Rebecca Schob high up on Paisano Pinnacle as
Burgundy Spire looms in the background. Photo: Katie Mills.
I used to shy away from long alpine rock routes because hey, when have I ever climbed more than, say, four pitches in a day? Never! There was no way I’d risk getting stuck on some heinous ledge, shivering and thirsty, reluctantly spooning with a stinky climbing partner, praying for the sun to come up.
So I kept climbing in my slow, tedious fashion. Along the way I read some books, endured some ridicule about my bad habits, started training harder, and picked up tips for more efficient climbing. I’d like to share some of them with you.
Reduce pack weight
Pack weight will make or break you. Do you want to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Stuart in two days or four?
When I did the complete North Ridge of Stuart, the only thing I brought for camping was a one-pound sleeping bag. I slept on top of the rope and the back pad from my pack. Besides the clothes I wore, I carried only a lightweight puffy. If you’re doing a day trip, ask yourself whether you can get by with only one pack for the following climber to carry. No, you will not bring your “ten essentials” on a vertical rock climb where speed is safety.
How little water can you carry? While doing Stuart’s North Ridge, we left the ground with 2 liters per person. It’s true we had no water from the summit until we hit Ingalls Creek five hours later. It was uncomfortable, but we were fine. If I weren’t willing to suffer a little, I’d have stuck with cragging.
I started wearing minimalist trail runners on approaches. They work great and weigh much less in my pack than a pair of hiking boots.
Check out Extreme Alpinism by Mark Twight if you want to learn more about what you really need in your pack on a climb. Also, get a lighter pack! I have a small, very lightweight pack I affectionately refer to as my “crusher pack.” It weighs so little it makes me CRUSH! CiloGear makes some great light ones and they are made here in Portland.
Katie Mills enjoying granite for days on
the north ridge of Mt. Stuart, Washington.
Photo: Todd Eddie.
Do your homework
How did people climb before the advent of the internet? I would have just wandered around lost in the forest. These days, people put topos on the internet! Sometimes they post photos of mountains with giant red lines painted on them where the routes go!
Study these in town. The better you research the route, the less time you will waste staring at your topo while on route. Know what to expect at different points during the climb. Don’t be the person who does no research and therefore can be of no use when it comes to making navigational decisions. Two informed people are much more likely to make the right decision than one. Getting off route can really ruin your day. If the route looks weird or untraveled, backtrack before you make things worse. People who are “really good at navigation and route finding” probably aren’t any better than you; they just studied the beta beforehand.
Speed up transitions
Many people climb with no sense of urgency. A leisurely pace is fine until you have 20 pitches to complete before the sun goes down. Transition times should take no more than five minutes. Rack gear properly as you clean it. Stop lollygagging. You’ll find more tips in Speed Climbing by Hans Florine and Bill Wright, a highly informative and enjoyable read.
Be a vigilant belayer
Always keep the rope tight on the follower so he/she can climb as fast as possible. I had a partner who thought he was saving time when he stopped belaying me so he could eat. But I wasn’t climbing while he wasn’t belaying. So he really saved us no time. Followers should climb as fast as possible. This is alpine and there is no glory on top rope anyway. Pull on gear and do whatever else it takes to move as fast as you can.
Dial in anchor skills
Take two bomber pieces, each of which you’d trust your life on (three if you’re hanging precariously, or taking a Mazama class), and tie them together with a power point. What are you bumbling around for with your wishy-washy decision-making? Stop wasting precious time! If you can’t build an anchor quickly stick to a smaller scale climb until you’re ready.
Avoid rope drag
One time my lead climber led the route then had such horrible rope drag he couldn’t pull the rope up, so I just stood there dumbly wondering why he wasn’t taking in slack and doing nothing forever. Don’t let that happen to you! When in doubt, extend! If you really need a piece in a wandering area you know is going to cause horrible rope drag, will it be possible to get above the difficult part and then remove it? Check behind you periodically to make sure your rope isn’t caught on a horn or flake.
Combine pitches like a boss
Jeremy Lubkin on the NE Ridge of Mt. Triumph
in the North Cascades, Washington.
Photo by Katie Mills
Should you simul-climb?
Simul-climbing will speed your journey, but fewer pieces of pro and more slack in the rope creates a lot of risk. In deciding whether to simul-climb, consider the terrain. Is it below you and your partner’s ability? Ok, then maybe. More difficult than you expected? Better not. The weaker climber should lead while the stronger follows because if the follower falls, he can rip the leader off the wall. I am comfortable with simul-climbing when I lead since I’m so small I feel like I’m on belay with a portable anchor following behind me.
So maybe you followed all this advice and had an unplanned bivy anyway because you left your new headlamp batteries on the coffee table as you ran out the door and your headlamp died and now you can’t find the critical rappel on descent in the dark and you’re out of water and you start dry heaving after trying to choke down a granola bar and you reluctantly spoon with your climbing partner as you convert your pack into the world’s smallest sleeping bag and pile the rope on top of you as the world’s worst blanket and shiver pathetically through the night. These are the greatest climbs, and the ones you will remember most vividly. And even though you were miserable at the time, you’ll forget the suffering. Instead you’ll remember how much you loved being one with the mountain that night—with no worries about your 9 to 5 job or the laundry or the traffic—when your only focus was making it through the night. You felt the wind on your face. You eagerly awaited the sunrise. And that sunrise was the most beautiful thing you ever saw—so beautiful it made it all worthwhile. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad either. As long as you get out there and climb, you win!