The Basic (+ some) Skills of Multi-Pitching

Multi-Pitching - the art of climbing multiple pitches i.e. rope lengths. Think of a caterpillar climbing up a wall.

By Ryan Peel (1on1 Adventures)

What: Multi-Pitching – the art of climbing multiple pitches i.e. rope lengths. Think of a caterpillar climbing up a wall. Head first, arse follows and repeat. Sometimes you get to be the head, sometimes you’re the arse. Or you can just always be the arse when you’re learning!

Why: Adventure. Pure, committed adventure at its finest. And that’s sort of the problem – its committing! You really need the skills and plan to back up the attitude and desire.

When: The best decision you can make is to invest in yourself – get good quality gear AND formal training/experiences from an instructor or guide. Learning from a friend is obviously the age-old method… but if things don’t make sense, feel unsafe or are just too complicated for you, listen to that voice and seek professional help. It’s one thing to perform a skill, but a whole other ball game to teach that skill. Learn from a teacher.

Where: For your first few multi-pitch routes, it is wise to choose routes that are WELL within your climbing grade. Not more than one to two pitches and (if possible) have the option to walk off at the top. Abseiling back down adds complexity that you might not be ready for just yet. Be patient and be ok with small victories.

How: Let’s have a look at some basic concepts, but first a few words from our sponsors…

Route guide/description

• Pay good attention to this. Understand the definition of faces, corners, cubby holes, arêtes and dihedrals. Figure out how to get down once finished. Have this with you for the climb – printed or digitally on your phone (for big mountains I do both). Have a look on Google Images for your climb – it’s amazing what you can find and it really helps to have visual references to keep you on route. Take note of the climbs “next door” or variations; easier = possible escape route, harder = DON’T GO THERE!


• Check the weather report before you go and keep an eye out for any approaching storms. If in doubt – get out!


• Allocate a fair (+ some extra) amount of time for the route. One hour per pitch is a reasonable guideline. For big mountains with four or more pitch routes, headlamps with spare batts are a really good idea.

Food & water

• No one likes a grumpy climber. Pack some kos and throw in a bottle of water. The bottle must be bomber and crush proof. Nalgenes for the win here! PRO TIP – rehydration sachets in your first aid kit are a lifesaver for someone feeling flat.

Accessory gear

• Cell phones – each person should have a phone or some means of communication to contact Mountain Search & Rescue or the people that are waiting for you – you did tell someone where you are going and what time you should be back, right?

• Radios are simply awesome for multi pitching, I use them all the time. The Zartek TX-8s are great!

• Rain jacket – wind and rain should almost be expected. Plan for it and enjoy that feeling of “thank goodness I brought this along”.

• Back packs – try to get a bag specifically made for CLIMBING. The handles and straps are reinforced to take the extra load and abuse. The last thing you want is your handle breaking when you clip it to the anchor.

• Sunblock, sunglasses, Buff and belay gloves (in winter) are my standard.

• Knife for random things like cutting open your lunch or trimming a torn finger nail – you never know.

First aid kit (AND SKILLS )

• Get on a first aid course and pack your own first aid kit with the guidance of someone who knows what works and what doesn’t for your activity / potential situations. Luck favours the prepared! are my go-to guys.

And then the usual kit…

Helmets (yes, go buy a climbing-specific helmet please)

Harnesses with cowtails (usually a 80cm sling with a locking carabiner girth-hitched to your two tie-in points)

Draws (take a few extra in case someone fumbles a few down the mountain – it happens)

Rope or ropes – single ropes will be ok if the route is short and you are planning to walk off; doubles should be used for any abseiling, parties of three, and wandering/traversing routes.

• Anchor gear x 2 (my go-to is the quad with two locking carabiners)

• Assisted-braking belay devices, with guide mode ability x 2

• Three extra locking carabiners per person.

• Prusiks x 2 on another locking carabiner, per person (I like to take one short, one long). Why? For abseiling-autoblocks, ascending rope, and assisting partner up (hoists).

Step #1 – The partner check

Repeat this in your head 

“Never shall I ever skip a partner check”

“Never shall I ever skip a partner check”

“Never shall I ever skip a partner check”

What are we checking? 

  • Helmet and harness are on properly
  • Cowtail is tied properly
  • Rope/s are tied to the right place on harness (waist and leg loops)
  • Figure 8 knot/s are good

This needs to be done on both people! Both people need to be tied in at the ground.

For the belayer you also need to check:

  • Carabiner is clipped to the right place (belay loop) 
  • Squeeze test the carabiner to ensure it’s locked.
  • Belay device is threaded correctly and passes a “tug test

Belayer now makes sure leader has all the necessary gear (e.g. Enough draws? Quad? Extra locking carabiners?)

Step #2 – Making yourself safe at the top of a pitch

Firstly, CHECK WHAT YOU ARE CLIPPING INTO. Inspect the bolts and rock they are attached to. 

Now there are many different ways of making yourself safe using these two bolts – I prefer and teach the quad + cowtail method. Quick + simple + effective = Safe.

But it is not the only method you should know – climb long enough and you will, one day, end up at an anchor without it (you accidentally dropped it or forgot it with the second/follower). Using the rope as the anchor is also a necessary back-up skill to have. 

