Multi Pitch Climbing Basics and Tips

Rock climbing up big walls to exposed summits is an incredible and surreal experience. After years and years of training, it feels great to finally achieve a goal and soak up a view that you’ve been dreaming of. Multi pitch rock climbing is on many climber’s bucket list, but there’s a lot more complexity that goes into it than your typical day of bouldering at the gym.

If you’ve been considering trying out trad climbing or a multi pitch route, take a few minutes to prepare your adventure with our guide here. We’ve taken our years of rock climbing experience and training to give you a head start for multi pitches.

Table of Contents

What is a pitch in climbing?

In rock climbing, a pitch is a way to refer to a section of the route. A pitch will end at a fixed set of anchors like a tree, bolts, or a crack system where you can build an anchor using traditional climbing gear.

The length of a pitch usually takes up the entire rope. But rope length isn’t the only factor that will determine a pitch. The end of a pitch will usually be at a small ledge where you can stand or sit comfortably.

Climbing a single pitch on top rope

In multi pitch climbing, there will be multiple pitches in the route. Usually, these pitches will follow continuously up the formation. But sometimes there is wandering and traversing on the route.

If your rope is long enough, you can combine pitches into one long mega pitch. In the early days of climbing, most climbers used a rope that was 40 meters or less. Today, it’s common to see ropes that are 70, 80 or even 90m. You can climb an epic pitch with a long rope.

What is single pitch climbing?

If you’ve ever been to a climbing gym and seen the rope running up to the top of the wall and then back down to the ground. Then you have seen a single pitch. Single pitch routes are routes that climb up to a set of anchors and then immediately back down to the ground.

The length of single pitch climbs will vary. A single pitch could be as short as 30 feet or as long as 200 feet. The main takeaway here is that the length of a climb doesn’t determine the number of pitches, just where the anchors are

What is multi pitch climbing?

Multi pitch climbing is a stack of pitches on top of another. On a multi pitch route, you reach the end of a pitch, belay your partner up and then rack up to take on the next pitch. A multi pitch route will follow a formation or series of cracks in the rock up to the top.

In North America, a majority of the multi pitch routes involve trad climbing and rappelling. But there are many new routes being developed that are entirely bolted.

Multi pitch crack climbing!

How to prepare for a multi pitch climb

There’s already a lot of risk to account for when you go rock climbing. But on a multi pitch climb, there is more risk and sometimes you may be a few hours away from getting back to the parking lot. That means we need to know exactly what we’re getting into and take proper precautions to protect us.

Pre Rock Climbing Checklist

  • Get route beta and figure out equipment needed
  • Check times for sunset and sunrise
  • Monitor weather forecast starting 10 days out
  • Figure out if there is cell phone service or if satellite phone is needed
  • Pack climbing rack, food, and water night before
  • Notify friends or family of you’re climbing location and when you expect to be back in contact with them

Thanks to sites like Mountain Project and Rakkup, it’s a lot easier to find beta for rock climbing. Guidebooks are an excellent resource as well since they will typically have higher quality photographs than what is uploaded online. Use these resources to identify the route, figure out what protection you need, and how to get down from the climb. You can print out these resources to bring in your pocket or take screenshots on your phone to have handy. The mountain project app also lets you download routes for offline use.

Check the times for sunrise and sunset and set a time for a hard stop. Descending in the dark can lead to accidents and it will take longer to hike than in the daylight. If it’s getting dark and your debating whether to lead the next pitch or to start rappelling, opt for the rappel.

Check the weather forecast and radars to get a weather forecast. At ten days out you’ll have a general idea on the forecast and it will keep improving as you get closer. Don’t be on the wall with a lightning storm in the forecast.

Find out ahead of time if there is cell phone service at the climbing area. If there’s an accident and you need to make a call, you don’t want to find out that there’s no cell service while trying to call. If there is no service, keep a satellite phone like a Garmin InReach in your backpack for emergencies.

Finally, let your family and friends know where you’ll be climbing and set a time when you expect to be checking in with them. Don’t end up like the guy in 127 Hours. Give a heads up to someone in your life where you’ll be. If you don’t have anyone, ask your partner to do the same, use the forum feature on mountain project as a place to check in, or email us here at ORB. We’ll be here to check in on you.

What happens after you lead a pitch?

A huge difference on a multi pitch climb is that after leading a pitch, the lead climber is responsible for building an anchor and belaying the second climber up to the anchor. This is a big responsibility for the leader. You need to be competent building anchors and belaying from above properly.

At the anchor, there will either be bolts or opportunities for placing gear to build your anchor. For bolts, the quad is a great option and a three piece trad anchor is a minimum. The below videos have some helpful information. But reach out to your local climbing guides to get proper training.

Three piece traditional climbing anchor
Building a quad anchor on bolts

Once the anchor is built, the lead climber will secure themselves to it. Using a one handed clove hitch is perfect for this scenario. Once the leader is in direct, they will call down to their climbing partner to take them off belay. Now the leader can begin pulling up the rope and stacking it.

Managing the rope at the anchor

Keeping an orderly and belay station is helpful from a safety standpoint, it prevents rope from hitting rock down below and helps you quickly identify the climber and brake ends. But it also just looks nice and will make you proud to look at. You can either flake the rope into a pile or coil the rope over a taut line at a hanging belay.

