. Go for long extenders and 60cm slings (with two karabiners already attached), so that you can reduce drag to the minimum - important if you’re running pitches together.
Don’t put the rack on your harness, but stick it on a sling, meaning the rack can be swapped instantly. The second should also rack gear they’ve cleaned on to a sling, meaning they can just grab what’s left from the leader and shoot off up the next pitch. Also keep all your systems simple, like when setting up belays just use your rope, not slings. Just plug in two good pieces and clip in via two clove hitches, they won’t be equalized but your own judgment should tell you if you’ve still got a good safety margin. If you need to equalize two pieces, then learn how to tie a figure of eight with two bights and if you need to set a more complex belay go for your rabbit cord (a modified cordelette which is just a length of 5.5mm Dyneema with a figure of eight tied in each end, which is far better than a plain loop of cord). Moving fast over moderate ground may employ Alpine style techniques, such as fast shoulder belays for the second, or even a Russian belay (just pulling the rope through the hands), although if you do this you need to fully understand how to do so safely.
If you’re climbing in blocks then being able to quickly swap rope ends may be necessary, perhaps to not disturb an ordered belay and rope stack. This is best done by each climber clipping in via two opposed screwgates (with one being a twist-lock if possible), clipped into their belay loop.
Having a partner who is as motivated to move as fast as you is crucial, if not, neither of you is going to have a good day. Understanding how your partner climbs, how they communicate, how they do things, not only aids speed but also makes things much safer. Having a stranger tell you to climb, only for you to find you’re simul-climbing with no protection between you both can prove a bit annoying if that’s not your thing. Having a clearly defined series of phrases that both of you understand will help to reduce miscommunication.
One way to spice up your speed climbing is to attempt link-ups of classic routes. This gives you some incentive to move fast and can be incredibly rewarding. As far as training for Alpine climbing in the UK goes there isn’t anything better, as you not only get a climbing workout, potentially moving over thousands of feet of rock in a day but also a cardio workout, as you run from climb to climb. Here are a few suggestions:
THE EL CAP DAY: The aim of this link-up is to do 1,000m of climbing in a day. This is a real tough one and obviously, it either means you need to link up a dozen big routes or a couple of hundred small ones. This may require you to climb for the full day to achieve it (24 hours), or you can split it into two days, carrying bivvy gear with you so that technically you’re still enchaining the routes (again perfect Alpine training). You could also just do several laps of Lliwedd.
THE STAR DAY: If you’ve only got easy access to outcrops then how about trying to climb all the starred routes of a certain grade, or how about all the three-star routes of that grade in the guidebook. A classic one in the Peak is to do all the starred VSs on Stanage in a day (36 in my old guide), which is a good way to get in a load of quality routes and will teach you to move fast ready for longer routes.
THE BOOKWORM CHALLENGES: If you are looking for really meaty and fun challenges then look no further than the books Classic and Hard Rock as these give you mega links-ups to do, say, all the classic Lakes rock ticks on foot in a day anyone?
Moving fast is about moving fast, not about climbing free. The reason you climb free is that it’s faster and when it’s no longer faster then you need to frig it. This means pulling on gear, pendulums, lowering out, anything that’s necessary to keep you moving. The same goes for the second, they should always be on a tight rope and if things get at all difficult then just use the rope as a handhold. This can extend to ‘Batmaning’ up the rope over awkward sections, simply climbing hand over hand. This, of course, is dicey as if you fall off you’re going to take a big lob. Plus it’s necessary that the belayer has you on a magic plate otherwise they may think you need some slack which wouldn’t be a nice thing to receive if you are chugging up the rope commando style.
The best way to maximize the whole team moving upwards, rather than in relays as is the case when pitching it, is by moving together. Now no one should be under any illusion about how dangerous it can be moving together in comparison to pitched climbing, nevertheless, it is a technique that needs to be learnt and understood for many forms of advanced climbing.
Firstly, you can simply climb at the same time (simul-climb), making sure you have several runners between the leader and the second at all times. As long as the rope remains relatively tight between the leader and the second then the leader is protected, because if they fall then the second acts like a counterbalance (just like a belay). The problem is that if the second falls then in all likelihood the leader will fall, not good. It’s for this reason that it’s often worth the stronger climber going last, although when moving together both climbers should be equally competent and consider what they are doing as soloing - with the rope and gear there as a back-up. When moving together both climbers should move at a steady pace so that both can move casually, this is especially important when moving over variable terrain as one person may be on the crux while the other is wandering around with their hands in their pockets on easy ground.
There is also another safer option to explore. In April’s issue, I talked about using a Wild Country Ropeman to improve safety when moving together which led to dozens of enquiries about clarification of what I was talking about, so here I’ll go over it again in more detail. Firstly, this is an extremely advanced technique and anyone who attempts it must understand the risks associated with such techniques and be experienced enough to be able to judge when to apply it.
If we consider that as long as the leader places plenty of protection when moving together then the climbers are as safe as when leading (as long as the gear is all sound) then the main danger comes from the second falling and pulling them both off. One way that has been used successfully to avoid this is the technique of feeding the lead line through an ascender, usually at what would usually be belay stances. The ascender, most usually a Ropeman, is placed upside down on the anchor so that the rope runs through it easily as the leader moves. Now if the second should fall then the ascender will lock off and hold them like a belay.
