This series of posts outlines our philosophical and practical approaches to climbing, and will cover factors we consider vital to successfully completing climbing objectives.
Note: This article is intended to provide information about the simul-climbing system used by the Choss Boys. It presents techniques that are not recommended as standard practice in technical rock climbing. The article also displays various pieces of equipment being used outside the scope of manufacturers' recommendations. Simul-climbing is inherently more dangerous than standard pitched climbing, and should be approached with due caution, by experienced multi-pitch climbers.
The system presented in this article is not our invention. It is a compilation of techniques and methods we've learned from a long history of practice by advanced climbers. Our intention in this article is simply to present what we have decided is the best simul-climbing system (we call it "the modern simul-climbing system") based on our own extensive research and experience.
Random climber: "How long did it take you?"
Choss Boys: "An hour."
Random climber: "That's crazy! You guys did all 12 pitches of Estrellita in one hour? That's 5 minutes a pitch!"
Choss Boys: "We aren't super fast ninja climbers, we just simul-climbed it."
Random climber: "But... what if you fell? Isn't that dangerous?"
Prior to our 2016 road trip, simul-climbing was a mysterious, impractical style we didn't understand. Like most climbers, we thought it was an inherently dangerous climbing system that only pros used for really easy terrain. However, as we began lusting after bigger, longer routes, the idea of breaking free from the slow, traditional pitched climbing system compelled us.
Now, we Choss Boys simul-climb on many multi-pitch routes. Aside from free-soloing, it is the fastest way to move quickly and efficiently on long routes. We've adopted a simul-climbing technique that is safe for both the leader and the follower in almost every case, and it even allows us to tackle multi-pitches close to our on-sight limit.
Have you ever been benighted or bailed from a climb because your dailed-in multi-pitch system was simply too slow? If so, this article is for you! Your climbing system can be the difference between finishing a route in 10 hours, or 3 hours.
The decision to adopt a modern simul-climbing system should be well-informed. Make no mistake, simul-climbing does not have certain safety measures that are inherent in a pitched climbing system (details are discussed in Section 3: "Pitfalls of the modern simul-climbing systems"). That being said, using the methods we describe in this article will greatly decrease the dangers associated with basic simul-climbing. With proper understanding, modern simul-climbing could be a brilliant addition to your repertoire of skills.
Are you ready? Let's take a look at what you can expect to learn here.
Section 1: Prerequisite skills
Before diving in to the system, we want to make one thing clear: Our writing assumes that the reader is already an experienced multi-pitch traditional climber. Simul-climbing introduces a margin of risk that is completely inappropriate for beginning multi-pitch climbers who have not yet developed all the skills of efficient multi-pitch climbing. Before attempting to learn this new system, ask yourself "is my climbing speed being limited by inefficiencies such as setting up belays, or dealing with tangled ropes?" If so, you are likely not ready to handle the intricacies and additional risks incurred while simul-climbing, much better to practice and hone your multi-pitch skills first.
This section outlines the knowledge and skills from multi-pitch climbing that carry-over to simul-climbing.
Extend pitches from 35 to 350m
In essence, simul-climbing is multi-pitch climbing. Simul-climbing is simply a technique to extend the length of your pitches, without extending the length of your rope. With experience, a simul-pitch can run 300m or more, whereas a traditional pitch maxes out at the length of the rope, around 60m.
Once you get the hang of the simul-climbing system, its going to be a lot of fun to get out on a 10-pitch climb and be back before lunch. However, it is easy to get carried away in the flow of a long simul-lead and take unnecessary risks. As someone who wants to expand their repertoire of climbing skills, it is important that you hone the most important skill of all, leadership.
A good leader remains aware of their party's situation, and monitors the risks that are encountered. Preparation will only get you so far. You may find yourself climbing through a section of rock that feels more difficult than the route description suggested. You may climb off route. Perhaps you will arrive at an easy crack, but lack cams in the proper size to protect it. Be adaptable: build a belay, or stop and look at the topo.
Don't get swept up in an imagined necessity to keep moving at all costs.
Section 2: The basic simul-climbing system
Simul-climbing is a style of multi-pitch climbing where both the leader and follower climb at the same time. This technique is much faster than the alternative, climbing in pitches; however, fall consequences are higher when simul-climbing. A basic simul-climbing system is very simple. The leader and follower climb together with the leader placing pro to protect his or her fall. The drawing below shows the basic simul-climbing system.
