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).
The standard team size for all roped climbing has always been two, the reasons being that two flows well when cragging or multi-pitching and for straight rock-climbing it’s the most efficient number, keeping things simple and uncluttered. The climbing double act is also probably due to the fact that in the early days of technical climbing each climber could only safely safeguard one other, be it the leader or the second. It could also be said that many climbers just aren’t confident when it comes to safely handling more than one second.
There is also a belief that a three-person team will be slower or just make things over complicated. This may be true compared to a word class pair taking on a third partner, but for most climbers the time and complexity factor isn’t as great a handicap as you might expect. In fact a three-person team has several major advantages, especially on adventurous and committing multi-pitch routes, Alpine climbs and expeditions, which make any cons worthwhile. This article aims to show you why and how.
YOU’LL NEVER STAND ALONE
The worst moments of any long route - especially if it’s a hard one, is standing alone at the belay worrying about whether or not the leader will make it, or if that storm is going to hit you, or if you should ever have started climbing in the first place. The value of having someone to keep you company at the belay cannot be overstated. Boredom is reduced and conversation can take your mind off a perilous situation. A second pair of hands can also reduce the workload, allowing ropes to be stacked, rucksacks clipped off, or photos snapped whilst never taking a hand off the rope.
Another trick is that if it’s looking like being a particularly long belay the third climber can break out the stove and melt snow to fill the team’s water bottles. If it’s nearly dark then the third climber can even start sorting out the bivvy, cutting a ledge, putting up a tent, cooking the tea, allowing the leader to rappel down at the end of the pitch to a nice warm bed.
I’ve been on several horrible belays with a third climber and no matter how things got it was never as bad as it could be because I could always have someone to agree with me when I said: “Bloody hell this is gnarly.” Maybe it’s like ringing up the Samaritans - having someone to share your pain with making that pain easier to endure and I can’t overemphasize the value of the great British stiff upper lip, that strange skill that allows us to keep a lid on it with a smart remark. I can remember when we abseiled down off Poincenot in Patagonia, we’d been on the go for 24 hours and all of us were falling asleep on the belays when suddenly someone just said: “Has anyone ever been to Oslo?” which was such a left field question it somehow stimulated our minds just enough to make it down without nodding off.
SHARING THE BURDEN
One of the greatest advantages of a team of three is that it only needs the same amount of gear as a team of two, meaning the burden of the rack, ropes, stove, tent etc can be divided between three rather than two. The only weight increase is in fuel and food, but nevertheless the overall individual weight each climber must carry is significantly reduced. If climbing hard terrain the load can also be split into two easier, with the leader climbing with almost nothing and the two seconds moving on a tight rope.
If you’re climbing a route that’s severely dehydrating the team, such as hot Alpine peak bagging, then it may be worth taking along two micro burners (sub 100g burner), allowing you to have two stoves going at once. This is a great system as you’re carrying the fuel anyway, only this way for as little as 30g extra per person you can greatly increase the speed of cooking, plus add a little redundancy to your system.
MORE POWER TO BURN
I can remember once talking to Andy Parkin about his Alpine style attempt on a new route on K2 with a big team including Doug Scott. Although they got closed down due to illness he said one of the biggest factors in their favour was having lots of feet on their team. The reason, as anyone who’s ever trawled through kilometres of snow at altitude will know, is that climbing is easy, but breaking trail is torture. Being able to share this task between three not only reduces the effort by two thirds, but also reduces the psychological burden of looking up at miles of snowy ridgeline and knowing you and your mate have miles of donkey work to do.
When climbing easy gullies again the work can be divided between the three. When breaking trail, or when kicking steps on steep ground, it’s crucial that the leader makes the best steps possible for those that are following, the aim being that those following expend as little energy as possible, even if this means the leader needs to use more energy than they usually would. This will pay dividends when the leader goes to the rear as they will able to fully recover and be fresh for their go in front. If the trail breaking is particularly grim then the team could opt for a lighter ‘sack for the leader, again saving energy.
SHARING THE PSYCHOLOGICAL BURDEN
The psychological strength of a three-person team is much greater than that of a two-person team - which can often mean the difference between turning around or climbing on. That extra brain often means that the team as a whole is far more rational and level-headed, with strength in numbers definitely making that difficult or bold step into the unknown far less scary. The knowledge that the team has more energy in reserve also reduces the stress when things don’t go to plan and if, God forbid, one of the team becomes injured the chances of a successful self-rescue are massively increased - very important if you’re deciding whether or not to go for it on a remote objective.
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
If you’re standing at the bottom of a 20-pitch route that you know will be at your limit it’s great when you know that you only need to climb a third of the route. The bigger team is also more able to play to its strengths as there is always one climber who’s better on rock, one who’s better on ice, one who’s stronger, one who’s better at navigation etc, etc, etc.
One thing that speeds things up is to be able to attach each member to the ropes quickly, as ends often need to be swapped at each pitch or while travelling on glaciers and tying in and out not only wastes time but can also lead to knots not being correctly tied by exhausted minds. The best thing to do is to clip into the rope via two reversed screwgates clipped back to back via the belay loop. The belay loop is used so that the screwgates aren’t put in the dangerous position of having to take a three way loading, which would be likely if the krabs were clipped via the waist and leg loops. If you only have one screwgate then double up with a reversed plain gate.
On easy routes the leader can climb on two half ropes and the seconds can climb on a single strand each, but it’s worth avoiding super thin ropes and personally I’d stick with nothing thinner than an 8.5mm rope (Mammut Genesis or Beal Cobra). On very hard routes, especially those that may go faster if the seconds jumar some pitches, then consider using a pair of super skinny ropes (9.2mm to 9.5mm).
In order to move quickly then both seconds must climb together. This is best done by one climber setting off first, with the second one moving off when the first second is a few metres away. In order to safely belay two climbers who may be moving at different speeds it’s vital to belay with a magic plate like the Petzl Reverso or Mammut Matrix. This kind of tool lets the leader simultaneously belay both climbers with total security, as it is both auto locking and reduces the risk of slack building up or, God forbid, the belayer not having their hand on the rope, because they are fighting with the other rope, when the other second pops.
One other piece of gear worth considering is a daisy chain (see panel) or sling, using it to connect each climber to the belay without having to use their rope, allowing the rope ends to be easily swapped.