Swing leading or leading in blocks?(And Giveaway)

Swing leads or block lead?
Photo by Brent Doscher

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.

Warmer

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!


Physically easier

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.


Mentally easier

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.


Strategies

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.

    Summary

    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!


    Giveaway!

    Click here to enter to win a brand new still in the package Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package valued at $64.95! You can find my review of this new device here. Contest ends September 30th!

    Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package
    Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Sendember and Rocktober!

These two months are easily my favorite months to get out rock climbing and while Fall is historically a slower time for rock guiding in the Northeast it’s one of the best times to get out and climb! The cliffs are quieter, the black-flies and mosquitoes are long gone, and the cool temps and lower humidity just make rock climbing the thing to do. And don’t get me started on the foliage that is actually starting to show!

Here’s a list of some Fall climbing objectives I’d like to highlight if you think you might want to get out and climb with me before the snow flies.


Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, Mount Washington

Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle
Guiding Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, photo by Peter Brandon

This 7 pitch, 900 foot, classic alpine ridge is a must do for every eastern trad climber! Since I have a season pass to the Mount Washington Auto Road I’m offering “Euro-approach” style guided trips to this alpine mecca. Basically by using the Autoroad we save 5 hours of hiking and spend more time climbing! The road closes on October 21st so message me soon if you have a date you’d like to do this!

Requirements: Should be comfortable down-climbing 4th class terrain, and following 5.8. Previous multi-pitch experience required.


Lakeview, Cannon Cliff

Lakeview, Cannon Cliff
Oliver on the 2nd pitch with a good view of the lake! Full trip report of that day here.

This climb was once listed in a climbing magazine article called “Ten Classic Climbs under 5.10”, which is what got me to first climb it in 1994. It’s an excellent introduction to moderate alpine multi-pitch climbing with lots of relaxed slab climbing (some loose rock), and two steeper fantastic pitches at the top. A real pleasure on a nice Fall day!

Requirements: Should be comfortable following 5.6. Previous multi-pitch experience required.


Whitney Gilman, Cannon Cliff

Whitney-Gilman Ridge
Larry after just topping out the 4th pitch, the famously exposed “Pipe Pitch”

The most exposed 5.7 in New England, this sharp alpine ridge is another “must-do” for all eastern trad climbers. After dozens of ascents I still can’t help to marvel over the historic first ascent of this climb that was at one-time, the hardest climb in the US!

Requirements: Should be comfortable following 5.8. Previous multi-pitch experience required.


Endeavor, White Ledge

Endeavor, Whites Ledge, Bartlett NH
Endeavor, Whites Ledge, Bartlett NH photo by Drew Lederman

This is a locals Fall favorite! 5 pitches of excellent climbing ending with a stellar 200 foot jam crack and some of the best Fall foliage views to be had!


Gym to Sport Skills

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Corey McMullen

The transition from gym climbing to outdoor sport climbing can be a bit daunting. I’ve been refining my single day curriculum to help ease this transition all summer while teaching clinics at Rumney Rocks. I’ll help you make that transition so you are not left at the top anchor wondering if you set everything up right.


Self-Rescue for the Trad Climber

rock climbing self rescue
Chris learns about the initial awkwardness of rope ascension having already “Escape the Belay”

Do you know how to go “hands-free” on your belay device so you can get your cell phone out of your pack? Better yet can you “escape the belay” so you can go get or provide help? Or better still can you escape the belay and climb up a loaded rope to render potentially life saving first aid?

These skills should be high on the list of anyone who wishes to simply follow multi-pitch climbs! You might need to rescue the leader should an incident occur! Over the years I’ve streamlined this 8 hour day into what I think people should know if they plan on climbing more than one pitch above the ground. Grab your partner and dedicate a day to learning how to practice this skills with me!


Cost

All of these courses are offered at the following rates through my employment with Northeast Mountaineering.

1 person: $250 per person
2 people: $150 per person

If you would like to book any of these contact me first at nealpinestart@gmail.com with the date or dates you are interested in. I will quickly get back to you on availability then you can lock the date down through Northeast Mountaineering using “DavidNEM” in the notes box to help flag the reservation.