The essential equipment of basic simul-climbing
The basic simul-climbing system has several specific gear requirements. Thankfully, as a multi-pitch climber, you should already have this equipment in your usual kit. We've divided this list into shared and personal items, and omitted basic climbing equipment (i.e. harness, shoes) for clarity.
The danger of the basic simul-climbing system
The basic system is what many climbers have come to fear (with good reason): simul-climbing with only pro between the leader and follower. In this system, only the leader is protected for falls. The follower must not fall or else they will pull the leader from the wall and down into the last piece.
Imagine you are a solid 5.11 climber and you are simul-climbing. You just pulled through a short 5.10a crux, and you're now racing up the 5.7 slab above. Since you feel confident and you want to move quickly, you haven't placed gear for 4m. Your solid 5.11 partner starts the 5.10 section, but reads the beta completely wrong. He or she gets pumped while un-clipping a quickdraw because he or she is holding on to a tiny crimp just below a jug. All of a sudden, your partner falls, and you feel yourself being violently yanked from the wall...
Yes, you are going to be pulled 4m down a slab and slam straight into your last piece of pro with the combined force of both you and your partner (assuming it holds both of your falls). If you're lucky, you'll be badly scraped and fracture your pelvis. Otherwise, you could be killed.
This scenario has played out many times, and almost always results in the leader sustaining serious injuries. We only use the basic simul-climbing system on extremely easy terrain, with excellent rock.
So how can you simul-climb safely? Enter the modern simul-climbing system, where falls taken by both the leader and follower are protected.
Section 3: The modern simul-climbing system
Although this method of simul-climbing mitigates the danger of a second fall, it is not an excuse to push your limits. This system protects against only the most unlikely scenarios: broken holds, rock falls, or other unexpected slips. A second should only follow terrain that he or she is confident on-sighting.
The leader sets off on the first pitch, placing protection in case he or she takes a fall. Once the rope is about to become taught between the leader and belayer, or the leader reaches a pre-established belay, he or she places a progress-capture device. The device will prevent the second from pulling the leader off in case of a fall, and allows the leader to remain on belay. The drawing below shows the modern simul-climbing system.
Once the follower reaches and removes the progress-capture device, the leader either a) places (or has already placed) another device, or b) if terrain is and has been sufficiently easy, the leader may choose to continue climbing without a device.
The length of a single lead depends on how many progress-capture devices and how much protection the leader carries. Once the leader runs out of protection, or progress-capture devices, he or she must build a anchor and belay the follower.
Once the two climbers are together at a belay, either the leader can take the gear from the follower and continue leading, or the two climbers can swing leads.
The essential equipment of the modern simul-climbing system
Technically speaking, you could embark on your simul-climbing adventure without some of the items listed below. However, we always use them, and we recommend that you do too.
Other useful equipment
Below are a few items that we do not bring every time we simul-climb, but have frequently come in handy (including on the approach and descent).
How do I choose a progress-capture device?
There are a myriad of progress-capture devices available on the climbing market, but only a few designs are suitable for simul-climbing. We will discuss the features to look for in appropriate devices, and make recommendations from our preferences.
Walk into any climbing store asking for a "progress-capture device," and you might be shown anything from an industrial device (such as the Petzl Croll), to a hand ascender, to a hauling pulley. All devices in the slideshow below are POORLY suited for simul-climbing.
So what features should you look for? Well, there are two main considerations:
Choss Boys recommendations:
We have experimented with several micro-ascenders and micro-progress-capture pulleys. In fact, all the devices in the two slideshows above have been integrated into our system at one point or another. Our favourite device is the Climbing Technology RollNLock. This device has a ribbed cam and ball bearing pulley. The rope feeds through very smoothly, even with a significant bend in the rope, and the RollNLock's ribbed cam reliably engages in a simul-climbing fall without harming the sheath of the rope.
Many people use the Petzl Micro Traxion because the rope runs through smoothly thanks to the ball bearing pulley, just like the RollNLock. However, the Micro Traxion uses a toothed cam, so if there is too much slack in the system, the rope could potentially be sheathed when the follower takes a fall (see this drop test). For this reason, we prefer the RollNLock; also, they are the same weight, and $10 cheaper. Unfortunately, RollNLocks are hard to find in North America.
