by Matthias Scherer & Heike Schmitt
WARNING: Theese 10 tips should NOT replace proper training by a competent certified instructor from an Alpine Club or through a certified mountain guide. If you have never done multi-pitch rock climbing before, we strongly suggest that you participate in a stage with an Alpine Club or take one with a certified mountain guide to learn the right safety techniques for multi-pitch rock climbing.
1. Smart planning and choice of the right route
These are the keys to a fun and safe day of multi-pitch climbing. Preparation in advance will help to eliminate a multitude of possible problems. Try getting the most updated information about the state of your chosen route from other climbers that have done the route recently, or from the local mountain guide office.
2. Have a safe belay and rappel system
Make sure that you know and use the right safety systems before setting out on a multi-pitch adventure and never forget to double check your system before starting every climb. If you are in any doubt about the best safety procedures for your climb, make a course with an Alpine club or a certified mountain guide. Be sure that your climbing partner knows as well the right belay and rappel systems. It is self evident that every climber in a team needs to be able to act self sufficient. That being said, constantly checking in on your partner’s status should be a part of every climb.
3. Choose a realistic grade for yourself
Outdoor climbing is not gym climbing. Before you set out for your expedition, reach out and take contact with climbers who have perhaps done the route previously to hear more about what to expect, how accurate they felt the grading of the route was, and any safety concerns they had.
4. Must have in your pack
In your pack, there should always be: A first-aid kit, water, a headlamp, a small bivy bag, and a light Gore-Tex Jacket. When climbing above 3000 meters, keep with you all of the above and a light insulated jacket, a light Gore-Tex pant, a hat, and gloves. Check out Norrøna’s trollveggen collection for premium mountaineering apparel.
I like the falketind Gore-Tex Paclite Jacket. With its super low weight and great packability it almost disappears in your pack – the same goes for the falketind Gore-Tex Paclite Pants. If you have ever experienced a thunderstorm high up in the mountains, you know how quickly temperatures drop dramatically. It is very often that everything gets covered by a layer of ice in minutes. Even on a day that started with hot temperatures and blue skies in August. So rain and windproof clothing is a life saver!
An extra safety tip: bring a spare rappel device in your pack. Even the best alpinists and climbers have been in the situation that they saw their rappel device disappear in the abyss.
5. Starting from a glacier
If your route is starting from a glacier, there might be a pitch “0” to reach the original start due to the extreme meltdown of the glaciers in the past years. Have a close look already while planning to see when your chosen route has been opened for climbing. If any updates happened longer than ten years ago, you should do further research into finding updated information about the state of the access to the first pitch.
This is important because the approach can become way more complicated and dangerous due to collapsing bridges and threats from ice falls. In very hot summers, it might be better to choose routes without glacier access.
6. Melting Permafrost
Melting Permafrost is a big risk in very hot summers on alpine multi-pitch rock routes. A lot of the granite rock needles you see in the Mont Blanc massif or, as a famous example, the Matterhorn in the Wallis are held together internally by ice, otherwise known as Permafrost. In hot summers this ice melts. The result is often gigantic rock falls where whole routes or parts of mountains disappear.
Especially in the past years, big rock falls have become more frequent. If you are in doubt of conditions get info from the local mountain guide office.
Be aware that the approach and the finding of the start of the route might be already the first crux of the day. In climber and guide book vocabulary, the approach generally describes the access to a route from the parking, a hut or bivvy (or, sheltered) spot.
With fast changing conditions on glaciers the given times can often expand considerable. It’s good to have some extra margin in your fitness because you don’t wanna arrive a the start of your route completely fried.
As mentioned in tip two, get the latest information from other climbers or local certified mountain guides that have climbed the route recently or in the same sector.
8. Drink and Food
Bring always a “bit“ more to drink and to eat than you think is sufficient.
Your brain needs sugar (your muscles too). During the climb, bring some modern sport foods like gels or blocks: they give you the right mixture of carbs and electrolytes to keep your focus and maintain your energy level. Some salted nuts and cheese are a nice change to all the sugary stuff on the summit. Be careful with caffeine, a short high will result in a longer low. Make sure to bring enough water. All your food preparation will be useless if it doesn’t get combined with proper hydration.
9. Use radios for communication
Don’t underestimate the challenge of having clear communication with your partner. The wind, the length of a pitch, and the missing line of sight can create real challenges and potential drama when trying to stay in clear communication without radios. There is a bonus – you create less noise too.
10. Manage your effort
To bring the day to a great end, give yourself enough margin in time and energy to manage a safe descent back to the valley.
Always, keep in your mind while climbing that you need to get down safely again. Don’t burn all your matches in this desperate crux pitch and arrive completely exhausted at the top of your route. Save some good energy left for the descent, and all the unforeseen that can happen. For example, jammed or tangled ropes while abseiling, the difficulties of finding the belays when it’s getting night and of course the walk back down from the beginning of your route. Tip at the end:
Keep a GPS track from your approach in the morning that will help you to navigate back down safely, especially if it’s dark.
The information in this article is non-exhaustive. In the mountains, the environment you are moving in is inherently dangerous: You are responsible for your own actions, decisions and safety.