Enjoy these tips from Luke, one of PG Sunnyvale’s members, who is happiest high on a rock face and is always willing to share beta. Luke has climbed many long routes in Yosemite including El Capitan, the face of Half Dome, and various other routes. Luke and his wife, Lizzy, write about their many adventures on Dream in Vertical, covering everything from trip reports and beta to gear reviews.
A jumble of climbers on the NW Face of Half Dome
One of the best things, in my mind, about sharpening one’s skills as a climber is the ability to go to bigger and experience beautiful places. I love the feeling of the wind on my face high on a rock wall, alone with nature.
I want to share some tips and tricks on how a climber can take existing skills and use them to break into longer and/or harder routes. This is a multi-step and usually a multi-year process. Growth as a climber is not always measured by gains in strength. Learning logistics, planning, efficient climbing and communication will help one do bigger and more badass things! There will be a follow-on post with my experiences on some of the harder routes I’ve tried on the West Coast.
Working towards more difficult multi-pitch routes
I think there are two good methods for working up to long free routes. A simple step is for a climber who can onsight 5.10 to increase the number of pitches he/she can do at that level. Doing a one pitch 5.10 is much different than doing five pitches of 5.10. This is a very linear way to your work your way up to bigger and longer days. By doing many pitches at your limit, you build stamina at your maximum level. A downside to this method is that you must perform at your maximal level for multiple pitches, which can be mentally exhausting.
More 5.10 climbers will start by doing a five pitch 5.9 and then venture into a five pitch route with a single pitch of 5.10. This incremental way lets you taste harder pitches on a multi-pitch while keeping a lower average difficulty. One benefit of doing more pitches below your limit is that you can work on getting better logistics and efficiency. Sometimes being a fast or efficient climber can be a bigger challenge than the crux of the route. Cloud Tower is a perfect example of a great route where one pitch is much harder than the rest. It is great to be able to onsight 5.12 but when it takes you two hours, you cannot get in very many hard pitches. Climbing slowly not only costs time, but energy. After my slow lead of the crux pitch on Cloud Tower, I was quite fatigued and climbed the remaining pitches at a sub-optimal speed. We ended up rappelling in the dark, never a plus.
One way that combines these two methods is to do them in parallel. Working up to do a route like Astromanor the Rostrum, you need to be able to do three 5.11 pitches and many 5.10 pitches. This can easily be simulated by doing Serenity + Sons and then a trip to the Cookie to do the Nabisco Wall. Even doing these two “routes” on different days in the same weekend is helpful for simulating the stresses of a longer route. If you only have a little time, it is still valuable to do a few harder pitches in a row to see how your body reacts, even if you don’t end up doing as many total pitches as your goal route. Cumulative fatigue is a big factor when climbing long routes and you can simulate it on single pitch routes or even in the gym.
While the difficulty and number of pitches may play a very important role in working towards more challenging multipitches, there are many other skills that contribute to efficient, successful, and fun multipitch climbing. Following are some tips for some of these important skills.
Proper rope management is a good way to keep things moving while multi-pitch climbing. Take a second to look over these tips that Lizzy put together on keeping a clean belay. If you end up having to re-flake your rope at every belay, or make the leader pause while the belayer deals with rope spaghetti, you lose a lot of time over a number of pitches. Clean, well-managed belays make for faster, safer belay transfers (less distraction = safer) and are also key on crowded routes where you may be sharing belays with other parties.
On the crux pitch of Atlantis
When planning for a route, it is important to consider the difference between leading in blocks and swinging leads. When daylight is fading and there isn’t much time for extended rest compared to single pitch climbing, I tend to prefer leading in blocks, but on the Rostrum I took the lead after the following the crux pitch. By speeding though the belay transition, I kept my pump from the previous pitch. This poor decision quickly made a tricky pitch even more challenging. Luckily I pulled it off, but it is important to keep your priorities in line. If it’s getting dark, then efficiency should usually take priority. If you have plenty of daylight then its smart to rest up and send! Make sure to have a plan when choosing pitches and for when you plan on switching leaders. In most situations the goal is for both climbers to send the route, so pitches and transitions should be matched to the strengths of the team.
Lizzy approaches the crux corner of Cloud Tower
Efficiency on moderate terrain
On certain routes, like the NW Face of Half Dome and the Chouinard-Herbert, there are a multitude of sub-5.11 pitches. On my attempts to free these routes, the sheer volume of climbing was hard to manage. I had no problem with the easier pitches, but throughout the day they wore me out. By the time I got into the 5.11 and above pitches, I was too tired to send. Being efficient on easy terrain is a really good skill to have. This also means that you will be moving much faster, which is essential on very long routes and in the mountains. Moving fast also means less food and water (i.e. less weight).
Most of the time, you’re not done when you get to the top of the route. Most alpinists know that the summit only marks the half way point for their day. Many new multipitch leaders discount the time and energy it takes go get down. Take the time to figure out the way off the formation or the proper rappel route beforehand. Also, when climbing large formations you should always have a plan for how to get down in case of a storm or injury (this may be different than the normal descent). Rescue is often not an option and planning an escape route is time well spent. Here is Lizzy’s writeup of our lessons learned from getting stormed of El Capitan. Even in the sunny state of California the weather can have serious consequences.
An often overlooked item can be food and water consumption. It makes a difference when you don’t have access to your crag pack and must carry everything that you consume. When you are cragging you can take a break and each lunch whenever. Not all multipitch routes have awesome ledges so it is smart to multi-task and eat and drink while belaying and at belay changeovers. Certain foods will be much easier to eat while climbing and often I end up eating a bunch of clifbars and shotblocks. Eating on the wall is a team game so make sure to help your partner keep well fed and hydrated.
Before any long climb it is smart to discuss food and water with your partner. Weather, sun aspect and duration all play into the amount of water you need. Sometimes it is smart to bring extra water to leave at the base for when you get down from the route. I’m a big fan of Nuun, Gatorade or other sports drinks that have electrolytes and help you avoid cramps. It is important to eat throughout the day even when you don’t feel hungry. A bit of caffeine (gu or blocks) can help give a performance boost before difficult pitches. When climbing alpine routes (or routes far from the car) it can be smart to consider natural water sources near the route. The spring behind Sentinal Rock has helped re-hydrate many a parched party. There also are seasonal springs at the end of Royal Arches and at the base of Half Dome.
- When pushing yourself it is good to either push the difficult or duration of the climb but not both.
- Efficiency can be helpful if you are climbing five pitches or El Capitan. Speed = Safety!
- Know the grade/level of climbing you can relax on. Confidence allows you to focus energy on harder pitches.
- Pitch by pitch planning is essential for sending. Swinging leads is not always best.
- Have a plan for getting down in case you need to bail. Weather can be surprising!
- Make food and water a priority while climbing. It’s much harder to send when your arms are cramping.