Demonstrating poor rope management

Swing Leads vs Block Leading

The difference between swinging leads and leading blocks is that swinging leads means that the lead climber will switch each pitch, while in block leading one climber will lead multiple pitches in a row.

What is a follower in climbing?

In a multi pitch climb, there are two different jobs that the climbers serve. The first one is the lead climber. The lead climber climbs first, places gear, and eventually builds the anchor. The follower is the climber who belays the leader and climbs after the leader. The follower will remove the protection from the wall and bring it up to the belay station.

Trad vs Sport Multi Pitch Climbing

When I think of multi pitch climbing, I always associate it with trad climbing. But that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s true that every multi pitch route has been a trad climb, but there are many new climbs popping up that are entirely bolted like a sport route. Multi pitch sport climbing paradises like El Potrero Chico in Mexico do exist.

The reason that a majority of multi pitch routes are trad routes is because it’s a lot of work and expensive to a hike a drill and bolts up a large rock face. And if you aren’t using a drill, then you’re going to be spending 30 minutes to drill the bolt by hand. If a route can be adequately protected using traditional gear, then many climbers are perfectly fine with leaving it as a trad route.

What gear do I need for a multi-pitch climb?

You’ll need your belay devices, rappel device, climbing rope, and climbing protection. Use the guidebook and other online resources to get a good idea of the gear beta for the route. I’m a big fan of carrying approach shoes for the hike, but they can be annoying to clip on the harness or stuff in a backpack.

It’s also a good idea to carry a windbreaker and cell phone or Garmin InReach. It can be chilly sitting around belaying so it’s nice to have an additional lightweight layer to throw on if it gets too cold.

What do I do if there’s an emergency while multi pitch climbing?

The best option here is to prevent a bad situation from happening. Do your homework on the route beta, check the weather, and make the right call to get out of dodge if your gut tells you to.

But accidents happen and when they do, stay calm and focus on preventing the situation from getting any worse. If you have to set up bail anchors and leave gear, leave multiple pieces of protection for the rappel anchor. Rappelling off one piece can quickly turn things catastrophic.

Reach out to other climbers that are on the wall and ask for their assistance. If they’re in shouting distance, try and get their attention and alert them that you need help. If you can get in contact with another party you can get help and leave the wall.

If there’s not another soul near you, break out your cell phone or satellite phone to make a call and get help. Do your homework ahead of time to find out if there will be cell service at the climbing area. And if you aren’t sure if there’s service or not, bring the satellite phone anyway just in case.

Practicing Multi Pitch Climbing

Before you depart on your first multi pitch climb, it’s crucial to practice skills at ground level. If you’re the leader, your second and third climbers are trusting you to protect them. You owe it to them to be competent.

A quad anchor can be practiced on closet shelving, just clip in two carabiners to act as the bolts of the anchor. One you have your quad built, take out your belay device to practice belaying from above.

Practicing skills on the ground

To get experience on rock, find a more experienced climbing partner who can show you the ropes. Let them know that you’re training for your first multi pitch climb and you’re happy to drive and pay for food after. Show up stoked and many climbers will be happy to mentor you.

Finally, hiring an experienced climbing guide is an incredible experience. I have learned a ton from other climbing guides.

How do you get down when climbing?

Descending from a multi pitch rock climb is more involved and time consuming than a single pitch climb. You will be more than one climbing rope length from the ground. A descent could involve multiple rappels or hours of hiking.

Study the descent beta ahead of time. Find out if you need two ropes for rappelling or if one will suffice. Always tie knots in the end of the rope and double and triple check every system before you trust it.

Walk offs are common in some climbing areas like Red Rock, Nevada. But these can be just as dangerous since getting off route could get you cliffed up. And if you’re climbing all day, there’s a good chance you’ll be hiking into the night. Bring headlamps.

How do I multi pitch climb with more than two people?

It’s possible to multi pitch climb with two or even three climbers following. In these scenarios, you’ll be utilizing techniques like caterpillar or pair to manage your followers. Proper rope management is much more important with more people since adding an additional rope in them mix increases your chances of twists and knots.

Caterpillar Climbing Technique

In a caterpillar scenario, your climbers will climb one at a time. The leader will usually be tied in to two ropes and the followers will be tied into the ends of those ropes.

If Climber A leads the first pitch, the next to climb will be Climber B. Climber B will climb up to the anchor and once they reach the anchor, Climber C will begin their ascent.

Pair Climbing Technique

In a pair climbing scenario, both of the two climbers will be climbing at the same time. Climber A leads the pitch, then Climber B and Climber C will start climbing next. It’s good to offset these climbers by about 10-15 feet and to tell them to keep that distance between them while they climb.

Frequently asked questions

Do you need two ropes for multi pitch climbing?

You do not need two ropes for multi pitch climbs but some routes do require multiple ropes for rappelling back to the ground.

What does pitch mean in climbing?

A pitch is a way to refer to a section of the route and will end at a fixed set of anchors like a tree, bolts, or a crack system

What are the risks of multi pitch climbing?

Since a multi pitch climb is higher off the ground, it will take longer to get back to the ground in the event of bad weather or other accident.