Chamonix-based alpinist Dave Searle gives his Top Ten tips for moving faster in the mountains.
First things first we need to understand why it’s important to move quickly and efficiently in the mountains. Without a basic understanding, this article and any other publication until now or in the future will fall on deaf ears. With objective risks such as avalanches, rock fall and serac fall becoming more likely later in the day it pays to be up and down before the hot afternoon sun. The longer you spend in the mountains the longer you are exposed to these types of risks.
More speed often means the ability to do bigger, longer or more interesting routes and it’s often the case that the faster and more efficient you are the better you are at doing bigger faces. Being better technically might get you up harder routes but typically we don’t worry about speed on stable rock climbing or short mixed routes. You must feel the NEED to move faster, if you don’t then you won’t. Being able to climb harder or being fitter will certainly help you move faster but for this article we are going to look at “quick fixes” or adapting your systems to gain more speed and efficiency for your current level of climbing. You never know it might just make enough of a difference to you that you can start to look at higher grades or longer routes.
1. Lighten up!
If it’s been said once it’s been said a million times… one of the key contributing factors to moving faster in the mountains is to carry the absolute bare minimum and nothing more. This is often one of the hardest things to master as a new or inexperienced alpinist and often a failing point for a lot of teams. Be very critical of what you need and try to eliminate as much of the “I might need it” stuff. Think of small things like not bringing a beanie as you can use the hood on your fleece jacket. Leaving behind the sleeping bag for a night so you just sit it out in your belay jacket is a great way to save weight but you must be mentally prepared for it and the temperature needs to be warm enough so that you won't get hypothermia. Bothy bags are great emergency shelters that should be carried most of the time in my opinion as they only weigh a few hundred grams and could save your life should you end up taking longer than you anticipate on a route. They have saved my bacon on a few occasions! Could you take one for one night rather than two bivi bags and two sleeping bags? Think of the weight you’ll save!
2. Learn to “French Free”
This technique of A0 climbing requires some practice and confidence and is something that the French are very good at (hence the name). Being able to quickly and efficiently pull through hard moves on the gear can save you a lot of time and often be the key to keeping a good rhythm going during some climbs. The Gervasutti pillar, for example, which has a few short hard or A0 sections but mostly easier climbing. If it’s a long route then don’t be afraid of not free climbing it as time spent trying to figure out the crux could cost you the summit or even mean a cold night out.
3. Eat right
Little and often should be your motto. Foot long cheese and ham baguettes and the similar will slow you down! The time required to eat one may vary depending on hunger but even when you’re at your most ravenous you’ll still need to stop and focus on putting one away. A snickers bar or an energy gel is much quicker to eat and won’t send a large proportion of your precious red blood cells to your stomach. Hunger is just something that you have to deal with in the mountains from time to time so don’t always expect to have a pleasantly full belly. Keeping your glycogen levels topped up with specially formulated energy gels and bars whilst relying on your fat reserves for the main proportion of your energy is the pro’s choice but for those who simply can’t afford this cheap cereal bars, Snickers and Haribo crocodiles should do just fine to keep you going when you feel yourself starting to slow or “bonk”. Save your big sandwich for when you get down early!
4. Hydrate Well
Many studies have been made on the effects of de-hydration in sport. The very nature of alpine climbing means that you’ve got your work cut out to stay on top of hydration. It can be very difficult especially during the summer months when the sun and wind steal every spare ounce of moisture from you. Having a 2litre Camelbak type drinking system in the summer seems to work pretty well for me and is a good compromise between weight and not getting too dry. When it’s warm it's worth topping up your reservoir with clean snow that should melt to give you more water. Packing a short piece of flexible tube is a good way of filling up your bottle, or drinking from small run offs of water, just be careful you’re not below any huts or popular bivi spots! In the winter I take a wide mouth 1.5l Nalgene and a .5l Nalgene which also doubles as my mug during a bivi. Electrolyte sports drinks are also a good idea if you’re losing a lot of moisture through sweat but shouldn’t be a complete substitute for water. Remember that caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee are diuretics and are good for waking you up but if drunk as a sole liquid in the morning they could have negative effects on your hydration. I aim to put away a minimum of a litre of water before leaving the hut/bivi/my house. For bigger routes I might try and put away more. Make no bones about it, having 1 litre of cold water 5-10mins after you wake up is very unpleasant but it will give you a very good head start on your hydration for that day.
5. Choose the right rope system
Simul-solo, simul-climb, swing leads, block leads.
