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How To Move Faster And More Safely Through 3rd And 4th Class Terrain

Author: Peter Doucette

May 24, 2016

A friend of mine recently saved the life of another climber by chastising him and his partner from a ledge above, demanding that the apparently sketchy duo of strangers put a rope back on to exit the 4th class top out of a local multi-pitch classic. Minutes later, the team’s second slipped off the subtle ledge the leader had followed, and found himself fully committed to the newly re-introduced rope, suspended above the abyss. 

In the relaying of this near miss—or, “near hit,” depending on your perspective—I was reminded of how often 3rd and 4th class terrain becomes a risk management crux of a long day out. 

Everyone wants to go fast. No one likes to waste valuable time, be passed, or, later in the day, with the main objective accomplished, find themselves sketching on the last moves of some exposed exit, fatigued and unroped. What appears casual, while reading through a route description, is often more difficult to sort out on the fly, by headlamp, in the wee hours of the morning, or tired and concerned about impending darkness. 

So, with all of this in mind, I wanted to share a few ideas for maintaining security through so-called “moderate terrain”: 3rd and 4th class, where small mistakes can cost you big.  

1. Prep for 3rd and 4th class terrain the way you would 5th class terrain.
Route finding in 3rd and 4th class terrain can be deceptive because there may appear to be many ways one could go. Think “path of least resistance,” approaches often follow natural breaks in terrain—ledge systems, corners, chimneys and other broad weaknesses. Gather info to make the “easy part” of your day turn out to be actually easy. Read descriptions and reference photos and topos. Don't be afraid to ask others about the important details of the approach and/or descents. Formulate a plan for pacing that allows your team to arrive at the beginning of the harder technical climbing as fresh as possible.

2. Be proactive about safety and organization.
Get up early and avoid rushing. Wear your harness and helmet out of the gate. This makes roping up easier when it’s time. Organize your pack with consideration to what and when you’ll be using. Keep the clutter down by thinning the rack that the leader will carry on his or her harness. Keep a few slings/draws accessible and use them to avoid rope drag. Anticipate where the rope will run relative to loose rocks or significant pendulums. 
At the end of day, keep harnesses and helmets on until you’re out of technical terrain for sure. If you come upon a short rappel or delicate traverse, you’ll be more likely to employ the rope.

3. Appoint a leader.
Even if you and your partner are of similar abilities, having one person assume the lead for a given section will speed decision making, simplify communication and sync your movement as a team. Remember, traverses are often as difficult for the follower as the leader in terms of risk and exposure to fall hazards. If the leader has to down climb, the gear they place is vital to protecting the second. In this situation, the “follower” is exposed to the fall hazards typical of the lead role. So consideration must be taken when evaluating terrain and deciding whether the stronger climber should be out front. 

4. Notice and make use of good transition points.
We’ve all done it: watched ourselves or partner push too far and eventually have to gear up in a bad spot. Sloping or exposed ledges can make what would usually be chill preparations desperate. Fishing a leg through a harness or trying to get into a pair of crampons after moving too far into technical terrain is asking for trouble. Do yourself a favor: Take advantage of the breaks terrain gives you. Anticipate the next tactical step. Look for places where it’s easy to do the next order of business. If the site can lend some protection from objective hazards—like moving to the side of a gully feature to avoid potential rock fall or out from under other parties—even better.

5. Shorten the rope to go faster.
This seems to contradict common practice, but once you try it, you’ll see that efficiency is found with better communication between partners. And staying closer makes it easier to hear and make decisions on the fly, and requires less rope handling because there’s  less left over rope at the completion of a pitch. You’ll have less stacking of rope because extra rope will stay coiled on you or in your pack. Also, you’ll handle less gear to protect/clean a pitch. Shorter pitches also help avoid rope drag for the leader. Using a rope is simple insurance against everything from a slip to catastrophic falls. Regardless of ability, moving off the rope usually increases the consequence of the unexpected rock fall, a slip, or broken hold.

