This series of posts outlines our philosophical and practical approaches to climbing, and will cover factors we consider vital to successfully completing climbing objectives.
A note on the purpose of this article:
With this blog, and especially the articles in this series, we share our "theory of climbing," which is derived from our own experiences and research. We don't want to trick anyone into believing that we are big wall climbing experts. Quite the opposite in fact. Our big wall experience is limited to two routes: The West Face of the Leaning Tower, and the Salathe Wall, both in Yosemite. So why should we be the ones to write an educational article about big wall climbing?
Well, as with our article on simul-climbing, we wrote this article because, despite countless hours of research, we didn't find a definitive resource for people who want to climb big walls in a party of three that we were satisfied with. Leading up to our ascents in Yosemite, we engaged in extensive research and critical thought about the system we would use. Sometimes experts glaze over details that they simply don't realize are important for newbies. Since we are beginning big wall climbers ourselves, our education is fresh, and we aim to fill in the blanks that we identified while learning the skills ourselves.
Although it may seem like this system is our invention, we can take no credit; all of the machinery is derived from other excellent resources. Where appropriate, we link these sources in the text of the article. Additionally we provide a full list of resources at the end.
As neophyte big wall climbers, we Choss Boys faced a daunting challenge. We were travelling to Yosemite Valley, CA, with the dream of climbing El Capitan. Three of us were living together in the van, and we had to climb the wall together! Neither of us had even climbed a big wall in a party of two, so we had to learn how to climb as a party of three from the very beginning.
The basic skills are the same whether climbing with a party of two or three, so we all put in hours of practice aid climbing, jugging ropes, cleaning pitches, and hauling. But what differs between parties of two and parties of three is the logistics, the "big picture," if you will, and that's where we found ourselves at a loss. Hopefully, after reading this article you won't.
Although we will present a system which we believe optimizes efficiency, it is simply more complicated to climb big walls in a team of three than a team of two. However, we couldn't change our situation, so we rose to the challenge, and decided to compensate for our lack of experience with extensive research. We try to avoid mistakes by reading the experiences of others, and very carefully planning our own strategies. For the most part, this approach actually worked out, and we didn't make any major mistakes. Despite having never spent a single night on a big wall, we were able to arrive in Yosemite and scale both the West Face of Leaning Tower and the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, without running out of water, or having an epic.
Our success came from the system we eventually decided to use. For lack of imagination, we've dubbed it the "four rope system".
Before diving in, we'll just acknowledge the growing popularity of free climbing on big walls. When we climbed the Salathe Wall, there was one other party behind us who were aid climbing the hard pitches, but below them were no less than four parties who were attempting free ascents of 'Freerider.' Most of these climbers weren't pros, they simply represent the rising standard of present day climbers.
Anyway, all this to say that this is the wrong article for free climbers in a party of three. The four rope system assumes that both the second and third climbers jug fixed ropes.
If you are completely new to big wall climbing (like we were), go pick up a copy of How to Big Wall Climb, by Chris McNamara. Bookmark this article, spend a couple months practicing the basics, then come back and read further.
Here's the outline for everyone else.
Section 1: The added challenges, and rewards, of a party of three
In order to understand the systems, you need to realize exactly why climbing big walls as a party of three requires a more complicated system.
Big wall climbers are constantly fighting the clock. Food and water are heavy; the more you bring, the slower you haul. Climbers need to finish their route before running out of water. Adding a third person to the team increases the weight of the haul bags almost by a third with extra food and water alone. Just think, if you budget 3 L of water per day, per person (which is conservative in warm climates), over three days the extra person's water alone will add 9 kg. Don't forget their food, clothes, sleeping bag, and shoes (maybe another 8 kg). If your party won't be spending every night on a ledge, you'll have to throw in a hammock and tarp or bivy sack, let's say an extra 1 kg.
Along with the other two team member's personal items (17 kg each), the double port-a-ledge (7 kg for the heaviest one), double port-a-ledge fly (2.25 kg for the heaviest), large cams (0.5 kg), the haul bag(s) (roughly 4 kg), the poop tube (0.3 kg), and a swivel with three locking carabiners (or quick-links; 0.3 kg), that's a total haul of 66.35 kg (146.3 lbs). Theoretically, this is still light enough to haul with bodyweight (right on!); however, hauling on a slab, adding an extra day's food and water, or even bringing extra water for warm days could increase the weight enough that 3:1 hauling, or double bodyweight hauling is necessary. Over the course of a three day ascent, the extra time required to haul using these methods could add yet another day, which means bringing even more food and water, and more weight in the haul bags again. As you can see, weight is the primary challenge when adding a third team member.
Additionally, a third climber can create more confusion at belays that are already crowded enough. With a team of two and their docked haul bag, a hanging belay can be a boiler pot for irritation on long days. A third person will make it a proper Newton's cradle, and might just send delicate tempers over the edge. Even if everyone manages to keep their cool, having that many people clipped in with their personal lanyards is sure to slow down operations considerably during the building or deconstruction of an anchor, leading to the dreaded CF (cluster-fuck; avoid at all costs).
So, extra weight and clusters at the anchor are the main challenges that you must overcome to successfully climb big walls as a party of three. Maximizing the party's speed by employing an efficient procedure is the best way to deal with the weight challenge because you avoid extra nights on the wall. And the cluster? Well, we have a solution for that too...
But before we get into it, we would like to point out a couple of the benefits of climbing in a party of three, just in case this section has sounded a little discouraging.
