There are only two climbing paces on a big wall: fast or slow.
If you intend to spend a night on a route you will climb exponentially slower than if you go for it in a day. With a minimum of three litres of water per person per day, that'll be 6kg of water to carry for each person on a two day route. Add to that, food and bivi gear and you have a load that is too big to second with so you have to haul it up after every pitch. Hauling is slow and hard work.
The alternative is to go for it in a day, or a push. Travelling light and fast, without any hauling.
Speed climbing is a highly skilled, very committing and potentially dangerous way to climb, for the experienced only. A true speed ascent is made with just one rope, meaning retreat from high on the wall may be impossible. On more than one occasion I have personally only narrowly avoided serious accidents due to small mistakes or decisions made in haste.
Where and Why
The potential of using speed-climbing techniques on the world's greatest rock-faces is just starting to be exploited. The 'continuous push' is the new Alpine-style form of ascent for the 21st century.
Although speed climbing is practised in the most of the more foreboding big wall areas of the world, there are only a very few places where it is possible to learn and master speed techniques in any kind of safety. The most popular is probably Yosemite, USA. Doing a route on El Capitan in a day there is an awesome experience.
However, once perfected speed climbing becomes an effective way of getting up and down a major feature in small weather window. Climbing 30 long and demanding pitches, passing parties who've been on the route for days in a matter of hours, and getting back to camp for the same day you left is hugely satisfying. In this fashion speed climbing may actually be a safer option compared to weathering week-long storms or waiting to be hit by avalanches.
These notes describe the most useful speed techniques in the context of a Yosemite-style, low-grade big wall such as the Nose.
The 'continuous push' is the new Alpine-style form of ascent for the 21st century
- Forget every ethic you ever learned as a free climber. In speed climbing, anything goes and every corner is cut - sometimes at the expense of personal safety.
- Aiders are used if required but on easier routes a combination of free climbing and pulling on gear (French free) is usually fastest. The second nearly always speed-jumars (i.e. jumars very quickly!) to follow.
- Essentially your speed comes from efficiency, smooth rope work and racking with no mistakes.
There are also a few cunning tricks and techniques you can use to get you moving:
This is the most valuable technique to the speed climber, enabling very big routes to be done with a very small and manageable rack. When using direct aid, after moving from one piece to another, place then next and then remove the first. It is important that you are always on two separate pieces and that both are good (this often requires being clipped into to three pieces). This enables you to climb with a drastically reduced rack as no gear is left behind. If the going gets tough or if a section of free climbing ensues it may be necessary to leave a piece. Carry 30 - 40 free carabiners and clip any in situ gear (bolts, etc.) as a runner. This technique can lead to some very big run-outs. Care is required! People have taken falls of hundreds of feet.
This is the trick to moving quickly. Break the route into blocks instead of pitches
Expert's Tip: DO NOT FALL. This will inevitably slow you down
. Study your chosen route carefully before you leave the ground. Plan who will lead each block according to your particular strengths. Decide where you will switch leads before you set off. If you begin to run out of gear on the route, ignore your plan and take a belay as necessary.
On arriving at a belay:
- Clip into it with your daisy chains
- Instruct your partner to take you off belay
- Haul in all the free rope
- Fix it to the anchor using a clove hitch and a screwgate, back it up once
- Instruct your partner 'the line is fixed'
- Begin the next pitch rope solo by either self-belaying or running it out.
Because you were back cleaning you should still have most of the rack for the next pitch. It shouldn't take your partner long speed-jumar up and get you back on belay, as there will be little gear to remove. This enables you to make continuos upward progress.
The Nose can be led in as few as four blocks instead of 30 pitches and the current speed record for this is an incredible 4 hours 20 minutes (see Timed ascents, below).
Instead of belaying, the second climbs at the same time as the leader (simultaneously) usually with around 60 - 80 feet of rope between them, although this can be a full rope length, and at least 4 runners. It's a useful technique for bolt ladders or easy free climbing but rarely more efficient than short fixing on sustained ground - and it is much more dangerous. When simo-climbing the second must not fall(!) as this will pull off the leader who may be in a bad position.
Passing Other Parties
Be civil but firm. Problems passing people are usually caused by the overtaking team not climbing that much quicker than the team being overtaken. Do not attempt to pass unless you are moving considerably faster than the other team. If you are, then it should go smoothly, hardly affecting the other team.
When simo-climbing the second must not fall(!) as this will pull off the leader who may be in a bad position
Timed ascents are a recent fashion in Yosemite. If you want to take part in the friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) competition, here are the rules:
- The clock starts when the leader sets off from the place where an average party would rope up.
- It stops when the last climber, accompanied by all the team gear, reaches the place where an average party would un-rope.
- Declare whether your ascent was aid-onsight or if you had climbed it before.
- Do not climb the route and fix vital gear prior to your speed ascent. If you do, you are sad.
- Do not lie. There are no judges in this, it is only a game, gentlemen. If you lie, you are sad.
- Stay hydrated. Climb with a large personal hydration bladder on your back.
- Use one adjustable daisy chain.
- DO NOT FALL. This will inevitably slow you down.
- Never rush. This is what causes accidents.
- Dress accordingly (avoid cotton or down) and take a light, windproof jacket.
- Keep the ropes tidy at all times.
- Never stop. Calm continuous progress is the secret.
- Set off really early. Approaching light is much less menacing than approaching darkness.