Safety is your responsibility. This article is not a substitute for qualified in-person training.
Note: this is a broad category. The term is used here to mean any climbing that requires protection other than quickdraws.
Alpine climbing, aid climbing, and big wall climbing would generally fall into the category of “traditional climbing,” but are beyond the scope of this curriculum. A few notes on gearing up for alpine climbing, aiding, and big wall climbing can be found at the end of this section.
WHAT TO BRING
- Small backpack for multi-pitch routes
- Climbing shoes
- Belay device(s)
- “Third hand” with small locking carabiner
- Rope(s) and rope bag/tarp
- Protection, slings, and anchor-building gear (see below)
- Bags for garbage
- If no toilets are available—”toilet kit” (TP, wipes, trowel, zip-lock bags for used TP and wipes). Wag bag(s) if going to an area where human waste must be packed out.
- Extra clothing, rain jacket, sun hat, sunscreen, etc.
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- First-aid kit
If climbing multi-pitch routes on which the descent doesn’t bring you back to the start of the route, don’t bring the rope bag or guidebook—just bring copies of the relevant pages, or save them as photos in your phone.
PROTECTION, SLINGS, AND ANCHOR-BUILDING GEAR FOR TRADITIONAL ROUTES
What protection you should bring will vary; read the guidebook, look at online resources, and ask around if you want to find out what you’ll need for a particular climb. Below is what I consider my “standard” rack; however, I travel with several more small cams, an assortment of smaller nuts including brass offsets, and several more large cams. Harder crack climbs often involve thin cracks, so for 5.10 and up, I generally add a bunch of smaller nuts (including brassies) and several more small cams to my rack (these might include blue and black Aliens, purple and grey C3s, and/or purple and gray TCUs). For climbs that have sections of wide crack, I’ll carry doubles of my largest cams (BD #3 and #4), and sometimes add a larger piece (#5 or #6 Camalot). If climbing an endless finger crack, carry more finger-size cams… you get the idea! Anyhow, here’s what I seem to carry most often:
- Single cam a little smaller than a blue TCU, e.g. green C3 or purple TCU
- Double cams from blue TCU (red C3) to gold (#2) Camalot. I carry a mix of brands, but generally two of each size
- Singles of one or two cams fist-size and larger—I carry BD #3 and sometimes #4
- Racking carabiners (wire-gate or non-locking D) on each cam
- 15-20 nuts, racked on two large oval carabiners, and a nut tool
- 7-millimeter cordelette about 20 feet in length
- One double-length (48-inch) runner
- Eight ‘alpine draws’ (24-inch runner with two light wire-gate carabiners)
- Four light quickdraws
- Two small locking carabiners (D or oval)
- One large HMS locking carabiner
FLOW OF THE DAY
Read the guidebook, talk to other climbers, consult online resources, and choose your climbing area—ideally a place with at least one easy warm-up route. Sometimes hiking and scrambling to the base of the route is the perfect warm-up!
Find and follow existing trails—read the guidebook, look for signs and clearly marked paths, and don’t be afraid to ask for directions!
Unlike in an urban environment, it is customary to make eye contact and say hello when encountering other humans in an outdoor recreation area. Most climbers will be friendly and helpful if you slow down and say hi. This makes it easy to ask for directions and route recommendations.
Upon arriving at a climbing area, choose a spot to put your gear. Don’t “explode” your packs all over the place—this tends to result in other climbers’ stuff getting mixed in with yours, and then you or someone else is likely to leave something behind and not realize it until later. Even if you’re the only ones there, keep your stuff contained in case more people arrive.
Don’t sit or put packs on top of vegetation—stick to durable and previously-impacted surfaces.
When arriving at an area where other people are already climbing, it is polite to check with the other climbers about their plans. Ask climbers on adjacent routes what they intend to do next. Don’t roll in hot and jump on the route they were about to do next—wait and do the route they just finished!
When arriving at the beginning of a multi-pitch route at about the same time as another party, allow faster, more experienced parties to go first. Allow teams of two to go before teams of three, unless you’re dealing with three pro climbers who are going to fly up the route faster than a relatively inexperienced team of two. It’s way easier to pass each other while standing on the ground than it is at a small belay stance partway up!
Do your pre-climbing warm-ups—arm circles, finger warm-ups, etc. Start slowly and listen to your body!
Consider building ground anchors for smaller belayers so that they are not pulled around by larger climbers—it’s nice to get a soft catch, but not so soft that the leader hits the ground or the belayer is pulled into a dangerous position.
Flake your rope onto the rope bag so it feeds out smoothly while the leader is climbing. This is your job, belayer! You should have the rope flaked and be ready to belay by the time the leader is ready to climb.
Before climbing, the leader should study the route and think about what protection to bring. Try to figure out where the cruxes are located and what gear will allow you to protect yourself and your follower at those cruxes. Look for traverses and plan how to protect the follower(s) from dangerous swings.