6. Get to know the “Kiwi Coil”—or have the leader tie in short of the end.
To shorten the rope, learn a “Kiwi Coil’ and, how to tie it off securely. Alternatively, one can also shorten the rope in use by keeping the second climber tied in on the end and having the leader tie in, on a bight, (a retraced overhand on a bight works well) at whatever length seems prudent. With this technique, you stack the rest of the rope in the leader’s pack or on your back, if a “Kiwi Coil” isn’t in your repertoire. Just remember, whatever knot you tie in with has to be 100% reliable in the event of a fall. Also, when the leader chooses to carry the extra rope, it’s available should he or she need to extend their pitch by introducing more rope into the system. The best rope distance to use between partners will vary; I find 60 to 120 feet to be useful, depending on natural breaks in the terrain and available protection.

7. Make use of body and terrain belays. 
If you've shortened the rope, you may increase the number of anchors you require. Each anchor must be up to the task of securing the team. That doesn’t necessitate a huge anchor for every belay. A good horn backed up with a cam, is an example of an efficient anchor to build and break down. Belaying off your body sitting in a braced position behind a large, stable boulder, backed up with a piece or two can provide adequate security quickly, and keep the team moving. In these situations, carry a light rack with mid-to-large size cams and stoppers, and a few slings.

8. Build and use easy anchors.
Anchors in the alpine should be straightforward to place and remove. In 3rd or 4th class terrain, two solid, equalized pieces, in the mid- to large-sized range, are often enough. If a second slips, and the terrain isn’t overhanging, a ledge, low-angle slab or slope will receive some of the stress on the system. One critical question when considering “how much protection is enough” is whether a falling person might be fully suspended on a rope, free hanging, in the event of a fall. If the answer is yes, adding the third piece and a direct belay off the anchor is usually good idea. Rather than building anchors with cordelettes, learn techniques to anchor with the rope or a sling.

9. Identify cruxes and plan for them.
Consider breaking them down to primary, secondary and tertiary, etc., and have a plan to manage each. We often identify movement cruxes, but route finding, objective hazards, exposure and fatigue also present serious and sometimes unexpected hazards and eat into our time plan. Think through the entirety of the day, where you expect to be relative to time. A strong climber might have no trouble with a 5.11 crux but might not be accustomed to protecting a second in 4th class, or finding an obscure descent route. Challenges on big objectives come in many forms. Know and work with your team’s strengths so you can spend a little time managing your cruxes. 

10. Prepare well and be strategic.
On big objectives, scouting the approach and/or descent the evening prior can be a huge advantage. This might mean a scramble to a better vantage point, snapping a picture from afar, ferreting out the best path through a web of climbers’ trails for reference later, or observing snow conditions relative to time of day. If you have the time or are waiting for prime weather, consider actually doing the approach or descent so that when you’re half awake at the beginning of the day or fatigued at the end, you’ll have a better sense for what’s involved.

11. Save time in transitions.
Transitions come in many forms. It may be a lead change, it could be adjusting the rope system, or transitioning from climbing to descending. A frequent transition  that repeats itself is (1) a climber being belayed as a second comes into the anchor, (2) this climber is secured to the anchor, (3) once secure, said climber is taken off belay, (4) if leading in blocks, ropes are restacked, (5) the protection that’s been cleaned is returned to the leader, (6) the leader is put on belay and begins to climb. Efficiencies exist in  each of the listed steps. Consider how you might speed any or all of them up. Leading in blocks, swapping belay devices with your partner at belays, reracking on a sling as a pitch is followed, flat stacking ropes for an easy flip and having a stance in mind and ready for the incoming climber as they enter the belay are a few things that can help smooth the flow. A simple overhand on a bight knot can serve as a great backup in the brake strand behind the belay device if the belayer needs to attend to something with both hands mid lead. Just make sure to time it so you don’t jam your leader up in a crux or making a clip.

 

Photos by Photo by Fredrik Marmsater.

Peter Doucette

An alpinist at heart, Peter Doucette is a passionate climber and IFMGA guide based in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He practices his art year round, but is especially inspired by steep ice and wild mixed climbing when the temperatures drop and the ephemeral routes emerge. Peter’s pursuits of adventure farther afield have led to first ascents in the Alaska Range, the Sichuan Province of China, and Namibia. At home in the Northeast, he credits a great community of talented friends who make the local climbing experiences rewarding and great training for the ranges of the world. Peter maintains a constant schedule of climbing, skiing, and guiding—which means there’s no off-season. The variety in terrain, changing conditions, and modes of travel keep Peter psyched and learning in the mountains—just the way he likes it. For more information on Peter, check out mountainsenseguides.com.