Courage cannot be approached with caution

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Strategies: 3 Climbers, One Rope

The following is a discussion regarding climbing in a team on 3 with one rope.  This is a common technique used in the alpine climbing world when weight considerations are paramount and moving quickly is key to success.  Careful consideration is required on when to use each technique.  Keep in mind these techniques are to be used with a single rated rope.

First I will introduce 3 methods and definitions for rope strategies in a team of 3.  They are as follows.

Parallel End-Roping:  Generally done with 2 climbers, 2 ropes.  The leader is usually tied into the middle of the climbing rope with followers tied in to either end.  In this configuration, both followers climb at the same time with a 20ft or so space between.  This technique requires that the leader belay from a hands free device to adequately manage 2 belay ropes.

Linked End-Roping:  Also called “Caterpillar.”  The common configuration for this method is the leader tied into one end, second climber is tied into the middle, and the third climber is tied into the opposite end.  The followers are then belayed up one at a time. 

Double End-Roping:  Two climbers, one rope.  In this configuration, the leader is tied into the end, with 2 followers tied into the opposite end about 10ft apart.  The 2 seconds are then belayed up at the same time.

Consider parallel end-roping when the pitch is difficult for the parties skill level.  Think crux pitches, where the leader is still comfortable at the grade.  This allows both followers to climb on separate ropes and at their own speed.  It also allows the climber(s) to hang on the rope without interfering with the others progress.  Efficiency is increased with this system as both followers are climbing simultaneously.

It’s also important that the pitch does not have a high rockfall hazard as both climbers will be in the “shooting gallery.”  Additionally this technique requires that the belay anchors are unquestionably strong as you will be belaying 2 seconds simultaneously with potential for both seconds to load the system.  When implementing this technique with a party of 3 and 1 rope, you will only be able to lead pitches that are half of your rope length. 

When using this system, it is important to only be belayed on one strand of the climbing rope, not both.  Both strands can be clipped to each piece to ensure you are clipping the belay rope.  Furthermore, rope/stance management become more complicated when using this system. 

There are several options for the leaders attachment to the climbing rope.  Personally I prefer to be tied into the rope rather than clipped in with lockers.  My preference is to use a bowline on a bight or a double fishermans knot as a tie-in.  
Double fisherman's tie-in.

Once you have committed to this system, it is most efficient for the leader to lead through the most technical climbing and onto the easier terrain where a different rope system can be utilized.  This will allow your team to move faster as you will not have to transition between leaders at every belay.

Linked end-roping can be utilized in a few scenarios.  This is an appropriate choice if the terrain is difficult for the leader and followers.  It allows the leader to only trail a single strand of rope rather than 2.  It is also easier for the leader to manage the belay for the seconds. 
Bowline on a bight tie-in.

Efficiency is lost with this technique as only 1 climber is belayed at a time.  Also, the pitches must be kept to a half rope length. 

Double end-roping is appropriate on stepped or homogenous terrain and a fall is unlikely.  This technique is best used on slabby or steppy terrain where the difficulties are brief.  It is helpful when increased efficiency is required.  It allows the leader to climb longer pitches and allows ease of rope management. 

Remember when using this technique that both followers can potentially load the belay chain at the same time.  Because of this, there is a greater hazard regarding sharp edges and flakes cutting or damaging the climbing rope.  Additionally there is significantly more rope stretch in the system if both climbers load the rope. 

In a double end-roping scenario, if the last climber falls, they will likely pull off the climber above them.  It is advisable to have the weaker climber on the team tied in above the stronger climber on the end. 

For the attachment of the middle climber, an overhand on a bight with about 10-12 inches of tail is best.  Tie a slip knot at the end of the loop and clip in with 2 locking carabiners opposite and opposed.  The slip knot will help keep the lockers oriented in the correct position and avoid cross-loading.  One could also tie in with the aforementioned methods, but this requires a large amount of rope.  
Middle climber tie-in.  Notice the slipknot on the Black Diamond Vaporlocks.

These techniques should be used by a competent party well versed in climbing and mountaineering systems.  Experience and judgment are required to appropriately select the best system for your climbing team and objective.  It is important to have the skills to transition between each system and apply the right system to the terrain. 

Remember to practice these systems with your climbing partners before you set off on your next climbing adventure.   

Happy Climbing!