Climbing fast as a party of 3: Managing ropes and swapping leads

The more I climb as a party of three with competent folks, the more I am convinced that it can be as fast as two.  There are a bunch of places where time can be saved with the right back of tricks, which means bigger routes with more friends, or making it home in time for beer. I love climbing with three because you have someone to talk to while belaying, you get time to rest (maybe even get in a quick nap) and thus typically, moral is higher.

I am going to write about a few of the most valuable techniques in this area, and making efficient transitions is seems to be one of the easiest places to save time.  For some situations, it might mean the difference between a 20 minute transition and a 2 minute one. Basically, how do you avoid tangling and re-stacking the ropes at every belay.  The problem isn’t limited to parties of three, it can certainly occur with a team of two as well, there are just more moving pieces with three.

First, when belaying from the top,

There are two situations to be familiar with:

Situation 1: The person who just led is leading again

This situation is relatively trivial, as the new leader is attached to ends of the bottom of the stack already.  He or she has them stacked them neatly at the belay, having just brought the two followers up.  Flip the stack onto the new belayer without making a mess.  This typically flipping it onto the middle person, who was the second of the three people in total to reach the belay, and will likely be belaying next.

The previous (and current leader) is already attached to the anchor. Take both ropes attached to their harness, feed them into the tube, and they are on belay.  To reduce the cluster when they leave the station, followers should clip in underneath  the leader when arriving at the belay and away from the direction of the next pitch (in the master point, for instance).  This helps to avoid the awkward unweighting that will otherwise be necessary for them to clean their biner.  One way to do this is to clip into the top-shelf of the anchor (if it exists) as the leader, and have everyone else clip in elsewhere. The leader should also stay on one side of the belay or the other while each follower arrives (effectively, don’t end up in the middle).  Which side will depend on where the route goes next.

Situation 2: One of the followers will be leading

This is the more interesting situation. In this case, the follower who is now becoming the leader is tied into one rope end that is on top of the stack.  He/she also needs the end from the other follower. This transaction can be made simple, and is describe in the following list.  Let’s assume there are two ropes, red and green.:

  1. Old leader arrives at belay (has red and green ropes), and cloves into anchor with same rope color as the new leader (red). He/she will eventually un-tie and hand over the second rope attached to his/her harness  (green).
  2. New leader arrives at belay, cloves in with the only rope he or she is tied into (red).
  3. Next follower arrives at belay, receives the other end of the same color rope from the old leader (green), ties into this rope, and cloves to the belay. Now he/she can untie the rope end on which he/she was brought up, handing this to the new leader (green).
  4. The new leader receives the rope from the second follower (green), and now has both ends of rope which are on top of the stack (red and green).

This belay device on the anchor might still have the ropes in it and be attached to the anchor.  If so, it can be removed from the anchor and attached to the belayers harness. In this case, you don’t even need to re-thread a belay device.   BOOM!

Pre-requisites for the leader and group for either of the above situations to work well:

  • The ropes must be well-stacked.   Use the rope or PAS taught between you and the anchor as a place to stack, or a ledge.  Stacking on your feet makes it hard to move them when you need to shift around for whatever reason. Stacking the rope on a person rather than in a pile seems to lend itself better to #2 above.
  • Start the day with a good idea of who will be leading each pitch.
  • As the leader who is bringing people up to the belay, you are in charge of maintaining organization. As someone arrives at the belay, tell them where they should go, and keep the ropes organized. I have been making an effort lately to ensure I know where rope will go before I put anyone on belay from above and yell “Belay is on, climb On!”.  When two people are climbing up quickly up to you, it can be hard to keep the station organized if it didn’t start that way.  All the sudden those people are at the belay and you have a mess on your hands.
  • If the followers are climbing close together, the ropes can be stacked together.  If they are climbing the pitch at separately or very far apart, it is better to also stack the ropes separately.  This avoids one rope becoming tangled in another
  • As the leader, establishing a master point can be helpful.  Although this sometimes requires an extra (large) locking carabiner, it creates an obvious clip in point which helps to avoid a spider web of personal anchor systems of ropes on clove hitches, the chains, bolts, etc.

That’s all I can think of for this one, but hopefully it helps.  I have found the tip in situation #2 very useful for keeping things moving as the individual leading each pitch rotates through group.

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