Fall is almost officially here and the leaves have started to show some color in most of the notches. I hope you get out there and enjoy the best rock climbing weather the Northeast has to offer!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Affiliate links above help support this blog at no additional cost to you! Thank you!

Review- 50 Non-Textbook Anchors I Trusted My Life To, by Mark Smiley (IFMGA Guide)

Mark Smiley 50 Anchors Online Course Review

Last week Mark Smiley released an online learning course focused on building anchors for traditional and alpine rock climbing. If you are following this blog Mark probably doesn’t need an introduction as his name is quite well known in the industry, but if by some chance you haven’t heard of Mark here’s a quick recap of him from his Smiley’s Project website.


Buy the Discounted Course HERE 25% off ends September 8th!


Experience

FILM MAKING:

-Created 45+ webisodes during a 4 year climbing project: Plays: 400K Loads: 3.8M Embeds: 3.1M

– Contract film work for: Gore-Tex, La Sportiva, American Mountain Guide Association, and others.

PHOTOGRAPHY:

– Published in Alpinist, Rock n’ Ice, Climbing, Extraordinary Health, Outside Magazine, 50+ webpages.

MOUNTAIN GUIDING:

– Organized and led 7 international expeditions, 5 Alaska Expeditions, and many domestic trips in the US.

– IFMGA Certified Mountain Guide by the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA)

I’ve been following Mark through Facebook and Instagram for years and linked his “Creating Safe Bail Anchors” post to my Tech Tip page a couple years ago. When I saw he was offering a hour and half online course focused on upping my anchor building game I decided to invest in it and give it a review. I’m pretty sure a lot of my readers have heard of this new program and might be on the fence as to if it is worth it or not. To help with that decision here’s a recap of what the program offers. After reading this you’ll be able to decide if it’s something that could help your climbing (and score a bit of a discount on the purchase along the way!)


What is an online course?

This might seem rudimentary to some but it deserves a little clarification. Especially as it pertains to this course. Basically when you purchase this online course you get lifetime access to the “chapters” that the curriculum has been divided into. These chapters are more than just video though… they include text below to supplement the material covered on screen. Occasionally relevant links are made to appropriate research papers that support claims made during instruction.

Mark Smiley 50 Anchor Online Course Review

In addition each chapter has space to publicly comment and question anything suggested during the chapter. While not replacing “live” learning this is far more interactive than simply trying to learn a skill via say… YouTube!

Buy the Discounted Course HERE 25% off ends September 8th!


How much does it cost?

Before I get into the course content I’ll go over the course costs and offer a bit of a comparison. This course costs $199 (before a 25% off exclusive discount I list at the end). This is about equal to a day of semi-private 2:1 or 3:1 guiding with a highly trained guide. Comparing the two though is a bit apples to oranges. This is concentrated info around a diverse and complicated subject. After sitting through the 26 chapters and reading a lot of the accompanying text and external links I can say that the value is most definitely here, and that comes from a climber of 25 years of trad experience. What truly adds value to this course though is once you are enrolled Mark will send you an invite to a private Facebook group that is strictly for posting anchor pics, asking questions, and getting constructive feedback by an IMFGA trained guide.

Mark Smiley 50 Anchors Online Course Review

This simple addition to the service is what makes this a great value for both new climbers entering the field to seasoned vets ready to up their game. Oh, and Mark offers a 30-Day Money Back Guarantee… so if you don’t feel you get your money’s worth reach out!


What will I learn?

This question must be broken down by two user groups. First, aspiring traditional climbers, then experienced climbers with a few seasons under their harnesses. The first group might seem a bit overwhelmed. While Mark is an engaging and well paced presenter there is simply a ton of info thrown at you in an hour and a half. Don’t expect to understand or retain it all after one sit-though. The good news is this isn’t a single private guided day where you try to remember everything the guide said. You can watch these chapters over and over until you feel you gain an understanding of the concepts. As Mark points out a few times through-out though you can still benefit from a qualified professional or mentor in order to build more real-life context.

