Simple Tricks for Speed on Multi-Pitch Ice Routes

February 24, 2010
Will Gadd



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!