How to move fast and light: the experts' way

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 06/07/2016
Picking up speed on the way to the summit in Nepal. Photo: Shutterstock / Vixit
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Seven mountain guides and professional climbers offer the benefit of their vast experience on moving fast and light in the mountains. Read on for an array of top tips, tricks and how to plan your day from those in the know.

Thanks to Will Sim, Colin Haley, Caroline George, Stuart Macdonald and Jon Bracey for their tips, Matt Helliker for how to plan your day, and Tim Blakemore for the tricks you need to have up your sleeve to ensure a quick journey to the top. Please note, these routes should only be undertaken by those who have learnt the appropriate skills. If in doubt, you know the score: hire a guide.

1. Attitude and mindset are key

Tactics, gear, knowledge, fitness and technical ability. These are major factors which influence the speed you travel over ground on big alpine routes. However, I think that attitude and mindset are more important than anything. By this, I mean that if you decide to take three days on a route, you probably will take three days about it. If you decide to climb something in a day, the chances are you will, or at least it's much more likely!

2. Amount of kit isn't proportionate to size of route

It may seem obvious, but don't believe that the amount of kit you bring on a route is at all in proportion to the size of the route. For example, I once climbed the South face of Denali – 3,000 metres of climbing over technical ground – with a 10-litre bag. If I go cragging at Stanage to climb 10m routes, I’ll probably carry a 40-litre bag packed to the brim! This may be an extreme example, but you get my gist.

Will Sim is a professional mountaineer and mountain guide:

3. Don't carry too much rope

They're heavy and two ropes take more time to manage at belays. Look at topos of your chosen route. If you can get away with a single rope then just take one. Then look at the length of any potential abseils and take the right length of rope. The Hornli Ridge goes on a 40m rope and the South Ridge of the Lagginhorn goes on a 30m rope, in my opinion. But for the South Ridge of the Stockhorn I'd take a 60m. 

Stuart Macdonald has been based in Chamonix and guiding full-time for ten years: or tweet @SMMountainGuide

4. Research your route well and practice moving quickly

Two of the most important skills for moving fast in the mountains are route-finding and the ability to climb quickly over technical ground. Take time to research your climb and photocopy all the topos. Set yourself challenges at your local crag like climbing 20 routes in an evening. Final tip: Always check out the approach to your route from your bivouac or hut the evening before.

Jon Bracey is an alpinist and IFMGA mountain guide. Tweet: @jonbracey1.

5. Be efficient on transitions

Plan and prepare: know what to expect on the route, what the difficulties are going to be, figure out a timing, take the right amount of gear and nothing more, and be efficient on transitions — I think that's the best way to save time.

Caroline George is an IFMGA guide based in Switzerland:

6. Consider simul-climbing

Simul-climbing is a vastly faster option than traditional belaying. You can climb the same route way, way faster, without ever feeling like you are rushing. Of course you won't want to climb terrain that you find very difficult this way – although there are devices out there* that can add security by protecting against the seconder falling, making simul-climbing a more reasonable option.

[*Note: We can't advocate using these devices for simul-climbing protection as they are not recommended for this purpose by the manufacturers, but a Google-search will throw up some ideas if you are interested. Use at your own risk!]

Colin Haley is pretty much a full-time alpinist, sponsored by Patagonia, Petzl, and La Sportiva:

Leo Houlding, fast and light hero
Leo Houlding shows how it's done. Filmmaker Alastair Lee says: "In my line of work there is only slow and heavy!" Photo: Alastair Lee.

Matt Helliker: here's how to plan your day

You could have the best gear in the world and be fit and strong, but without any structure in your mind as to how the day's going to pan out, that is all worthless. 

1. Leave the hut or lift cold and hydrated. This way you won't overheat on the approach or waste time having to adjust layers or drink.

2. Pack so everything is easily to hand and in the order you need it. Otherwise you'll be losing time banked from an efficient take-off, pulling out spare layers of clothing and ropes to get to your crampons at the bottom!

3. Visualise your day the evening before. That way you'll know you will need those crampons on that re-frozen 30-degree snow patch you have to cross on the approach, and have them in your hand when leaving the hut.

4. Load your pockets with your power snacks for the route.

5. Your belay jacket should be the only extra spare clothing with you. Put it on before sorting out your rack at the base of the route.

6. This rack should be lined up on a short sling in the order you want it to be on your harness. Now un-coil your rope smoothly so as to avoid any birdnest, and tie in. 

Racked up, you remove your belay jacket, stash it in the base of your pack and neck some water, then cinch down your pack tightly. Because you packed light it feels good, and with everything to hand you shouldn't need to be going back in there for a while. Next you check the photocopied topo from your pocket in your trousers. There's not another team in sight – because you've been efficient you're ahead of the clock, with time banked for later when needed. Now crack on ... fast, free, light and lucky.

Matt Helliker is one of the UK’s most accomplished alpinists and an IFMGA mountain guide:

Tim Blakemore: have these cards up your sleeve

'Fast and light' has become a catchphrase in alpinism. It’s not just about weighing your jacket and cutting your spoon in two, however. Being successful in the mountains is actually a culmination of experience, judgement, tactics and luck. I try to think about the following and have as many ‘cards in the hand’ as possible:

1. Research the route. Ask everyone who’s done it. Get online. Know the line and prepare tactics beforehand.

2. Be fit and acclimatised. I've climbed north faces from the airport but there is no room for error. Being acclimatised means you can eat up ground that would otherwise have you panting. Many big routes have large sections of easier ground on them, which is where you buy your time (more time for the difficult climbing).

3. Get on a big route on a stellar forecast. If it’s tracked even better. Don’t force routes in bad weather or conditions, it can take twice as long.

4. Visualise the ground. Does it suit simul-climbing? Stretching pitches can make a big difference.

5. Learn how to down-climb efficiently. This will speed up the overall ascent as abseiling invariably takes a long time.

6. Recognise crucial route-finding decisions. Spending an extra minute looking around the corner for an easy option rather than spending 20 minutes on a technical pitch will pay dividends.

7. Don’t cut it so light that you have no built in ‘resilience’ for anything going wrong. You will make route-finding errors, ropes will jam, a crux will be wet and it will storm when you don’t expect it. That’s the essence of alpinism.

Tim Blakemore is an IFMGA mountain guide based in Chamonix. He offers worldwide bespoke mountain and ski guiding. Find out more:


A photo posted by Jon Bracey (@jonbracey_alpinist) on

It's all about feeling free... Photo: Jon Bracey.

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