For the experienced climbers out there (and a lot of my friends and partners) what will you learn from this that you haven’t learned already? Well that will vary from person to person but for me I gained a better understanding of bolt anatomy, type, inspection, and strengths. I learned more about pitons, from inspection to best clipping methods. I was reminded about the use and benefits of “the swamp knot”. I learned some better analogies to help with teaching quality nut placements (loved the flashlight analogy Mark). I learned a slick way to incorporate a cam into a slung horn anchor that I can think of at least 3 places I wish I knew that trick over the last few years.

Mark Smiley 50 Anchor Online Course Review
How to properly clean up that rat’s nest!

While the overall focus of the course is on anchors you will pick up other tips that will help your climbing. Most noticeably how to occasionally “terrain belay” and move faster in 3rd and 4th class terrain with greater security than just soloing the terrain. You’ll learn how to build better bail anchors. On that note huge props for Mark’s “Just say no to stupid anchors” campaign that essentially encourages you to add that second piece if you need to bail without worrying about the financial loss… Mark will replace that piece for you (details in course). Finally I learned how to better clean up “rat nests” and upgrade rap anchors with quick-links as a service to my fellow climbers. I’ve got a few anchors locally in mind that will get some TLC very soon!


Summary

Online learning isn’t anything new. Applying it to climbing education in such a fashion kind of is. Mark is spearheading this here and I have hopes of following him with some less technical type courses (namely using CalTopo and Avenza for creating BA trip plans and maps) but when I see the quality of a course like Mark’s I realize I need to up my game to create a quality of product worth selling. Mark’s done it here, and I’m glad I bought in.


Exclusive Discount!

I am super excited to be able to offer an exclusive discount on this course for Northeast Alpine Start readers! From now until 11:59EST on September 8th you can get 25% off the course tuition by entering promo code “alpinestart25” during checkout here (or just use this link). That brings the $199 course down to $149.25 and gets you lifetime access to Mark’s private Facebook group to help solidify your learning.

Buy the Discounted Course HERE 25% off ends September 8th!

After two decades of climbing it has become obvious to me that the learning never stops. This online course is an excellent addition to a multi-faceted approach of gaining new skills and I doubt few would ever regret the investment.


Continuing Ed.

As an Ortovox Athlete I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t also mention the recently released Safety Academy Lab Rock. This is a fantastic online learning tool you should check out! It’s totally free! It does not however cover the types of anchors Mark covers in his course but I think the two courses combined compliment each other quite well! Also if you are looking to pick up some old-fashioned good ole’ reading on these subjects heres my list of the best instructional climbing books out there!

Thanks for reading.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer: Affiliate links support the content created here at no cost to you, thank you! The author purchased this course with his own money, but if you purchase the course through the discounted link above the author will receive a small commission. All opinions are those of the author. 

Gear Review- Black Diamond Vapor Climbing Helmet

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review

The Black Diamond Vapor Helmet is the lightest and most breathable helmet in Black Diamond’s line and is only an ounce heavier than the Petzl Sirocco that I reviewed here. A sheet of Kevlar and a series of carbon rods in between co-molded EPS foam provides the bulk of impact protection along with a thin but full polycarbonate shell. I’ve been testing this helmet out while climbing and guiding for the last three months and I’m ready to share my opinions on it! As normal I’ll start with the most noticeable features and work towards the minutiae.


Weight

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review

Black Diamond lists the weight of the M/L size at 199 grams, or 7 ounces. My home scale measured 206 grams, or 7 3/8 ounces. For comparison my size 2 Sirocco weighed in on the same scale at 174 grams, or 6 1/8 ounces. While the listed weight seemed a slight bit low it truly weighs only an ounce more than the bar-setting Petzl Sirocco. This ultra-light weight is a boon for long approaches and descents and increases long-term comfort. You truly can forget you have your helmet on when wearing lids like this!


Breath-ability

IMG_9585

Twenty one geometric and well placed holes offer excellent airflow through the helmet making this one of the best hot weather options out there. Furthermore I tested the “Blizzard” color which is basically white and reflective and I found the helmet to be as cool as is possible even on sweltering August days.