The Kong Duck has a similar design, without the ball bearing pulley. It feeds well, but is not as smooth as the RollNLock. However, it is $40 cheaper (depending on where you buy), making it a very attractive option, and our second favourite device. See this video for a comparison between the CT RollNLock and the Kong Duck.
Similar to the Kong Duck is the Wild Country Ropeman 1, which we also use regularly. This device feeds less smoothly than the duck, and is also difficult to place with one hand. It is best suited to terrain where the route is plumb, and there are ledges at belays so that both hands can be freed to place the device.
Petzl has an article about using their Tibloc to protect simul-climbing. We find this device useful only on very easy terrain (because of the toothed cam) where there will be no bend in the rope between the device and the next piece. It is the cheapest and lightest option, and is definitely preferable to having no device on at all. However, since it doesn't have a rounded pulley like the other devices, a leader falling onto a Tibloc is a frightening proposition.
We have experienced three falls by the follower on both the Kong Duck and the Ropeman, which caused no damage to the rope and were imperceptible to the leader. The device was attached to a single bolt in all cases.
Please note, although the ribbed camming style is the least stressful on the rope, and works well in most conditions, such devices are more likely to slip on wet and icy ropes. If you are planning to simul-climb regularly in alpine conditions, the Microtraxion may be a better choice.
Where do I place the progess-capture device when simul-climbing?
A progress-capture device on its own won't ensure a reasonable fall arrest for the follower. The device must be clipped to a suitable anchor that minimizes upward or downward movement.
The more the device can move up or down, the more the leader will "feel" the fall and have a greater chance of getting pulled off. It will also cause the cam to exert a greater force on the rope, increasing the chance of ruining the sheath.
Since bolts provide a small, static clip-in point, we find them to be the best place for a device. That's why simul-climbing with progress-capture devices works well on plumb routes with lots of bolts or frequent bolted belays. We recommend using a single locking oval carabiner, although not an auto-locker because they are difficult to open with one hand.
Also, most devices are not designed to hold a direct leader fall, so consider the progress-capture device as your belay, and place an appropriate "Jesus piece".
Pitfalls of the modern simul-climbing system
A classic scenario is if the leader gets off-route and needs to down-climb, which has happened to us more often than we are happy to admit. The follower can't take in any of the slack that is created by the leader down-climbing, so the leader must belay themselves back down with a GriGri, or down-climb with a lot of slack in the rope. As mentioned in Section 1, subsection "Route-Finding," reading beta prior to the climb, and taking the time to consult with the topo en-route will help prevent this.
Section 4: Characteristics of the modern simul-climbing system
The importance of keeping the same pace as your partner
When simul-climbing for the first time, it will feel awkward and uncoordinated because most climbers are entirely unaccustomed to matching their partner's pace. However, holding a constant pace is the foundation of simul-climbing. Keeping the same pace is the reason simul-climbing is much faster than pitched climbing, and it is required to minimize the fall forces.
Having too much slack between the leader and the follower can result in either a nasty whipper for the leader, or an unnecessarily high loading of the progress-capture device if the follower falls. Likewise, the follower can risk pulling the leader off the wall if he or she is not keeping up the pace, or has to down-climb.
The follower must keep a slight amount of slack between them and the last progress-capture device. A running belay (detailed below) can help control the slack, but maintaining a steady pace is the best option.
The running belay
Inevitably, whether due to difficult moves, stuck pro, or any other factor, team members will not be able to hold the exact same pace all the time. That's where the running belay comes in.
On the first pitch, the leader is belayed by the follower from the ground. The leader climbs higher, using up the rope, until there is a small loop of rope in the belayer's hand between the GriGri and his or her tie-in point. The belayer/follower then begins climbing, and leaves the GriGri set up in the same configuration. Now, the follower can easily take in excess slack if he or she wants to speed up, or give a little slack to the leader when falling behind. In some cases, the GriGri will even auto-feed slack as the leader pulls gently on the rope.
For example, imagine that the leader is climbing a steeper section of wall, and has stopped to place pro. The follower is hanging a few feet below a ledge in a strenuous position. Rather than staying there until the leader is moving again, the follower can immediately scramble up to the ledge and quickly pull in the excess slack. Then, from the comfort of the ledge, the follower can belay the leader as usual until the resulting loop of slack has been fed out.
