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Guide Tech Tip: Multi-Pitch Belay Transitions and Efficiency

A simple rock climbing anchor is built by using the climbing rope. A single cam and two more equalized cams are brought to a masterpoint. It is here that the lead climber will belay up the follower.
A basic anchor using the rope. A single cam and equalized cams brought to a masterpoint. Leader secured to the anchor via the red cam. I've positioned myself on the left because Brent will be exiting the belay stance to the right.

Swift and efficient transitions between two partners at the belay stations is the trademark of a well rounded multi-pitch climber. In Colorado, where the weather is fickle, it is important to remember time is on your side and the quicker you move, the quicker you remove yourself from a potentially compromising situation. There is a lot of work to be done when swapping leads on long alpine routes and in order to do this efficiently, it’s imperative to know how the moving units can move simultaneously.

My friend and fellow CMS guide Brent Butler ventured into the wild Boulder Canyon one blisteringly hot afternoon to detail five helpful multi-pitch transition tips that will put you in the fast lane when climbing long routes in the mountains.

First of all, it’s important to practice these steps and have your systems dialed before you tackle any long routes like the Casual Route on the Diamond or the South Face of the Petit Grepon.

Eldorado Canyon is a great venue to practice your skills, and use them to link many pitches of climbing in a day. For the sake of this tutorial, it is assumed that both partners will be swapping leads and will be avoiding any block leading. The climbers will also be using a single rope and, perhaps, tagging an additional, non-functioning, rappel line.

1: Use The Climbing Rope!

Often times on long routes, I see leaders arriving at a belay stance, fuddling in a few pieces of gear and whipping out a 27′ piece of cordelette to build a bomber, redundant anchor. While this may be the most useful strategy in a guided scenario or when one partner is leading all of the pitches, when swapping leads, this eats up precious time. The most useful tool you have for building an anchor is the climbing rope you’re actually tied into. In these times, I like to place at least three pieces of solid protection, clove hitch myself to one piece, pull up about 3′ of slack, clove hitch each other piece individually to the climbing rope and equalize a master point from which I belay my second.

Important note: Position yourself on the opposite side your partner will be leading off from. This prevents you from doing the “belay stance dance.” Sometimes this means taking the less comfortable stance but will save you a headache in the long run. Allow your leader to reach the belay without having to go around you, under the rope, around you again and over the rope again. Now, this may seem confusing, but Brent and I have clearly illustrated what this would look like.

A basic anchor using the rope. A single cam and equalized cams brought to a masterpoint. Leader secured to the anchor via the red cam. I've positioned myself on the left because Brent will be exiting the belay stance to the right.
A basic anchor using the rope. A single cam and equalized cams brought to a masterpoint. Leader secured to the anchor via the red cam. I’ve positioned myself on the left because Brent will be exiting the belay stance to the right.

Once the new leader has arrived at the next belay stance and has you on belay, the anchor you’ve built can easily be deconstructed and pieces of gear can easily be racked back onto your harness without futzing around with a piece of cord. This, I have found, saves a few moments of time whereas before I would have been cursing while trying to undo the knot I created in my cordelette and putting the cordelette away all while precariously balancing on a 6″ ledge.

2: Share Your Gear!

When the second climber arrives at the belay, they are looking to be secured to the belay so you can switch them over to lead belaying instead of auto-block mode. They likely search for a locking carabiner on the cluster of items that have amassed on their harness or they look for their PAS (personal anchor system) in which to clip the anchor. There’s an easy solution here and can be easily formulated ahead of time.

Brent and I use the same belay device (Black Diamond ATC Guide with two locking carabiners) so we’re quite familiar with how these devices work.  We exchange devices at the belay so when Brent arrives at my anchor I can keep him secured in auto block mode while putting him on belay with his device, which he’s given to me. Therefore, Brent is never off belay and when he’s ready to cast off on the next pitch simply removes my device (in auto-block mode) from the anchor and climbs. Quick, efficient and preemptive modes of security are my favorite!

Certified Rock Guide Andy Hansen demonstrating efficient transition technique at multipitch belay station.
I’ve put Brent on the lead belay while still having him secured to the anchor via my device in auto-block mode.

3: Rack it Up!