Fit/Comfort

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review

The M/L size is listed to fit a head circumference of 58-63 cm (23-25 in). My head measures about 60 cm (23.5 inches). That said I found the helmet to run a little small. It fit my shaved head well but was almost maxed out (I do have a large head). I have just enough room for a thin hat liner for cold weather climbing. Removable and breathable helmet pads are soft on the skin and can be removed for washing. The Y-harness strap is not adjustable but fell perfectly around my ears. The feather like weight and high degree  of breath-ability really do make this one of the most comfortable helmets I have ever tested.


Features

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review
The author wearing the Black Diamond Vapor while topping out the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, Mount Washington. Photo by Brent Doscher

Other than the weight and breath-ability the only other feature to talk about is the headlamp clips, which oddly are removable. Black Diamond suggests that removing them may make the helmet less likely to get snagged on slings, etc. but I’d suggest just leaving them on. They didn’t get caught on anything while I was testing. The helmet also has a nice low profile while providing great coverage on the back and sides.


Durability

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review
Alex rocking the Black Diamond Vapor helmet during an early morning climb at Otter Cliffs- Photo by Brent Doscher

It’s hard to accurately rate long term durability after just three months. I have friends who have climbed regularly in theirs for over a year. The thin polycarbonate shell does not resist small dents and dings with regular use. Black Diamond advises against packing this helmet inside your pack. I packed mine in the top of my pack like I usually do if I don’t have a full load and had no issues (but I remember it is in there and don’t sit on my pack when it is in there). If you strap it on the outside of your pack I would suggest you don’t just drop your pack on the ground when you reach the crag. I wouldn’t say you need to “baby” this helmet but if you want something that can take more abuse check out the Black Diamond Half Dome or Petzl Boreo that I reviewed here.


Summary

This is a specialist helmet. It’s a bit pricey, but the weight savings and breath-ability can easily justify the price. I’ve heard that cycling helmets made with a similar construction can go for 2 to 3 times more! The best uses for this helmet would be alpine climbing and long multi-pitch trad climbing. I’d chose something longer lasting for sport climbing where a couple ounces more can buy you a lot more durability. If weight and long term comfort in warm weather are a priority the Black Diamond Vapor is a great pick!

Buy on Backcountry

sale price vapor.PNG

Buy from EMS

Buy from Moosejaw

sale price vapor.PNG

Buy from Mountain Gear

sale price vapor.PNG

Buy from REI

sale price vapor.PNG

Deal Alert! Black Diamond up to 35% off!

I try not to post to many “sale” type posts but I noticed this morning Backcountry.com is running a great sale on Black Diamond gear and I’m quite a big fan of this brand having reviewed quite a bit of climbing gear and clothing over the years. So I’m leaving this short post here to make sure you’re aware of it with some of my favorite call outs! If you’re not interested in my personal favorites and just want to see everything they have listed on sale go here!

Black Diamond Sale


Black Diamond Helio Shell Jacket

Black Diamond Sale

Black Diamond Equipment Sale

My original review of this piece is here!


Black Diamond Alpine Start Hooded Jacket

shell price.PNG

Black Diamond Equipment Sale

My original review of this piece is here!


Black Diamond Camalot Ultralights

cams price.PNG

Black Diamond Equipment Sale

Save some weight and money! My original review is here!


Black Diamond ATC Pilot

pilot price.PNG

Gear for Top Rope Climbing

Just reviewed this last month in detail here


Black Diamond Ultralite Mix STS Climbing Skins

skins price.PNG

Black Diamond Equipment Sale

Comparison review here!


From carabiners, cams, climbing shoes, and ice axes, to clothing, tents, and ropes, now is a great time to save some money on Black Diamond. Check out all the deals on Black Diamond here!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Coming up!

Not all auto-locking carabiners are equal! Different locking mechanisms are best used in different applications in your safety system… stay tuned to find out the nitty-gritty!

Disclaimer: Making a purchase through any of the affiliate links above will help support creating content at Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you! Thank you!

Do you need to back-up your tie-in knot?

Back up tie-in knot?
Image by @coreyoutdoors

The short answer is no. I recall reading an article in a popular climbing magazine about a decade ago where an IMFGA guide was encouraging climbers to stop “backing up” their tie-in knot. While the logic in the article was quite sound tying “back-up” knots above your standard Figure Eight Follow Through is still somewhat popular even ten years later.

