There's a few tips and tricks I've picked up that have certainly helped me to climb a lot quicker in the mountains. These have come from a combination of hours spent reading instructional books, thousands of hours of climbing or just from spotting what another team in the mountains are doing, usually as they climb past me. Hopefully these pointers below will shorten the learning curve somewhat for you!
1. Climb like a pro.
I see it all the time, people turning up at the crag, setting out their lunch box, polishing their climbing shoes, counting how many nuts are on each carabiner and then explaining to their partner how they wish they could get out climbing more/get more routes done in a day/move slicker in the mountains. It puzzles me that they haven't realised that they've lost the battle before it's even begun.
Now, I understand that some days its great to hang out with friends and take in the views, but if you're hoping to climb big routes in a day you'll need to get your preparation right at home. Imagine you're going out climbing with someone you want to impress (maybe the good looking girl or guy from the wall)! Turn up knowing exactly where you're going, what the weather is doing, how long you expect things to take, where your water bottle is in your pack, where you've put the car keys (this saves unpacking your bag at the crag when you have the mad panic thinking you've lost them) and what the descent is. Having these things organised will get you off to a winner.
Once your hand touches the rock for the first time its time to start being decisive. You should know exactly where the next two pitches are going, (more on this later) and have set in your mind that you're the next best thing to Adam Ondra. Every foot placement should be assertive, precise and progressive and you should learn to understand what holds you are capable of pulling on. If the ground above looks good, pull on and get cracking! Learn to do this on easy ground and you'll reap the benefits of this new decisive and confident approach in every aspect of your climbing.
2. Get your head around the guide.
Guidebooks have come on hugely since the days of the topo above (taken from the 1968 FRCC Borrowdale Guide) however this has resulted in the majority of climbers losing the skill of guidebook interpretation and route finding.
This isn't much of an issue when climbing single pitch routes, but when racking up beneath an alpine rock route anywhere but the Chamonix Valley (thanks to the new Rockfax Guide) you're going to get into trouble. Spend time climbing with old guidebooks, not looking at topo's and getting a feel for the natural lines that classic routes take. Not only will climbing feel much more adventurous, you'll also start to re-learn the art of route finding. This is a vital skill for moving quickly in the mountains.
With your new found route finding skills you'll soon be storming up pitches enjoying a new found speed in the mountains until the inevitable happens... you go off route. This is the time to stop and slow down. When were you last certain you were on route? What features should you have followed? What features can you currently see? Where is the next belay? What is the natural climbing line? Hopefully these questions will help you realise where you went wrong, fix it and get climbing again.
3. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
The old adage, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Until tested it's hard to believe its true but frustratingly for the most part it is. Set off with the intention to move consistently maintaining a sense of urgency, but not blind panic. Things should be happening all the time, helping towards the aim of achieving the summit/pitches.
4. Belay like a boss.
Have you ever taken a watch to the crag and timed yourself from the moment you climb onto the belay until you shout "climb when ready"? If not this is something I would strongly recommend to anyone trying to climb faster. In my experience most mid-grade climbers take just over 10 minutes to place the gear, equalise it, tie themselves in, pull up the spare rope, put on their belay device and then shout "climb when ready". At this point their climbing buddy is usually still putting their shoes on, putting their belay jacket away or taking photos. That should have been done 9 minutes ago!! Lets see how to speed this all up...
Simple belays are safe, slick and smooth.
The majority of belays can be set up in multiple ways; Nuts vs Cams, Slings vs Rope, Direct vs Indirect. Whilst nuts, rope and indirect belays are the most common and transferable, hence why this is the most commonly taught, they are undoubtably the slowest. With experience and some careful management, these can be swapped for Cams, Slings and Direct belays for faster progress up the crag/mountain.
Using Cams instead of Nuts are quicker to place, remove and can occasionally be equalised using their integrated slings. We've all been in that situation when a nut has got stuck on a stance and half an hour has been spent trying to retrieve it. This does happen with cams but the experienced climber shouldn't be getting cams stuck, especially on belays where they should be kept in view. I'm always cautious of using cams in belays I can't see. If you climb to a belay with a good solid crack, plug in two good quality cams, equalise them and off you go!
