For many breaking into the multi-pitch rock climbing world swing leading seems to still be the default method of moving the rope up a climb when the two climbing partners are of relatively similar experience. Indeed this was my go-to option for my first decade of multi-pitch experience. It was in 2006 that I picked up a copy of Craig Connally’s “The Mountaineering Handbook- Modern Tools and Techniques That Will Take You to the Top“, that I was first introduced to the idea of leading in blocks.
Over the years block leading has become my default method when recreationally climbing and I’d like to share some opinions on the matter to hopefully encourage you to try this method the next time you’re heading out on a 4+ pitch adventure. First to clarify if anyone reading this doesn’t already know, swing leading means after the leader has finished the first pitch and the follower arrives at the anchor the follower becomes the new leader and leads the next pitch, basically “leap-frogging” each other up the cliff. Block leading means the leader leads multiple pitches determined by various factors such as route length, physical and mental stamina, and proficiency at different types of climbing, before handing over the leader responsibilities to to the follower for the next “block”.
It has also been suggested to me that block leading is somehow “rushing” or not enjoying the climb. While it is convincingly faster than swing leading block leading feels more comfortable to me, for the reasons I will outline below.
This one is quickly realized when one enters the realm of multi-pitch ice climbing. Without a doubt swinging leads on a multi-pitch ice climb can lead to very cold belayers. Consider this; you’ve just finished leading a Grade 3 pitch and you are warm and toasty while constructing your anchor and yelling “off belay”. You might even make the classic beginner mistake and decide not to dig out your belay jacket as you assume your partner will make short work of the last pitch. 20 minutes later your partner joins you at the anchor. You can feel the chill now, so while they re-rack and get ready for the next pitch you decide to dig out your belay parka before you start to feel even more chilled. They head up on the next lead and cautiously negotiate some tricky spots while you get a bit cooler. By the time they yell off belay you have been at this anchor for over 45 minutes waving your arms around to stay warm. Block leading = half as much time stuck at a belay anchor for both climbers!
While climbing efficiently on multi-pitch terrain the follower should be encouraged to climb like they are following, not leading. The security of a good belay from above should allow the follower to not second guess every move. Try to climb quickly and save the team some time. On moderate terrain or slab the second may even arrive at the anchor winded from moving so quickly. That’s ok, they get a break now. The leader has also had a chance to recover, and is fresher than the follower. This is even more apparent when the pitches are long. The difference on a 180 foot pitch is climbing 180 feet without a break or climbing 360 feet without a break. Night and day.
Climbers often get into a focused “leader mind-state” once they get warmed up and staying in that role is easier for a few pitches than switching it every pitch. On an eight pitch route of similar pitch difficulty I’ll often flip a coin or give my partner the choice, first four or last four? If I’m leading first I can be on point for those first four pitches then enjoy the rest of the climb as my partner sends it to the top. If she takes the first four pitches I’m mentally primed to take over at the top of the fourth pitch.
There are some ways to make block leading (and even swing leading) more efficient. Some tips:
- If one member is better at a certain style of climbing than the other assign blocks accordingly
- Use auto-locking belay devices like the Petzl Reverso 4 or Black Diamond ATC Guide, or brake-assisting devices like the Petzl GriGri2. While belaying the second the leader should also eat or drink if needed, study the route above, consult the guidebook (or Mountain Project), and be pretty ready to take off soon after the follower arrives.
- Have the second clip the cleaned gear from the last pitch directly to the leader’s tie-in section of the rope while the leader quickly organizes the rope. They leader can then quickly re-rack once they have finished organizing the rope. It’s been suggested that swinging leads might be quicker since the second might have most that rack at this point but in reality re-racking should only take 30-45 seconds.
- How the rope is best prepared for the next lead while block leading depends on the situation. If there is ample flat space on a belay ledge the best method is to just stack it on the ground and when the follower arrives perform a “pancake-flip”. This takes less than 5 seconds and with practice will not result in any tangles. If it is a hanging stance then lap coils over your tie-in should start off small, and progressively get bigger on each side. Once the follower is clipped into the anchor the lap coil can be “flipped” onto the follower’s attachment to the anchor and the smaller loops closer to the leader will be on top, greatly reducing any potential snags while they are leading.
- When it is time to switch blocks the follower, who is about to become the new leader, need not clove into the anchor if they were belayed on an auto-locking belay device. They simply hand the original leader their belay device, wait until they have been put on belay, then take the original leader’s belay device and start leading the next pitch.
You don’t need to be trying to set any speed records to reap the benefits of block leading. You can still dangle your feet off the belay ledge and take selfies with your partner while enjoying a mid-climb wine & cheese spread when block leading. But if you have ambitions to climb big multi-pitch routes like the Armadillo and Moby Grape block leading can literally save you hours on-route and make the difference between reaching the car at sunset or two hours after dark. On smaller less committing routes it might just get you to happy hour in time. You should give it try!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start