The downfall of the running belay is that it is easy to snag the excess loop of rope below you. Special care must be taken in climbing areas with chicken heads and patina, like Red Rock Canyon. Keeping a small loop and holding it away from the wall helps mitigate the snagging risk. Also, feeding the rope with one hand through the GriGri takes practice. Holding down the trigger is one option, but when the rope is slack, it is often possible to carefully feed rope by slowly pulling on the leader's end.
How much rope between the leader and the follower?
It is important to decide on the length of rope between the leader and the follower before starting the climb because once the unused section of the rope is bundled up on the follower, it is time consuming to untie and retie it. Keep in mind that the closer the partners are, the better their communication is. It is bad news when the leader can't pull up any more rope, and his or her partner is 60m below, out of earshot. What has happened to the rope? Is it stuck? Is the follower unconscious?
It is rarely wise to use the full length of rope between the leader and follower(s). The only advantage is that you can space out the progress-capture devices, presumably allowing for longer leads. However, this will also necessitate bringing more pro, is likely to lead to rope drag and snags, and makes communication very difficult.
A clever alternative method is to have the leader tie in at the halfway point and dangle both ends of the rope below. One strand will be the belay rope (with the follower tied into the end), and the other will dangle as a tag-line so that the leader can pull up gear and progress-capture devices cleaned by the follower. With this set up, the leader can theoretically lead forever. One downfall is that the dangling strand can snag. Another is that it may be difficult for the leader to know which strand to clip. Avoid this issue by adjusting the middle mark to one side of the tie in, and remember to clip either the strand with the middle mark or the other strand every time.
How does the follower tie in?
While the leader ties in to the end of the rope like normal, the follower needs to tie in around the middle of the rope. The simplest and most preferable way is to tie an alpine butterfly knot on the half mark, and attach it to your harness tie-in loops with a single triple action auto-locking carabiner (e.g. Petzl William Triac Carabiner). This system allows a fast, easy, and safe tie-in, and it is easy to detach yourself.
However, the alpine girth hitch is difficult and often unsafe to untie at belays during change-overs. For this reason, we recommend only using it on short multi-pitches, or have the follower continue wearing the coil when he or she changes-over to lead.
Other methods such as tying in with a bowline on a bight, or tying in to a figure eight on a bight are sometimes used; however, we Choss Boys generally stick to the quick and simple alpine butterfly knot or alpine girth hitch.
Distributing the weight between leader and follower
An important consideration in keeping a steady simul-climbing pace is to distribute the gear evenly between the leader and the follower. In multi-pitch climbing, the leader only needs enough gear to send the next pitch and the follower takes a rest. However, when simul-climbing, the leader usually carries extra gear to protect longer pitches, and the follower will have the mountaineers coil on his or her back. Since both the leader and the follower are covering so much ground at the exact same pace, it is important that no one team member carrying an excessively heavy load.
With experience and practice, simul-climbing will become so much faster than pitched climbing that you will be able to leave behind many of the things you would normally bring on a long multi-pitch climb. If a route takes two hours simul-climbing instead of six hours when pitched out, you can halve the water you bring, and just bring a single Clif Bar in your pocket for food. With all team members constantly moving, it is easier to stay warm, and the belay jackets can be left behind. However, the decision to leave critical items behind should only be made with lots of experience.
On long routes, essential extra equipment (e.g. approach shoes, tag-line, food, water, extra clothing, headlamps) will need to be carried in a backpack. When simul-climbing, the rope coil and the rack are usually a similar weight. It is preferable for each team member to bring a small backpack for personal items so that each each team member shares the extra weight. If little enough gear is being brought that only one small pack is needed, it should go to the climber without the mountaineer's coil.
Parties of three
Climbing as three is something we gained considerable experience in during the last few months of our trip. We've since discovered many small tricks and nuances that come with having a third party member. We wanted to write a short section to illustrate ways to simul-climb smoothly with three, and highlight some of its advantages.
When we simul-climb together, we always have the second tie in 3-5m above the third, using one of the methods described in "Tying in." Both the second and third climb with a running belay, and the third carries the mountaineer's coil.
What are the advantages of this setup?