Backing up your tie-in knot
A commonly used back-up knot is the barrel knot tied over the lead line

We crave redundancy. Change is hard. “Safety” is elusive. “Experts” are everywhere. While researching this topic and polling various climbing forums opinions were all over the place. There was a mix of old school “this is how I learned 25 years ago” and new age “our climbing gym requires us to or we fail our belay test”.

Why not tie a back-up knot? Why not tie 3 back-up knots just in case the original and first two back-ups fail? To answer these questions with some amount of detail we need to break it down piece by piece, and that’s what we will do, but first let’s set the baseline.

By “tie-in” knot I am referring to the popular Figure Eight Follow Through. This is what the majority of climbers learn is the best knot for attaching the rope to the harness. Some climbers praise how the Double Bowline is somewhat easier to untie than a Figure 8 Follow Through. This is true, but the Double Bowline comes with enough caveats that I think it should not be used as your primary tie-in.

Tying the Figure Eight Follow Through Knot
An easy way to measure if you have enough tail is to “hang ten”

So for the purposes of this article we will be referring to the Figure Eight Follow Through whenever using “tie-in knot”. So why not back-up? Let’s start with the most important and work towards the minutia…

Strong Enough

Simply put a properly tied Figure Eight Follow Through is more than strong enough. How strong is it? In pull tests it breaks at about 75-80% of the ropes full strength. Do you know how much force it takes to break a climbing rope? Enough to not worry about a 15-20% reduction that is for sure! It is slightly stronger than the aforementioned Double Bowline.

Tying into climbing rope

Secure Enough

By “secure” we refer to the ability for the knot to loosen and untie itself through normal use. By design, once tightened, the Figure 8 Follow Through does not loosen. In fact it can be so tough to loosen it that some climbers who work steep overhanging sport projects and take multiple whippers while projecting might choose the easier to loosen Double Bowline in its place. Unless you are taking multiple whippers on overhanging climbs I’d encourage you to stick with the more well known and recognized Figure 8 Follow Through. Note the Double Bowline does require a back-up for security!

Tying into climbing rope
A bad example of tying in… loop formed is way to big and “back-up” knot is likely to jam on gear while following and easily work loose

Properly Tied

That means six inches of tail after the knot is dressed and stressed. To dress the knot try to keep the strands on the same side while tightening the knot. Sometimes I’ll end up with a strand crossing over a strand leaving me with a knot that isn’t “pretty”. This twist does not significantly weaken or reduce its security in anyway. The sometimes heard phrase “a pretty knot is a safe knot” alludes to a pretty knot being easier for a partner to quickly inspect. You do not need to re-tie your knot if you only have a twist in it (but make sure the proper strands run parallel).

Simplicity Rules

Climbing systems are complex enough. We do not need to add complexity for the illusion of being “safer”. Our focus when tying in should always be on tying the correct knot properly, not tying extra knots “in case we mess up the important knot”. That should never happen. Especially if you take your partner check seriously and have a second set of eyes look at your knot before you leave the ground.

Extraneous knots above the tie-in knot make it more difficult for a partner to visually inspect the important knot during the partner check. Not tying “back-up” knots saves time, even if just a little. While following a climb “back-up knots” can catch and jam on protection or quick-draws before you are in a good stance to un-clip them. While lead climbing having a cleaner profile at your tie-in can lead to smoother clips.

The Yosemite Finish

The ideal Figure 8 Follow Through Knot should have a “loop” about the size of your belay loop and 6 inches of tail. No more, no less. If you would like to “secure” your left over tail to keep it from “flapping around” consider the Yosemite Finish. While this is an excellent way to finish your knot it is often tied incorrectly, with climbers partially “un-finishing” their properly tied Figure 8 Follow Through when tucking the tail back into the knot. To maintain full strength and security the tail must wrap around the rope before being tucked back into the lower part of the knot. This maintains original knot strength and security and creates a really low profile knot to facilitate clipping, cleaning, and even rope management at crowded belays. Here’s a short video I created to show the process.