British climbers love using the rope for everything. I'm not sure if this is due to them being cheap, potentially old fashioned or just being ignorant of the benefits. Before going any further with this point it is worth highlighting the disadvantages of a belay equalised by slings. Firstly they are significantly less shock absorbing (dynamic) than rope and so put a greater strain on the anchors. Secondly getting knots out of slings once loaded repeatedly can be very difficult (if you're expecting them to be loaded repeatedly use a figure of 8 instead of an overhand.). Finally there is the serious issue of Fall Factors of 2. If you are going to be climbing above a belay (I've never known a good reason why) never be directly clipped in using slings (for more information http://dmmclimbing.com/knowledge/how-to-break-nylon-dyneema-slings/).
With all of this in mind, slings are significantly quicker when used to equalise gear that is close together, easier for your climbing partner to clip into and quicker to strip before the next pitch.
Try being creative with how you equalise anchors using slings. the images below show three different methods, learn the pro's and con's before putting them to use.
(Top left, using the "shelf" and a guide plate back to front, top right equalising with two slings, bottom using a 16ft sling for close anchors)
Indirect belays, belays that the leader becomes part of the system ,through belaying off their rope loop/belay loop are common place, especially in the UK where the majority of our climbing is trad. This is sensible if you have any doubt as to the quality of the gear you have placed however if its bomber go direct.
The obvious advantage of a guide plate is that the device locks by trapping the dead end of the rope under the weighted live end, this means with a bit of skill and practice, things like re-racking gear, eating lunch and general faff can be done whilst belaying. Experiment using a guide plate "upside down" for a tangle free life whilst swinging leads. Often the main difficulty using a guide plate is lowering a fallen climber. Personally I tie an Italian Hitch directly to my harness in the dead end of the rope before lifting the device to release it. This ensures the descent will be kept under control.
5. Dial those descents
Having implemented all the tips above, you should be moving pretty swiftly on the way up. When it comes to the descents however you may find yourself slowing significantly.
As mentioned in the first point, the descent should be as clear in your mind as the climb itself. Is it a walk off, abseil, scramble or combination of all three. When putting the points above into practice I would suggest keeping the descents as simple as possible to allow you to experience with some new techniques.
To my mind scrambling descents are the slowest and most dangerous. They are easy to go off route and can lead into some very serious terrain. Follow the guide book descriptions as closely as possible (don't always follow the most obvious line) and do your best to spot the descent route before committing to the route. Regularly I see climbers soloing descent scrambles with ropes sloppily coiled on their backs, gear hanging messily off their harness and a general lack of appreciation as to how serious the ground is they are on. This is a recipe for disaster sooner or later. Good and fast climbers appreciate the dangers of this kind of ground and take measure to safeguard themselves when in these situations. Their ropes will be properly coiled and stored well, their gear tidy and they will be hyper aware of the situation they are in. Furthermore they're not afraid to use all that gear they have with them. Learn how to scramble with a rope (this is often quicker than getting scared whilst solo down-climbing). Make sure you get the rope involved before its too late, rope up on the easy terrain and you'll soon be cruising those scrambling descents.
Multi-pitch abseiling is often required to get off more serious crags and mountains. A top tip here is to thread the powerpoint of the next belay with the end that you are pulling. When the second rope drops from the previous belay your ropes will already be threaded for the next abseil and you've reduced the chance of dropping them.
6. The wild west of climbing fast (Don't be a cowboy).
Hopefully all the skills above will get you progressing faster up and back down the rock. You'll have discovered that climbing faster can be done in a safe way just by improving your technique, learning some new tricks and getting into a rhythm. No doubt you will have seen people on youtube flying up El Cap rope soloing, simul climbing or soloing. Whilst these techniques are all valid in certain situations they are best left to the experts and folk who have already mastered everything above.
People who climb fast in the mountains should do it in a careful, considered and calculated way. Hopefully the tips above will help you achieve this!
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