Climbing Efficiently with Large Groups

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


From the April 2008 edition of AAI's E-newsletter

How do you climb efficiently with a large group? I'm headed up to the Tetons this summer for a week or so of climbing with a few friends. We're planning on taking the Underhill Ridge route up the Grand (about 5.6) for one of our climbs. If there are three of us, I plan on climbing like normal and just bring up the two seconds simultaneously at the belay. If there are four of us, I would rather climb in separate teams of two, but don't know if we have enough gear. Is there any way for the second team to climb using the pro the first team placed? Or is it possible to climb as a party of four?

- Anthony Arena (Flagstaff, Arizona)


Dear Anthony,

If climbing in a team of three, I would do as you suggest and bring the two seconds up at the same time. If climbing with four people, you are right in that two teams of two are faster than one team of four. However, the Underhill Route, like most other alpine rock routes, has lots of fourth class and low fifth class, so not much of a rack is actually needed. However, each leader determines how much gear is needed - we can only climb at the level that our abilities allow. In other words, some teams need very little gear, and other teams need more, and both teams are correct.

If the two groups are sharing a rack, the rack must be larger. Also, at some point, the entire group has to get back together and hand back the pro. Only when the known cruxes are passed (say a wide crack) can the first team continue on, and not worry about the second team's rack.

One good thing about a fourth climber is that there is one extra person who can carry the rack.

I think the best way to approach this climb is to plan on each team of two being self-sufficient. If the climb has certain gear requirements (like 3-4 pieces of large, large cams) then they can be shared for that certain pitch, but otherwise, two teams of two with separate racks offers more options for the climbers and can make for a faster ascent.

Certain pieces of protection, like Lowe tri-cams, are light (but fiddly) and can take the place of heavier cams. Also, using natural features such as horns and solid blocks can speed up the transitions. Generally, however, using established anchors (if they are fixed) and staying on route would do more to save time than the weight of the rack. Another way to save time is to move together whenever possible and use natural features and the terrain to your advantage and avoid full length pitches when the route is moderate and wandering. Shortening the rope, with shoulder coils, with the judicious use of running pro (a somewhat advanced technique) can also speed up a route much more than focusing only on weight.

If you do climb as one team of four (and have three ropes), I would have the leader bring up two seconds right away, and then the first follower can put the leader on belay again while the second follower can start to belay up the fourth climber. It will take a bit of practice to make those transitions smooth.

- Mike Powers

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