Summary

The majority of climbers these days learn the basics at climbing gyms and the majority of these gyms likely encourage or require this un-necessary redundancy. I offer that we should focus more on better partner checks and proper belaying techniques rather than wasting time backing up things that don’t need to be backed up. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and share within your climbing circles if any of this was helpful!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

UPDATES:

I reached out to UIAA for this article and while they didn’t get back to me in time for press-time I would like to now add their response to my inquiry on this subject:

From my point of view the only “UIAA approval” that could conceivably be construed from our materials currently online and in publication would be from materials in the UIAA Alpine Handbook, which has at least been circulated among enough commission members to be regarded as “UIAA approved” – which is NOT the same as “UIAA recommended”, after all there are “many ways to skin a cat”, and it would be an endless task to try to list them all!

Pages 143 and 189 of the UIAA Alpine Handbook show the use of the rethreaded Figure of 8, which is indeed shown without a stopper knot. However this does not mean that adding a stopper knot is therefore “not UIAA approved”. Adding a stopper knot adds a level of redundancy – and redundancy is a key component of the anchor system (eg the US favoured “ERNEST” and “SERENE” acronyms). If a bowline is used for tying in, the stopper knot is an essential component of the attachment. For a figure of 8 it is an optional extra. 

 Pros and cons of adding a stopper knot:

 Pro: 

    • We need to bear in mind that guidance about tying in has to work for novices as well as for people who have enough experience to make subtle judgements.
    • The stopper knot should be butted up tight against the main knot. This stops the tail creeping out of the knot during extended use.
    • If the stopper knot comes undone, it provides a visual early warning that the knots may not be fully tensioned
    • If the knot isn’t properly “dressed and stressed” the stopper knot will prevent catastrophic failure unless it also comes undone (BUT all knots should always be checked….)
    • Different diameter ropes have different recommendations for the length of the tail. At least if you can tie a double stopper the tail is DEFINITELY long enough.
  • Con:
    • Takes extra time to tie and untie
    • Regularly works loose while climbing, even though the main knot remains perfectly secure
    • A serious disadvantage is that inexperienced/tired people might clip in between the knot and the stopper if the stopper isn’t butted tight against the main knot (BUT it should be).

 We can see from this list that the pros and cons are fairly equally balanced. I would be wary of telling people NOT to use a stopper. By all means recommend that they don’t need one, but you are making a rod for your own back if they make a catastrophic mistake that a stopper knot could have prevented from escalating into an accident. 

 

Thanks to Jeremy Ray for helping capture the images and video used in this post.

Gear for Top Rope Climbing

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Alexandra Roberts

After teaching an anchor building clinic last week my guest started an email chain with me looking for some specific recommendations on improving his top-rope “kit”. After making a few suggestions I realized I get these questions a few times a year and there are probably others out wondering what an optimized top-rope kit looks like.  So here I share what I think are the best of the best from ropes to carabiners, belay devices to harnesses and helmets, these are my “first picks”.


Climbing Rope

Sterling Marathon Pro Dry Single Rope

Sterling Marathon Pro Climbing Rope
Sterling Marathon Pro Climbing Rope

I would recommend this 10.1 mm rope in the 60 meter length. With a higher ratio of sheath-to-core this rope will hold up to hard use for many years. It comes equipped with a middle mark, which is a feature I insist on for any of my ropes if it’s not a bi-pattern rope. Some might question the added expense of getting a dry treated rope for top-roping. In addition to not taking on 5 pounds of water when you get caught in the rain dry treatments also help resist dirt and friction which adds both life and smoother handling. I pretty much only shop “dry” ropes these days despite the added cost.


Rope Bag

Arc’teryx Haku Rope Bag

Gear for Top Roping

Protect your investment in your climbing rope with the Cadillac of rope bags. This model has an integrated ground tarp and can compress the rope into a pack-able size when carrying a larger backpack to the crag.

Gear for Top Roping
Photo by Corey McMullen


Static Rope

1st Choice Sterling 7/16 in. WorkPro Static Rope 61m

Gear for Top Roping

2nd Choice Mammut Performance Static Rope 50m

If you will be top-roping anywhere that anchors are located a bit far back from the cliff edge you will need a static rope for extending your master-point out of the edge. Examples where static rope is helpful, if not necessary; Square Ledge, Pawtuckaway, Stonehouse Pond, Otter Cliffs, etc. Tubular and flat webbing IS NOT a substitute for static line as they both have enough stretch in them that they will quickly fray where they run over the cliff edge during repeated climbing cycles.