The best ascender for this job is the Ropeman Mark 2, (85g) the reason being that the Mark 2 has less chance of damaging your rope if the second takes a big lob, which would mean that they have stupidly failed to keep the rope snug between themselves and the leader and has climbed up too fast, creating slack to the Ropeman and then fallen off. If the leader falls then the Ropeman will just let the rope slide through so that the second takes the force and even if the leader falls directly on to the Ropeman then it still offers a full-strength runner as the pin that holds the cam is rated at 15kN. You can also use other ascenders (handled ascender, Croll, Mini Traction etc) with the only one I personally wouldn’t use being the Petzl Tibloc as it often doesn’t lock off effectively when in isolation.
When setting an anchor for the Ropeman make sure it’s suitable for both an upward and downward pull as there will be some upward pull as the rope is pulled through it. A bomber thread backed up with a second piece often offers a perfect Ropeman belay, but some times it may be nothing more than a single bomber cam that is solid in both directions. Some climbers clip the Ropeman to the anchor via a 60cm sling to avoid drag, but this does create the risk that if the second falls there may be enough play to yank the leader off. If this is unavoidable (on some routes you will have to extend the Ropeman) then the leader should climb with the rope running through their hand, so that if the second falls they won’t be dragged off. If at all possible clip the Ropeman directs to the belay without any extension. If in doubt about the quality of the running Ropeman belay then just stop and belay normally.
One other thing to watch out for is to make sure the Ropeman is matched to the screwgate that it’s clipped into and that it locks correctly when weighted. I’d also leave the wire retaining loop unclipped from the screw gate, as there is a chance that this can snag on the collar of the screwgate and stop it from locking. When racking up and to save time pre-clip the Ropeman to your rope, clipping into your belay loop (that way they won’t slide down the rope while you climb). One problem is that, in practice, you are creating an isolated auto-locking belay, meaning you can’t feed any slack or lower your partner. This means that this may not always be an appropriate technique and that the second must be able to foresee problems and know how to avoid them.
I’ve used this system several times and it works best when using a thin 50m rope, as this reduces drag when moving together and because it’s most appropriate for easy routes I personally often use an 8.5mm rope (technically breaking the rules), as I only use it on routes from which I’m pretty sure I won’t fall. If you’re following the rules you should really use a skinny single rope, with something around 9.5mm being best. In conclusion to this system, it’s vital that both climbers know how it works and how to avoid its dangers and it’s well worth playing around on something easy before doing it for real and, lastly, my second has fallen on this system and it did work.
If you’re moving fast then dress so you can do this comfortably. A thin wicking layer under a windproof top, with thin wicking leggings, will keep you comfortable if it’s hot or cold when moving. What you don’t want is to be sweating when leading and chilling when climbing. Don’t wear cotton and make sure all your layers allow you to dump heat - sleeves that can be rolled up, necks that can be unzipped to the chest. Carry a bladder pack with water, food and a light shell and insulating layer (a thin synthetic jacket is good for this). If you’re in the mountains add a balaclava and gloves. If you want to go really light then only take what you can fit in a large chalk bag and stick it on the same belt as your proper chalk bag. Into this, you could fit one of these micro shells from Patagonia and Golite, along with a thin base layer type balaclava, LED headtorch, route/map card, compass and snack, with your insulating jacket being rolled up and tied around your waist.
If you’re climbing way below your limit then ditch the rock boots and go for sticky approach shoes in which you can also run. These will allow you to keep your feet fresh over a full day. Most approach shoes are pretty shoddy to climb in so you’ll probably be best off buying a good pair of running shoes and get them resoled with a dotted Stealth C4 sole (around £22), which is by far the best stuff you can get on the soles of your shoes. Fit them so you can run in them without knackering your toes and add another insole or volume reducer (available from ski shops) to reduce the size for climbing. Climbing in trainers may feel weird at first but you’ll soon get used to it.
I recently promised a friend that we’d go out on a wet weather day and do a bunch of Welsh classics in big boots in the rain. The problem was I had to be in the car by three o’clock in order to drive home to Sheffield. Using many of the tricks I’ve discussed I decided to link-up Original Route on Idwal Slabs, Manx Wall on Clogwyn Du and Grooved Arête on Tryfan. Having slept in my car at Ogwen we set off in high winds and rain at 7.30 am and by 9.30 am we were scrambling up above towards Manx Wall having done the slabs in two pitches (stopping once to retrieve the Ropeman). By 1 pm we were below Grooved Arête and by 2 pm we were eating our sandwiches on the summit and by 3 pm we were drinking tea in Ogwen.
Another example of making the most of the day is one day this winter when Ian Parnell and I decided to have a go at doing every grade IV in t-Sneachda (it was a day off from work). By 10 o’clock we’d done The Lamp Direct, Original Route and Doctor’s Choice, about 300m of climbing. To get those first routes done we’d got up at 4 am and be at the corrie by first light. Unfortunately, we’d only had four hours of sleep the previous night and so by 10 am we lost our psych and were bored with down-climbing Aladdin’s Couloir and so went home. These two stories not only show that getting an early start is crucial, but that it’s also a great way to pack in quality routes. They are also reminders to us to make sure you are suitably rested before undertaking a challenge and, lastly, when it stops being fun don’t force it.
Nothing slows you down more than falling off.