These are advanced techniques that experienced climbers can use in the appropriate situations in order to cover huge chunks of terrain quickly.
Simul-climbing, in which both climbers are roped and moving simultaneously, is a useful strategy for easy ground. It affords some measure of protection to both climbers while still allowing rapid progress, and also lends itself to quick transitions into traditionally belayed climbing.
Simuling, like shortfixing and other speed climbing techniques, is a trade-off: you must sacrifice some of the safety margins of traditionally belayed pitches in order to gain speed and efficiency. Deciding, therefore, which belay system to use in any given situation is crucial to negotiating complex alpine terrain.
For some easy terrain, simply unroping is a better choice. The complications of placing gear and rope management make climbing more difficult, and there’s always the danger on low-angled looseness that the rope or the lead climber will dislodge rocks upon the follower. If both climbers unrope and simul-solo, they can stay close together, avoiding some self-inflicted rockfall danger, and continuously communicating about route-finding.
Simuling does provide a greater measure of safety than unroping, though, so it can be prudent when a fall is unlikely, but the consequences would be severe. Further, simuling is useful on varied terrain which presents isolated crux sections interspersed along easier ground. Being able to quickly transition between simuling and traditionally belayed pitches allows your team to safely navigate these complex cruxes and cruise across the easier rock.
Decide which climber will lead. The consequences of a follower fall are higher, with the leader being ripped off the wall and back to his last piece. If there’s a significant difference, then, the more skilled and confident climber should follow. The leader should carry the team’s pack, leaving the follower both more nimble and more able to manage the rope.
To allow for better communication, and less drag for the leader, I think it is preferable to simul with ~25-40m of rope between the two climbers. Sometimes on an easy climb, on which I plan only to simul, I’ll bring a short rope. More often, though, I’ll have my normal 60-70m line, and will need to shorten it. I do this by having the follower coil roughly half of the rope around his shoulder in a Mountaineer’s, or Kiwi, coil. The follower then uses a Grigri to adjust the length of rope out while simuling, making sure not to short-rope the leader, while also avoiding excess slack.
Jenni models the simul setup for the Follower. She’s tied in to the end of the rope with a Figure Eight. She then coiled ~20-30m of rope around her shoulder, and pulled it tight to a clove hitch on a wiregate on her belay loop. She then put the grigri on the rope, and keeps a bit of slack between the clove hitch and the grigri to quickly feed to the Leader, should he need it.
As mentioned above, one of the best aspects of simulclimbing is its flexibility at dealing with inconsistent climbing, mostly easy terrain with isolated cruxy bits. Again, communication is key: the leader should recognize the crux sections and alert the follower. If it’s literally one tricky move, the leader can hang a couple long slings off a bomber piece, allowing the follower to securely pull through. Another good option, especially slick when the follower has a Grigri, is the “mini-pitch”.
When the leader identifies a short section, two or three body-lengths, of difficult climbing, he can protect the follower through that terrain while still maintaining the simuling setup. When the follower reaches the crux section, the leader builds a bomber 1 or 2 piece mini-anchor, through which he clips the rope. The follower then climbs through the crux section, belaying himself on the now fixed rope by pulling slack through his Grigri. Once past the crux section, the team resumes simuling as before.
Transitioning to Traditional Belay
If, instead of a short cruxy section, the climbing becomes consistently more difficult, it will be prudent to transition to a traditional belay. The follower should find a good stance, and place a piece if necessary. He then pays out slack through the grigri to belay the leader, who simply continues climbing. The follower will need to uncoil the excess rope, allowing the leader to finish a full pitch.
Another option, faced with more difficult terrain, would be to transition to shortfixing.
Another speedclimbing technique, shortfixing was intended for a very different type of climbing than simuling, but has many similarities. Shortfixing was developed on the big, clean, aid-intensive Walls of Yosemite. Unlike Simuling, the ideal terrain for shortfixing is steep and featureless, often offering difficult climbing. Like Simuling, though, it solves the principal inefficiency of traditional belays: the fact that only one climber moves at any given time. It does this by having the follower ascend a fixed line while the leader continues above, self-belaying.
To start shortfixing, the leader begins a pitch as normal. Reaching the end of the pitch, after maybe 40m, the leader pulls up the remaining rope, maybe 20m, and builds a bomber, multi-directional anchor. He then fixes the rope to this anchor.