After Yosemite, we were really happy that we had our first big wall climbing experiences as a party of three. Big walls can be mentally exhausting. It takes serious effort to stay focused and efficient on the most exposed pitches of your life. In our experience, free climbing multi-pitch routes is different because we are so often distracted from the exposure while trying to solve immediate puzzles in the climbing sequence. On big walls, we trust equipment most of the time, sitting at the anchor belaying, ascending single ropes over a vertiginous abyss, or trusting horrendous RP placements while aid climbing. As neophytes to this style of climbing, we reached the limits of our nerves several times.
However, with three people on the team, it was much easier to turn over a difficult or stressful task to someone with more energy. If our leader finished an exhausting, terrifying aid pitch, he didn't have to do the haul right away; the second could always take care of it. We also found that each of us had different strengths on the wall; Dave is by far the best offwidth climber, Nick is a quick aid climber, and Daniel is great on pitches of mixed aid and free climbing.
Overall, having a third person on the team made the experience much less intimidating, and exponentially more enjoyable. There are no lonely belays, no strenuous tasks that must fall to one person only, and a third voice to join in on the jokes and teasing that make big wall climbing so damn fun! There's no need to shy away from starting out as a party of three, just read on.
Alright... let's get technical!
Section 2: The four rope system
There are important nuances that make this system run smoothly, and we will describe them in detail below, but first, here's why this works so well.
This system's main advantage is that it enables the party to work on two pitches simultaneously. In a party of two, both climbers are continuously working on tasks that advance the team's overall progress. The trick with our system is that it allows all three team members to do the same. While one climber is leading, one is hauling, and one is cleaning.
It is a four rope system rather than a three rope system because we use a tag-line to minimize weight on the leader. If the leader doesn't mind carrying an extra 9 kg, this system could work with three ropes instead.
Each drawing below is accompanied by a written description. When studying the drawings, imagine them as if they were one of Tom Evans' photos, like this one:
To make things easier to follow, we'll give each climber in the party an identity. Our first leader, who will lead a two-pitch block is "Climber 1," the climber who jugs and belays is "Climber 2," and the final party member who cleans the previous anchor and first pitch is "Climber 3." The drawings below will first depict a standard lead block, then show how a change-over of leaders works.
Our intrepid leader, Climber 1, is setting off on a marvelous classic pitch, belayed by Climber 2 on Lead rope 1, and trailing a tag line. The haul bags are hanging with their weight supported by a docking lanyard, and backed up to the master point on the haul rope. Climber 3 is hanging out, eating a snack or taking some photos because the hauling is finished and the previous pitch has been cleaned in excellent time!
Splendid! Climber 1 reached the top of the pitch and immediately clipped into a bolt (x) with a daisy chain so Climber 2 can go off belay. Climber 1 now pulls up the tag line with: its handy carrying bag that contains the haul anchor, which is never disassembled, and has the end of the haul rope threaded through the pulley; a cordlette to build a climber's anchor; and the spare locking carabiners, one of which has been used to clip the end of Lead rope 2 to the bag.
As Climber 2 jugs Lead line 2, Climber 1 has pulled up and coiled the remaining slack in Lead rope 1, and used it to fix an ~8 m lanyard to the master point of the cordelette anchor, and is now pulling the haul rope taught enough to get the weight off the docking lanyard below. Climber 3 is pulling on the lower out line. When the docking lanyard is unclipped, Climber 3 will lower out the haul bags.
Climber 1 might run out of gear on the next pitch, but can easily lower down the tag line to Climber 3 for extra gear. To facilitate this, Climber 1 can clip a personal lanyard to the nearest pro, and communicate with Climber 2 to coordinate the gear retrieval (if Climber 3 is out of ear-shot).
Climber 3 will clean all the gear and clip it onto a shoulder sling so that Climber 1 can retrieve everything easily. At the anchor, Climber 3 will hand the shoulder sling with the cleaned gear over to Climber 2, who can coordinate its retrieval with Climber 1 if needed. Climber 3 can then finish hauling, and dock the haul bags, with help from Climber 2 if needed.
Below, we show what happens if the party is going to switch leaders.
Switching leads (alt. Step 5)
Picking up from Step 4, Climber 1 continues with the hauling until Climber 2 arrives at the belay. As Climber 1 hauls, Climber 2 coils up Lead rope 2, and ties in. Climber 2 can begin the next pitch with whatever rack Climber 1 has left, send the tag line down to Climber 3 to retrieve gear, or wait until Climber 3 arrives at the belay so that the rack is full for the next block. Either Climber 1 or Climber 3 can belay, depending on when Climber 2 decides to begin the next pitch.
There's no need for us to do a full big wall equipment list here. Instead, we list the items used in this system that differ from what a party of two would normally bring.
Note: The anchor setup we use has a specific list of equipment requirements. We spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to build the anchor, and decided that it was nuanced enough to warrant a separate article. Check out Part 2 (coming soon). We provide a thorough tutorial on how to build the perfect anchor for this system, and explain why it works.
If you really take the time to get this system dialed in, we are pretty certain that it is the safest and fastest way for a party of three to climb big walls. Some of you readers may disagree, and we encourage you to respectfully voice your thoughts in the comments below. Hey, we're still learning too!
Take a look at the links in the 'Resources' section below to inform yourself with the different options that others have written about. Once you understand them, try weighing the pros and cons against the four rope system and see how they compare. After going through this process ourselves, we decided that this system is the best solution. It helped us three chuffers climb El Cap on our first try, and we hope it will help you out too!
"How to Big Wall Climb," by Chris McNamara
A Gumby's Guide to Three Person Big Wall Technique
Big Wall Climbing: 3 people?
Tech Tip - Aid - Block leading
Climbing as Three
Big Wall w/Three People
FISH How-To Pages, Big Wall Climbing
Aid climbing with a three person team: Lessons from Zodiac