Cordelettes

Sterling PowerCord Cordelettes

Gear for Top Rope Climbing

I recommend 2 in the 5.5 meter (18 foot) length. I use the Flat Overhand Bend as my joining knot on these instead of the more traditional Double Fisherman so that they are easy to untie for more anchoring options. Most often they are deployed in a Quad construction, around a large tree, or in a pre-equalized 3 piece gear anchor.

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Corey McMullen

Slings

Black Diamond Nylon Slings

Gear for Top Rope Climbing

I’d recommend two 120 cm nylon slings and one 60 cm sling. The longer slings are most often deployed around medium size tree anchors, used in a pre-equalized fashion on two bolts, or as part of a larger more complex gear anchor, and will have two dedicated carabiners (see section below). The 60 cm sling is most often used in a “sliding-X” configuration.


Belay Devices

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Alexandra Roberts

Petzl Grigri+                   Black Diamond ATC Pilot                  Petzl Verso

The Petzl Grigri+ is a top-tier choice that comes with a bit of sticker shock. That said it is an incredibly well designed piece of gear. Check out my 1000+ word review of it here and decide for yourself! The new Black Diamond ATC Pilot is a much more affordable option that has a simple design and still includes a “brake enhancing” feature. My detailed review of that device is here. These two devices only accept one strand of rope so the classic Petzl Verso is carried for rappelling. Each of these will have a dedicated locking carabiner that works well with the device.


Carabiners

            Petzl Attache          Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner     Petzl William Ball-Lock

I put more thought into what carabiners I use and where than most. There are some designs out there that make more sense in certain places of your rope safety system. I carry 4 Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners , one Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner Screwgate, and one Petzl William Ball-Lock Carabiner.

For the master-point (where your climbing rope will be running). I use two dedicated Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners. Along with the red “unlocked” indicator these carabiners have a feature many people don’t realize. When used at the master point with gates reversed and opposed the grooves on the screw-gate are designed to lock into the ridges of the opposed carabiner when under even just a light load. This prevents them from vibrating into an unlocked state even during the longest top-rope session. Even curious hands (I take a lot of young kids climbing) wouldn’t be able to unlock these with the tension of the rope on the carabiners. These are “dedicated” to this purpose so they wear evenly and I’ll replace them once they show a few mm of wear.

I also use one of the Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners for my Petzl Grigri+. Call me OCD but I like the Petzl/Petzl match up here. Likewise I match my Black Diamond ATC Pilot with a Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner Screwgate… it fits perfectly. For my Petzl Verso I use the Petzl William Ball-Lock Carabiner. The wider rope end of a larger pear shaped carabiner allows smoother and less “kinking” rappels. I also like the auto-locking mechanism of the “Ball-Lock”, a much more secure design than some “2-action” auto-locking carabiners.


Helmet

         Petzl Boreo Helmet                                          Black Diamond Half Dome

Yes, I recommend a helmet for top rope climbing (despite using some images in this post of helmet-less heads). I won’t say I wear mine 100% of the time, but I always have it with me. If I am climbing or belaying it is on. If I’m hanging around directly under climbers I have it on. The two models I endorse as excellent all around lids are the new Petzl Boreo (full review here) and the iconic Black Diamond Half Dome.

Photo by Corey McMullen
Photo by Corey McMullen

Summary

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Alexandra Roberts

As I mentioned to start these are my top-tier choices. You can definitely save a bit of money by sacrificing some of the features I like, from dry treatment to middle marks, “brake enhancing” to unlock indicators. These are simply what I think are some of the best options in this category currently being offered. Please comment below with your own recommendations, ask me to clarify any of my choices, or just say hello!

In the coming months I hope to have a clearer picture of what you, my reader/follower, would like from Northeast Alpine Start. A recent Instagram poll revealed Tech Tips are more desired than Gear Reviews so I’m already working to add more skills to my growing list of Tech Tips. Feel free to comment or drop me a message on what you would like to see more of here!

 

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