The follower can now jug (ascend the rope) and clean the pitch. The leader, instead of waiting around, begins to lead out above on the next pitch. He does this by belaying himself with a Grigri or similar self-belay device.
Once the follower reached the end of the first pitch, he can but the leader onto a traditional belay and unfix the rope. The leader finishes his lead, and then repeats the process by again pulling up rope, fixing, and leading out.
Shortfixing exploits the fact that, often on aid leads, leading takes much longer than jugging. In the time it takes for the follower to jug and clean the entire previous pitch, the leader will have probably only made 10-15 meters of progress. In the event that the leader does reach the end of his rope before the follower is able to finish jugging, he must wait.
Of course, with the leader going continuously, he doesn’t get the chance for the traditional gear swap-over at the belay, and thus has a few options:
-He can begin his lead block with a large amount of gear, hopefully for him to finish a good long lead block. On routes with a lot of fixed gear, like El Cap trade route, its useful to bring many extra quickdraws, and even single biners.
-He can drop a loop of rope to tag up gear. If he is roughly 10-20m into the new lead, he can build an anchor, go off-belay, and pull up all the slack in the rope. He then tossed a loop down to the follower to retrieve gear. Obviously this is not a great solution; it’s time consuming, and in high wind or on traversing pitches it can be impossible.
-The team can climb with a tag line, a light extra line trailed by the leader. On many climbs two ropes are a good idea, or a necessity, to allow for easier descent/escape. This is the idea for gear-intensive aid leads, too, since it allows the leader to begin a pitch without all the gear he might potentially need.
Anchors are always crucial, but in shortfixing they may face additional demands. The leader must build a BOMBER, MULTIDIRECTIONAL anchor, since the follower will be jugging on it, and at the same time the leader will be using it in his self-belay system. On El Cap trade routes, where shortfixing is a popular technique, anchors usually sport 2-3 fatty bolts, making this simple.
With a two bolt setup, I like to use just two biners, either one or both being lockers. The followers end should be clove-hitched to one bolt. Leave a foot or so of slack*, and then tie a figure-eight on-a-bight and clip to the other bolt. If there’s a third bolt, clip it with a quickdraw and make it the first piece of the new lead.
If building an anchor, set a couple pieces oriented in the direction of pull for the follower (usually straight down), and the followers end to them. Then set a couple multi-direction or upward-pull pieces, and clove hitch to that as well (again, leaving a bit of slack*). Bomber, ready to go!
*The slack prevents one climber from pulling on the other, if for example the leader falls or weights the rope, it won’t yank the follower around.
Uses of Shortfixing
As I’ve said, shortfixing is primarily a technique used on big, clean aid-intensive climbs. This is certainly a great application, but I do think it’s a useful technique for free-climbers to know as well. It provides greater protection than simuling does, and still allows the team to move together. When freeclimbing, the follower can self-belay up a pitch with a Grigri, which is often easier than jugging on less-than-vertical, ledgey terrain.
Also, the leader can choose to forgo self-belaying with a Grigri on easy freeclimbing ground, simply climbing off the anchor with a huge loop of slack hanging between him and it. This is known sardonically as the “Pakistani Death Loop”. He will still have some measure of protection: his ~20m loop of rope is tied off to the anchor, and so he will be eventually caught in the event of a fall. If he’s clipping pro along his lead, he’s becoming progressively safer. A good compromise solution would be to use a grigri right off the belay, when the fall onto a 20m loop would be the worst, and then removing the device once he’s placed a few good pieces.
Now that we’ve covered both techniques, I’m sure you see how easy it would be to utilize both on a long climb. For example: You’re simuling on easy terrain, and then encounter a more difficult section. When the follower reached the beginning of the difficult section, both climbers find good stances, and the leader pulls up all of the excess rope. He then fixes the rope, allowing the follower to jug or self-belay, and then the leader continues leading above.
Now get out there and SEND!
A Serious Disclaimer
Everything discussed on this page is for advanced, experienced climbers who are looking for creative ways to climb faster. These techniques sacrifice some of the safety margins enjoyed with a traditional belay. For most climbers, by far the most effective and safe way to get faster is simply to train and gain experience. Even with this tricks, the most important aspects to speed are confidence and skill. Place solid gear quickly, move confidently above it, manage the rope well, communicate effectively. Then, maybe, start to explore these techniques.
Try these at your own risk, and don’t blame me when you die.