Learning to adapt to the terrain you find is where you make up the most time in my experience. If you keep pitching terrain that you could move together on then you will lose a lot of time building belays and swapping over leads. Some routes require you to pitch and other routes require you to simul-climb or even simul-solo to make up enough time to finish off the objective. Adapting and changing between the different styles requires confidence in you and your partner’s abilities as well as an open mind. You might be able to simul-climb past others that are pitching if you are both confident and moving well. Block leads (one person leading say 4 pitches at a time then changing over) as opposed to swing leading (alternating who leads) is a good way of letting the leader get into a good rhythm or “groove” and also lets the second’s mind relax. Typically this is used on longer routes where you have a larger, heavier pack for the second and the leader has no pack or one which is lighter.
On really long multi day routes some teams might even have lead days. Block leads also work much better when you are climbing as a three. In some situations swing leads would be faster, for example when you have similarly graded harder pitches. The art of swing leading efficiently is the changeovers at the belays. Learn to do it fast and without dropping any gear. I normally clip the gear to the rope or cows tail of the other person. They then take it off and arrange it on their harness. Bandoliers can prove very handy in these situations but do add weight and some people don’t like climbing with them. You could consider racking the quickdraws on a sling over your shoulder to save time passing them over.
6. Learn not to Faff!
It’s the tendency for beginners or less experienced alpinists to faff. Two or three minutes of faffing repeated over and over can lose you a fair amount of time over your day. Getting too hot, too cold, thirsty, hungry or tired makes you feel like you should do something to make yourself more comfortable, I get it! It’s natural. With a little bit of forward thinking you can condense things like changing gloves, eating and drinking into one swift stop rather than taking off your coils and bag three times in 45mins. Learn to suffer being hot or cold for a brief period. You’ll find that the temperature can constantly change so it’s worth just suffering being a bit cold for a few minutes rather than putting on another layer that you might need to take off again in a few pitches. Think about what you’ll need first and last and pack your bag accordingly. If things come out in the order you want them you’ll spend less time repacking your bag.
Common faffs that can be avoided… Put sun cream on in the morning, adjust your crampons to the correct size at home, coil your ropes neatly before you set off, keep the rack together in your bag, stuff or clip your spare gloves together, keep food in your pockets, wear light, breathable clothes and have a big jacket to go over everything for belays. Learn to take photos quickly and efficiently.
7. Wear the right shoes
You can often save weight and effort and therefore time by choosing the right footwear for your climb. Maybe you know that you’re only going to experience a small patch of very low angle, slushy snow on the descent. Do you really need to bring B2 boots and crampons the whole way up the route or could you make do with your approach shoes? If you’re climbing a long easy rock route make sure you wear comfy rock-boots that you could keep on all day. Having to take off your rock boots off every pitch or after 40mins will slow you down. If it’s more technical perhaps you’ll move faster overall if you have tighter boots that you can trust.
8. Practise rock climbing in big boots and crampons
Learning how to climb rock efficiently with big boots or crampons could give you a significant boost in efficiency. Take a route like the Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi North Face. Some teams opt to climb in rock shoes and some climb the whole thing in big boots. If you don’t have to change between the two or take a bigger bag to fit your big boots in then you will be more efficient. Learning to climb in big boots has no secrets, it just takes practise. On some types of rock climbing big boots are often better! Go out to your local crag and try routes that you are comfortable on with your big boots to learn how they smear, edge and jam. The more mileage you get before your trip the better. This will also make your legs stronger as you’ll need to lift the extra weight of the boots. Again with climbing rock in crampons it takes practise. Try some dry-tooling at a designated crag with your crampons to get a feel for how they work. I find that confidence here goes a long way to making easy routes go a lot more smoothly.
9. Harness the mind
This is especially important if you are trying something which is bigger or harder than you have done before. It has been quoted by many Slovenians (Ljubo Hansel) that the power of the mind outweighs the power of the body 80/20. You need to be 100% focused on the task in hand and be able to concentrate on only the climbing. If you can’t maintain focus then perhaps you need to take some rest. If you're pushing too hard you will know it. Learn to put yourself in a mentally tough place before you start.
A technique that I used to help me lead faster was the karabiner clip relax. It's quite simple. Focus on a highly stressful situtaion like leading a really run out pitch. Use the snap of your karabiner gate to change focus to a deeply relaxed state. Associating the noise to the feeling of relaxing is a great way of controlling fear and giving your mind respite. When you can do this intuitively then you can learn to slow heart-rate, breathing and adrenaline to boost your performance.
10. Practise, Practise, Practise!
The more mileage you get the faster you will move. You will see where things take time and you will learn how your partner/s work and move. The more different types of climbing you do, the more situations you will be able to deal with confidently. The more times you take coils and place gear and change in and out of crampons the more it will become second nature. Review how fast you were and try and see where you can tweak your systems to gain the extra second or minutes. They all add up in the end!
Dave Searle is a skier and alpinist based in Chamonix, France.
He is sponsored by Salewa and Wild Country and has a blog with loads of mountain stuff on it here: DaveSearle.me
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