When racking up, if you’re not sure whether to bring a piece of protection, the safest choice is to bring it.
On a multi-pitch climb, or a single-pitch route on which the leader will belay from the top, the belayer should tie in to the bottom of the rope before the leader starts climbing. If the leader plans to build an anchor and lower off, the belayer may simply tie a stopper knot in the bottom end to close the system, instead of tying him/herself in to the end of the rope.
The first climber can lead the route, lower off, and then belay the follower while he/she cleans the route. Or, more commonly in trad climbing, the leader can belay from the top and bring the other climber(s) up. From there you might all rappel, walk off the back, or—on a multi-pitch route—continue up the next pitch.
Whichever plan you choose, it’s very important to communicate clearly before the leader leaves the ground. If the leader will belay from the top, he/she will build an anchor, tether safely, and call “off belay.” If the leader is planning to be lowered, he/she will stay on belay, build an anchor, put the rope through the anchor, and call “tension” and “ready to lower.” Miscommunications about this have resulted in fatalities.
Place extra protection before difficult moves near the ground and above ledges and other protrusions! When in doubt, retreat and think about it from a point of safety, don’t “just go for it.”
Be safe, be respectful of other visitors, drink water, wear sunscreen, have fun!
At the end of the day, it’s a good idea to spend at least 10-20 minutes stretching so that you don’t wake up super tight and sore the next day. It will also lengthen your muscles and improve your flexibility.
Each time you get ready to leave an area, “sweep” the area to make sure you’re not forgetting anything. Pick up trash and chunks of chalk, even if they’re not yours. Try to leave this shared space better than you found it! If you “ticked” any holds, please brush away the tick marks so the next climber has the fun of figuring it out for him/herself.
NOTES ON ALPINE CLIMBING
Alpine rock climbing generally means long, traditionally-protected routes, high in the mountains. I say “alpine rock climbing” because the term “alpine climbing” may mean snow, ice, rock, whatever it takes to get to the summit, in the manner of climbers on long routes in the Alps. For alpine rock climbing, in summer conditions, you shouldn’t need to climb any steep ice or snow on the route. You may, however, need light crampons and a single ice axe for the approach and/or descent, especially in the early season (in the Sierra Nevada of California, that means May and part of June in a normal year, and well into July in a big snow year). Ask around and look at online resources to find out about current snow and ice conditions. If you’re not sure whether you’ll need crampons and an axe, the safest option is to bring them.
Weather is a serious concern when tackling long routes at high elevation far from the road. Check a good weather forecast (learn to use the point forecasts on NOAA.gov or another accurate and specific weather source), and be prepared to retreat—you may want to bring extra cord, nuts or hexes, and carabiners that you don’t mind leaving in order to rappel from midway up the route. Because electrical storms usually happen in the afternoon, start early in the morning—an “alpine start” involves hiking well before daylight in order to summit and get safely down before afternoon thunderstorms.
When hiking far and climbing high, a little bit of extra weight will force you to expend a lot of extra effort! Don’t skimp on rain gear or the headlamp, but if you can cut weight in other ways, you’ll be glad. Many moderate alpine routes can be climbed safely with just a selection of nuts, a single set of cams, and a dozen slings. If you carry a racking biner on each cam, like I do, consider carrying your shoulder slings with just one carabiner on each, bringing a few extra biners for clipping to nuts.
NOTES ON AID AND BIG WALL CLIMBING
Though some big wall routes have now been free climbed, most big wall climbing is done by use of direct aid. The main pieces of gear that must be added for this pursuit are aid ladders (“aiders”) and ascenders (“jumars”). The most commonly climbed trade routes, like the Nose of El Capitan, tend to have tons of “fixed” gear on them, so anywhere you might have needed to hammer a piton or a head, there is already a fixed piton or head in place. Hence, it is possible to climb the Nose with just your standard rack of cams and nuts, plus aiders for the leader, and aiders and ascenders for the follower.
Most big wall routes, however, involve at least some trickier aid climbing, for which there is a wide array of gear available. You might need beaks, hooks, heads, pitons, and a hammer. Offset cams and offset nuts will be worth their weight in gold. Typically a big wall route will take several days, so you’ll need sleeping gear, lots of water and food, shelter (possibly a portaledge), a haul bag, a swivel, a lower-out line, a haul line (static rope is best), and one or more pulleys for hauling.
Aid climbing can be practiced on shorter routes—really any crack climb, or any route with frequent possibilities for protection, can be aided (and many of the popular free climbs of today were first done with direct aid). To practice aiding, all you need in addition to a standard rack and a rope is a pair of aid ladders—and you don’t even need that, since slings will work. It’s nice to have a fifi hook, which attaches to the belay loop on your harness and allows you to rest by hanging directly from each point of protection, or from any point on your aiders. However, this can easily be improvised with a small quickdraw—make sure it has a keylock carabiner on the working end so you can easily clip and unclip from each piece.