Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Simple Tricks for Speed on Multi-Pitch Ice Routes

After a week with my friend Andreas Spak in Norway I've got some things to say about speed on big routes. Andreas climbs faster than most, is always up for a big route, and is tough enough to get the job done, but I always seem to learn or re-learn some stuff when doing big new routes with him in Norway. Here are a few "speed" tricks for big routes that are primarily multi-pitch without walking steps (those steps call for T Bloks etc., not covered here).

-Use a single 70M rope to lead on. This cuts confusion at the belays down hugely. A good lead rope like the 9.2mm Nano has a far lower impact force than using twins (clipped together) or possibly even a half clipped singly (remember that the test for impact forces for half ropes is ridiculous for the way we actually climb on them, read up on it).

-Belay the leader with an auto-lock lead belay device. This allows the second to eat, drink, organize the belay, etc. Impact forces are a big discussion when using an auto-lock, I'll just say it's not something I'm concerned about with a good rope, good belay and decent rope management.

- The leader's belay sequence at the top of first pitch goes like this:
1. One super-solid screw in, clove hitch it to the upper hole (BD screws have two holes on the hanger), "OFF!."
2. Second super solid screw in higher than the first, clove hitch it the upper hole, tighten up a bit.
3. Pull up rope, belay second off an ATC guide on on the lower 'biner hole on the lower screw (yes, this actually matters!), stack neatly on one foot, or loosely if you've been smart and are using a cave or other feature for protection (which you always do, don't be all British/American and stand right in the way of the leader's falling ice).
4. "ON!" can be yelled, but by now you're vigorously yanking on the rope like mad to make it clear you're on belay, the second should already be moving by the second good yank or so. If he's not it's a felony for the second, "Slack belay management," and is payable by one beer.
5. While the second is climbing you drill the V-thread. I like to use cord rather than use the ropes to feed the thread when descending, keeps the friction lower (stuck ropes really, really suck at night on the descent), plus the cord gives a nice place to clip into on the descent (saving more time on the route...). Build as much of the V-Thread as possible, normally you can get it all done unless the second is absolutely flying. He finishes it if you don't.
6. Second hits belay, clove hitch him to the V-thread with his rope first, then to the lower biner on the upper screw keeping things all neat and organized so the leader's rope will run free and leaving enough free rope so that when you take him off the ATC you have room to clove-hitch him neatly into the lower hole on the screw. Now you have three bomber pieces in the ice.
7. Quick switch of gear (second racks screws and draws separately, don't leave draws on screws, slow), leader on belay, gone.
8. Once the leader has two or three good screws in the second takes out one belay screw. After four screws the belayer take out all the belay screws, he's still attached to the V-Thread (I use 7mm cord for this).
9. When the leader yells "off" or the rope is down to a few meters the second takes off the belay jacket, and is totally organized and ready to move when the rope goes tight. Just unhook the 'biner from the V-thread, gone in way less than 60 seconds, like zero second.

I've spent way too much time thinking about the descent also, I'll cover that next time, but because you've already put the V-threads in most of the work is done and the descent should be very fast but not too fast, ha ha!

No transition should take more than five minutes. On a six-pitch route you waste at least an hour if each transition takes 15 minutes; most ice parties take a crazy long time on each transition, it's painful to watch. It's one thing to piss around on a three-pitch route in the sun, but even on that type of route I like to get up and down quickly if possible, it's good training for bigger routes or bigger links, and you only get better at moving fast by practicing the systems.

The second has to wrestle the rope a bit at the belay, but with an auto-lock that's OK.

I'm starting to use two super light packs on long routes (forgot mine for Norway unfortunately), the leader and the second each have a good light jacket, a little water, a little food, headlamp, etc. Works better than one heavier pack for the second most of the time, plus the second often has the rap line in his pack to keep the cluster at belays lower. I've yet to find a pure ice route where the weight of a belay jacket, 250ml of water and a candy bar makes a jack bit of difference to me on the lead (OK, maybe Spray On, that would be harder for sure!). But normal ice, no.

Repeat to top.

This is based on the leader doing two or more pitches at a time. I basically don't swing leads ice climbing unless it's really warm, the climbing is mellow, and I don't care at all about time. The second should arrive at the belay fully winded and sucking air; this is not the time for him or her to lead again, plus the leader is probably getting cold. In Norway Andreas led all of one climb, I got the two ugly ones, it worked well for us.

Note that there are no slings or cords used at the belay; what normally happens with a sling or cord is the knot in the sling or cord gets totally stuck if it's loaded at all, and is then useless for the rest of the climb. Plus using the rope to clip directly into the anchor reduces the impact forces a lot if the leader pitches straight onto it. Equalization is not something I really believe in anymore (long story, but basically it doesn't work practically for real climbing situations), I like to have two bomber screws as a minimum for a belay, and then back that up with a bomber V-thread. Using the rope allows these screws to be as close as 30cm or as far as 3M, which is a lot more flexible and faster, plus no more messing about with frozen knots in slings!


Ryan said...

What auto locking device do you use/recommend for lead belaying with that skinny a rope and in possibly icy conditions?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Will. Thanks for sharing your system.

I'd also think that with good ice screws, you don't need equalization, but if I may drag your thoughts out on the topic, are you against just "pseudo" equalization (like from a cordelette), or also the equalization from setups with a sliding power point (Trango makes a sling+ring piece for this; I suppose the risk is shock-loading the other piece(s) if one blows, but I figure the odds of shock-loading are low if it's equalized in the first place)? Just curious on that.

Also -- and this may be obvious -- it sounds like you leave the V-threads in place for the descent, vs. having the second attempt to untie? Do you thread rap rings on these?