This step seems to be where a lot of partnerships lose valuable time. Some people like to rack the gear they’ve cleaned from the route all willy nilly and clipped in whichever way they can. Others like to use a gear sling. Others let it just hang on the rope so they don’t even have to deal with actually cleaning it. There are all sorts of ways to clean and rack gear and then there are better ways to clean and rack gear. This is my preferred way:

Step 1: When you arrive at a piece of gear lodged in the rock, keep the rope clipped to the quickdraw or sling. Clean the piece of gear whether it be a cam or a stopper or a wooden chock. Rack said piece of gear to your gear loops how you would normally rack that particular piece of gear. i.e. if it’s a .3 Camalot, I would rack that on my right-front gear loop.

Step 2: Once it’s racked, remove the quick draw or sling from the rope. If it’s an alpine draw or a single sling with a carabiner on it, throw it over your shoulder and move on. I’ll keep any attached stoppers on the sling and deal with them when I arrive at the belay. It takes too much time and is a cumbersome process to remake alpine draws while they still have a stopper on them. If it’s a quickdraw, unclip the quickdraw from the racked piece and clip that to the appropriate gear loop, i.e. right-rear gear loop. Keep climbing like a madman.

Step 3: Repeat steps one and two until you arrive at the belay.

Step 4: When I arrive at the belay, I expect that my partner has racked all the remaining gear on his climbing rope that is clove hitched to the anchor (see picture) or on a single sling (see picture) in ascending or descending order, i.e. Stoppers, .3 Camalot, .4 Camalot, .5 Camalot, etc. This way when I get to the belay and am secured (see Tip #2), all my partner needs to do is hand me a sling with gear on it or I can piecemeal off his rope while he’s switching me over to lead belay (see Tip #2). Usually, when I arrive at the belay, I ask for the stoppers first and re-rack those right away to free up all my slings or alpine draws.

Rock Guide Andy Hansen racks cams and stoppers on his tie-in rope. When his follower arrives at the belay ledge, he'll have quick and easy access to gear that he needs to lead the next pitch.
I’ve racked the remaining gear on my rope. When Brent arrives at the belay, he can grab each piece from my rope while I put him on belay.

Step 5: Fire the crux pitch in a non-tweaking style with perfectly racked gear after a 37 second transition!

A rock climber stands on a belay ledge and re-racks gear on a multipitch route in Colorado. Multi-pitch transition efficiency is critical to smooth multi-pitch transitions.
Sometimes people prefer the remaining gear racked onto a sling. Talk about your preferred method with your partner before committing to the route!

4: Manage The Rope!

This often tends to be an area of confusion for some people. First, understand which style of management you’ll be employing, i.e. a “stack” of rope (if on a ledge- even a small ledge will suffice) or a lap coil (if at a hanging belay). Two tips for these methods:

  1. Keep the stack tight and neat; and
  2. Pat it down with your hand or foot periodically to prevent the stack from falling or sliding.

For lap coils, start with the coils long (as long as possible without being intrusive to your second while climbing or snagging on rock) and progressively decrease their length as you drape them around your lap or feet. Progressively making the coils shorter will prevent any snags or tangles in the rope.

Second, as I’ve stated earlier, place yourself on the opposite side from where your partner will be leading off from. If I position myself on the left, that means I will stack the rope on my right side (or lap coil) and my partner will arrive at my right side and exit from my right side as well. This is important to remember in order to save yourself from doing the “belay stance dance.”

5: Cut the Chit Chat!

It’s really exciting to arrive at the belay and be raving about how you totally stomped the crux sloper-crimp-gaston-undercling-mantle, but it also eats up time. I usually like to get the show on the road, but if you have to tell one joke let it be the following: “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Boo.” “Boo who?” “Stop crying, we’ve only just finished the 1st pitch of Calypso!” But really, talking in between belays wastes precious time. Make mental notes along the way of things you’d like to mention to your partner like, “The Camel descent actually looks like a camel!”

Hopefully, you’ve gained some new insights as to how to move efficiently when transitioning at belays. Also, there really is never a bad time to practice these techniques – they aren’t dedicated solely to long alpine routes. Practice them on the Wind Tower or on the Bastille so that when you do finally climb the Cathedral Spires you’ll be well prepared. These techniques may take some practice but when you’re nailing them every time, you’ll hit your stride and climb extra fast!

Colorado Mountain School offers a full array of rock climbing courses as well as custom guiding and instruction throughout Colorado.  To maximize your time on the rock and perfect your multi-pitch transitions, check out our 1-day Multi-Pitch Prep course, which is part of our 3-day Gym to Crag and 5-day Rock Climbing Development Series Level 1 courses.

Andy Hanson
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
Colorado Mountain School

AMGA Rock GuideAMGA Alpine Guide Certification. Certified Alpine Guide

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