Section 5: Simul-climbing tactics and strategies
The modern simul-climbing system begins to seem simple when compared to the trouble of regularly stopping to build gear belays, but it will invariably lead to unexpected snags until you have some experience. In this section, we will outline some techniques to help smooth over the learning curve, including when to switch (or not switch) leads, when to switch systems, and when to simul-climb.
Switching leads (and when not to switch)
Swinging leads when simul-climbing can be a little more time consuming than when pitching it out, or it can go smoothly. If the leader wants to go as light as possible, they may eschew a personal anchor, opting to simply clove hitch in with the rope. If the second arrives and wishes to ditch the rope coil before taking the lead (by switching rope ends), there is a problem. If you plan to swing leads, both the leader and second should bring a light 120cm sling and lightweight locking carabiner to use as a personal anchor. Or, if a pack is needed, the two climbers can agree that the pack and rope are equally bulky, and not change their load at belays.
If terrain is sufficiently easy, it may be completely unnecessary to ever switch over leads. The leader can tie in at the half rope as described above, and continue pulling up gear when it's needed. This will be faster and more efficient than switching over leads if there is no danger of rope snags.
On climbs where the terrain gets difficult, it makes sense to switch leaders every three or four pitches to allow for a break. Nick found his limit when climbing 'Time Wave Zero' with Daniel in El Potrero Chico. He led the first 18 pitches in two hours with almost no break. At the top of pitch 18, he was too exhausted to climb even the following 5.9, and had to turn it over to Daniel. He was then far too tired to send the 5.12a crux pitch. It would have been much smarter if they had each led blocks of 6 or 8 pitches.
One of the greatest things about simul-climbing is that you don't have to commit to it for a full route. There are many fantastic long climbs with crux pitches broken up by long stretches of easy climbing. Routes with 100 or 150m of continuous easy climbing are perfect to throw a couple of progress-capture devices on your harness for.
Switching from simul-climbing to pitched climbing is slightly more involved, but still simple if you are prepared for it. The leader simply finishes his or her lead, belays up the second (get that top belay on ASAP; see photo above), and then the second uncoils the rest of the rope (beware of twists), ties in to the end, and leads the next pitch. Just be sure to plan for this in advance, and bring enough gear... And be careful uncoiling that mountaineer's coil! It gets twisted very easily if it is not passed through the belay device properly.
Thanks to Phil in the comments section for pointing out a potential solution to this. Check out his comment for a link to an instructional video.
When to simul-climb
Pushing grades/rationalizing the system on harder terrain
The Choss Boys have simul-climbed routes very close to their on-sight limit, climbing beyond what many climbers may believe is safe simul-climbing terrain. We believe there is an irrational level of fear and caution associated with simul-climbing among many climbers. Consider these risky practices associated with multi-pitch climbing:
If you find yourself routinely making epic run-outs on 5.9 pitches to save time, wouldn't it make more sense to be simul-climbing with progress-capture devices, spacing your pro at more reasonable intervals?
Moving continuously on climbs minimizes time on the rock, which gets you to the top quicker, and keeps everyone warm. All of a sudden, you're not descending in the dark - many accidents happen on the descent. If you find yourself routinely cheating death on sketchy descents in the dark, it might make sense to consider the benefits of simul-climbing, and get back to town for a beer instead.
Moving quickly through varying terrain
You may not be heading off to free climb El Cap in a day, but keep this example in mind as you begin challenging longer climbs. Is your limit 5.10? No reason you can't be simul-climbing three or four pitches of 5.7 in a row. Even simul-climbing for three pitches out of ten might save you an hour, which could be the difference between descending before or after dark.
Inevitably, you will run into other parties moving much slower on the route because they are pitching it out. In these cases, the best advice we can offer is to be respectful, and try to catch them when the second has just reached a belay. Your leader can then throw a device on a free place at the belay and climb past while the other party does their routine change-over of gear. Hopefully, by the time your party passes, they are only held up for a short time.
You've got the knowledge you need to start climbing faster, and more efficiently. The system is really quite simple. Three Kong Ducks will cost you $200, and they have the potential to completely transform the way you approach multi-pitch climbing. If you read this article carefully, and take the time to fully understand the associated risks and benefits, simul-climbing might be the next step in your climbing evolution.
What's next? Get out there and practice! Just be sure to start with climbs that are well within your limit, and are on good rock. We hope you have found this article helpful.
Did this article help you improve your climbing efficiency? Let us know! Leave us a comment below, or get in touch through email.