Thanks again for this post and for all. Your blog is great!

Will Gadd said...

Ryan, I'll use anything I think will work. If the rope is really icy and skinny then you need to go to an ATC or something pretty quick. A good "Dry" rope helps a lot. I don't want to use brand names on something that's inherently likely not safe to begin with, ha ha!

Anon: Trango's rig is a good implementation of the idea in my opinion, but for me all that stuff is more of a PITA than it's worth, especially for winter climbing.

The bottom line is that at least one piece in a belay system must be absolutely bomber. If you don't believe that at least one piece is absolutely immortally bomber then the belay isn't a real belay to me, and I don't trust it with my life and that of my partner's. I prefer two pieces that I believe are full-strength. I have retreated off routes when I can't get a belay I think is absolutely solid, it's just essential. An "equalized" belay usually isn't, and isn't solid if it's relying on the concept of equalization to be solid...

Yes, leave the V-threads in, much faster for the descent. I don't use rap rings as you can't generally feed the knot through them, I prefer old biners if the pull is at all marginal.

James said...

Thanks a bunch, Will! Yep, I've found the Trango thing to be nice but more work; also, b/c of added length (vs. clove hitch) it makes you place gear higher if you want the power point at chest height or thereabout. ("Anon" = James)

Thanks again.

Matt said...

Sounds like some good hints and tips there which I'll see if I can try out as soon as I can get out again!

Keith said...

Do you have a link to a page where I can read about the impact testing of half ropes vs single ropes ?

Michael Kennedy said...

Great stuff, Will. Perfect, new tricks for an old dog.

Doug Shepherd said...

Awesome post Will!

Thanks for the ideas, especially the great use of both holes on the ice screws.

When using the tag line, do you always rap with the lead line through the v-thread cord? Some of my friends have been rapping with the tag line through the anchors lately to make the pull easier, but I'm not totally psyched on that idea when using a 6mm line...

Will Gadd said...

Here is a whole lot of information on impact forces:

Will Gadd said...

Doug, I always rap with the fat line through the V-thread, or "Pull Skinny!" I have screwed it up with no ill effect, but seems wise when using ropes with radically different diameters as the fat rope will tend to create more friction and pull across the V-Thread cord. I increasingly leave old biners on the V-Thread cords for this reason and to make the pull easier.

andy k said...

But when do you stop for a cup of tea and a cucumber sandwich?

BTW if it's going to be a hard pull I'd pull the fat cord (less friction), but if it's windy pull the skinny cord (fat rope will fall better).

Butch said...

Great post. Will's right-- speed is your friend; fast transitions are often the difference between beers and nachos, and a miserable night standing in an ice cave or wherever.

For those who want the tricks for rock, here's the compilation of The Trad Climber's Bag of Tricks.

Anonymous said...

"Tons of water ice found on moon's north pole" - When I saw this I thought of you.

Thanks for all the great entries and advice.

-- Matt

aaron and sally said...

Just coming up to Ice season here in NZ so catching up on your Blog.
Some great idea's we'll be able to adapt to our use. Having taught ourselves pretty much, it is great to see what someone more experienced does. I found the Women's chapter in Modern techniques book really helpful too. Cheers

a said...

Thanks a lot for very helpful post!
Just a couple of newbie questions, hope you don't mind:
1. Did I understand right that all three pieces of belay system are totally independent and the second climber loads only one piece while belaying? And that the other pieces are only for backup and are loaded only if the primary piece (e.g. thread) fails?
2. And somewhat intriguing part with leader working on V-thread while second climbs: with ATC Guide you need at least one hand to pull up the rope (if I understood the process right), so it means that the leader makes V-thread with one hand?
Thanks again for the post and a million thanx if you find a moment to answer.

Will Gadd said...


1. All three points are linked together. Belays are very seldom "hanging" in ice climbing unless the leader has screwed up. I actually can't think of one fully hanging belay I've ever done on an ice climb, ever. So the second shouldn't be loading anything. If the leader falls then the second will load the lower piece first. Not sure what you're thinking here to be honest, but hope the above answers it.

2. With an ATC you usually pull in rope while the second is moving, and work on the thread when he or she isn't moving. Unless your partner is incredibly fast (and few are, ice climbing is not generally race-pace) then you can usually get the thread done if you're reasonably practiced at building threads.


a said...


Thanks, that's exactly what I wanted to know. I've never yet multipitched ice myself but have seen some pictures of people hanging on steep ice while belaying, hence the "hanging" :) That doesn't really change the process though - if I got it right this time, the other points are loaded only if the first fails (and this severe load is more likely if leader didn't yet screw in some good screws and falls all the way to the belay).
As for the belaying the second, I just forgot to account for the screws second climber has to remove, apart from not climbing lightning-fast... So I suppose there should be enough 'free' time.
Thanks again for comprehensive answer and sorry for my English :)

Anonymous said...

Great Post... Have a quick question... are the first two screws tied directly together or are you tied to the first, then back to your harness before going back to the second screw?


Will Gadd said...

Anon--rope goes from your harness to the first screw, clove, up to the second screw snugly, clove. All kinds of permutations to this can be done using the rope, but complicated systems using the rope are a pain to switch out unless the leader becomes the belayer, like when swinging leads. For normal "block" leading the belay has to be an easy-switch system, so use slings or whatever if it's a complicated situation. HTH.

Runar said...

What dim are you using on the ropes? Both the lead rope and the rap line. I climb with dbl rope, but am always up for a little weight saving.


Will Gadd said...

9.2 nano, 7.7mm tag line that stays in the second's pack. It's not just about weight, it's about cluster... Double ropes are a hassle.