The pair had climbed fast and now stood on a large ledge above Continuation Wall. The expanse of the Idwal Slabs stretched away below them, above some broken ground led across to the Grey Slab and the summit of Glyder Fach. It was late afternoon - if they were to complete another climb and reach the summit before darkness, they’d need to move quickly.
I bet many of us can relate to this situation. Not late enough to call it a day, yet not quite as much time as we’d like to complete a long climb or scramble. There are many things you can do to speed up, but one area of rope work that can really reap dividends is the dark art of moving together. Most commonly associated with the Alps, this involves shortening the rope and both climbing partners travelling or climbing at once. When done efficiently by experienced climbers it can save considerable time.
How does it work?
There’s not room here to describe in intricate detail the many ways for climbers to shorten a rope between them, but it generally involves taking chest coils and sometimes carrying a small amount of coiled rope too. The golden rule is to keep chest and hand coils neat and tidy. Let’s look at three separate techniques that you might use depending on the terrain and ability of the climbers.
The first method is for crossing broken ground, often encountered on mountain scrambles and climbs that can be easily crossed. It is quicker to shorten the rope and move together than to untie, coil the rope, walk and then re-tie onto the rope again. Take chest coils so that there is 12-15m of rope between you, then take small tidy hand coils so that the final distance is 2-3m. Don’t take too much rope in your hands, if you can’t close your thumb and first finger then it’s too much. The climbers now walk/scramble over the ground moving at a speed which keeps the rope up off the ground and does not tug at each other. Whilst crossing this type of easy scrambling ground slips and trips do and can happen, so it’s vital that the climbers’ hand coils are locked off to allow the non-slipping partner to hold the rope tight and prevent the slip becoming a serious fall.
Example use: crossing the terraces between pitches on the East Face of Tryfan.
This is for when easy scrambling terrain becomes more exposed and serious, but both climbers have trust in each other’s ability and a fall is unlikely - or both hands are needed to make quick progress. You need to use a system that offers a greater level of protection than before. Drop the hand coils and climb simultaneously, placing runners as well as weaving the rope around natural spikes and blocks to give both partners an amount of assurance. As a general rule there should be at least three pieces of protection on the rope at any one time, and as the second takes a piece out so the leader puts one in. Both climbers should move at the speed of the rope since any slack increases the risk of shock loading and pulling off the other climber in the event of a fall.
Example use: above the initial difficulties on Cneifion Arete, Glyder Fawr.
For sections of ground where the consequences of a slip or trip are very serious, and more care is needed. Depending on how long these tricky sections are you may need to extend the rope, but try not to have more than about 20-25m paid out between the climbers. Treat these sections as mini-climbs, taking proper belays, placing runners as required and belaying as normal. Using natural anchor points such as spikes can speed up the process. By keeping the pitch length short, communication will be easier, the rope will most likely run straighter and progressing in small manageable chunks can be very quick.
Example use: the Great Tower on Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis.
Your technique choice depends as much upon ability as terrain. Correctly matching you and your partners ability with the route and choosing an appropriate style of ascent is always the first thing to consider. It’s advisable to continually assess the terrain and your ability. Never be worried about stopping to build up a belay and pitching - you can easily start to move together again when the ground eases. And remember - all these techniques require each climbing partner to make judgements on the move and should be practised in a safe learning environment before being used in the mountains for real.
Andy Townsend is an MIC and IML. Through his company Cirrus Outdoor he offers a range of climbing and mountaineering courses. See www.cirrusoutdoor.com.
This issue the climbing expert is Mike Turner. Mike (aka Twid) Turner is an IFMGA Guide and MIC, based in North Wales and guides all round the world.
Q. Is it faster to move together or pitch?
A. For a confident and well-matched team, moving together on runners can be much faster than pitching when climbing over moderate terrain But if the climbers have to ponder over moves or lack confidence in the ability of the system to hold a fall, then don’t mess around - just pitch up. Pitching can be speeded up with slick rope work and using obvious quick anchors to build belays.
Q. Is there any difference when moving over snow?
A. If a person slips on snow it can quickly turn into a fall, catapulting the other team member off. Reduce the risk by moving closer together and carrying hand coils. Snowy ridges can present a real dilemma. On badly corniced ridges the climbing team should consider the implication of their combined weight, perhaps enough to break a cornice, and move further apart. But at the same time it’s difficult to find runners on a snowy ridge, and a slide from a partner 12 or more meters away would leave little option other than to jump off the other side of the ridge!
Q. What sort of rope should I use?
A. In an alpine environment we’re looking to have the lightest rope available without compromising strength and durability. Modern single ropes vary from 8.9 - 10mm and are available in a variety of lengths. Choosing a thin versatile rope like the Mammut Revelation 9.2mm is an ideal compromise between weight, durability and handling. For most alpine ascents and general UK use a 50m rope is adequate - the advantages of 60m are lost due to the extra weight. For year-round and glacial use opt for a dry-treated rope.
Q. How do I learn to move together?
A. Ensure that both you and your partner have a solid foundation in all aspects of climbing - being quick and efficient at building belays and sorting gear is vital. Becoming competent and slick when moving together takes time and practice. It’s important to be good at building direct and indirect belays, as well as handling the rope and using a waist belay. The ability to make the judgement about which technique to use and when only comes with practice. Go scrambling and climbing wearing stiff mountain boots, carrying a rucksack and using a light rack. The UK mountains have some great rock scrambling terrain where you can perfect these skills - go visit the Ogwen Valley in North Wales, Glencoe, and the Cuillins in Skye. And don’t forget, using the experience of a Mountain Instructor or Guide is a great way to pick up these skills quickly.