Step #3 – Communication 

Communication is super important now – loud and clear, with no chance of miscommunication. I have found the best is:

    Climber: “OFF BELAY!”  

    Belayer: “BELAY OFF”

The British use the term “SAFE”, but to me it can sound an awful lot like “SLACK”. Not a disaster if we confuse the two, but it’s going to cause some hiccups later and waste time.

Step #4 – Belay device 

Get your belay device locked and loaded now into the quad (direct method – see below). You don’t want to be fumbling with the rope in one hand and your device in the other. Murphy is always watching and waiting! Never put gear in your mouth, under your chin or in your armpit. Golden rule here – work with one thing at a time and focus!

Step #5 – Stacking the rope

Plan A: Most of the time you are going to be standing on a nice, comfy ledge with lots of space to stand and stack the rope. Stack the rope in a neat pile and push it flat as you go. Ropes like a spaghetti pile – don’t make circles or fig 8 patterns. 

Plan B: Not so lucky – the stance is hanging or the ledge is barely enough for your feet and you are going to have to get creative with the rope. Lots of methods here, but let’s just speak about the most common plan B – the lap coil. Start close to you and go from long loops to slightly shorter. THIS TAKES PRACTICE!!! Don’t think you will pull this off on the day without practising it a few times.

Pull up all the rope until it goes tight. 

Bottom climber shouts: “THAT’S ME!” when it’s tight on their end.

Top climber now gives 2 meters of slack. Trust me, the last thing you want is the lower climber now assuming he is on belay because the rope is tight. GIVE SLACK and take it up later.

Step #6 – Belaying from above

Now you need to get your climber onto belay. There are three techniques here:

  • Direct belay with a guide mode device – Belaying directly off your anchor/quad with a “guide mode device”. This is the gold standard common practice method nowadays, for a reason. 
  • Re-direct belay* – Belaying from harness with the rope going up through the quad/anchor, down to your climber with a re-direct. If you do not have a guide mode device – this is your only option, along with…
  • In-direct belay* – Belaying from your harness with the rope going straight down to your climber.

*These methods do have some advantages but also some serious drawbacks/dangers and should only be used in very specific circumstances. Get training and understand the pros and cons of each. I personally do use all three methods, but choose the one best suited to my position/circumstance/anchor/climber. 

Once you have made your decision, get the rope installed correctly into the belay device AND DOUBLE-CHECK EVERYTHING FROM THE TOP!!! All the carabiners are locked on quad, belay device, cowtail. Belay device is threaded correctly (check with a tug test). Take up slack gently and check your belay system is all good. Not happy with something? Twisted device? Fix it now and then test it again.

Top climber (now belayer) shouts: “BELAY ON! CLIMB WHEN READY!”

Bottom climber: “CLIMBING!”

Belayer: “CLIMB ON!” 

Pro-Tip: Belayers, don’t yank too hard on the ropes while the climber is on the way up. Sure, tighter is better at the start, but as they climb, feel the rope/climber and be gentle. Trust the climber to shout “CLIMBING!” if the rope is not tight enough. If you hear “TAKE!” by all means, pull tight and let your partner feel ultra secure. 

Pro-Tip: Understand your device and make sure you know how to, safely…

  • Give slack with no tension on rope
  • Give slack with tension on rope (usually a different method than above)
  • Lower your climber a long distance – possibly back to the ground or the previous stance
  • Help/assist your climber up – some cool skills here: vector pulls and assisted hoists. Remember that paragraph about “get good training”? DO IT. DO IT NOW.

As your climber gets up to you and the stance, make sure they clip their cowtail to the right place on the anchor, and take them off belay only when safe to do so.

Step #7 – Swapping leads vs block leading

Now that you are both at the stance and high fives are flying, the time has come to decide who is climbing next…

In terms of rope work, it’s easiest to swap leads. Other person climbs the next pitch. If not and the arse wants to stay the arse – O OH PROBLEM! You need to flip the rope. The rope is upside down – the wrong person is on top. You need to get the leader on top. 

Go from the belayer’s end of the rope and patiently flake the rope to a new spot on the ledge. Sure you can just pick up and pancake-flip the rope and hope – might work, might lead to a mess. I prefer to take the time to flake properly and save time later. Never be in a rush to sort out the rope.

Step #8 – Avoiding the FACTOR 2 FALL


Plan A: If you are lucky, the bolter would have placed a bolt really close to the stance, so close that the leader can simply clip the lead rope even before you leave the stance. Super safe. But it’s rare.

Plan B: Most routes are not like that. Bolts are expensive or the climbing might be super easy. You should consider clipping one of the bolts of the anchor to safe guard against a factor 2 fall. But it can lead to more drag for the leader later on. Once the leader is a few bolts up on the route – the belayer can simply unclip the rope from that cautionary draw/carib from the anchor and free up some friction/rope drag for the leader.

Plan C,D,E: There are some other very creative ways. Get some training!

Pro-Tip: BEWARE THE MULTI-PITCH BELAY FACE PLANT COMING. Imagine you are in the gym, giving a nice soft catch to your falling climber. You jump up perfectly timed, shoot up to the first draw and everyone around you is watching thinking “what a catch!”. Sorry, that is not going to happen on a multi-pitch stance; your cowtail will indirectly force your face against the wall above the anchor. It’s not pretty and its going to be the hardest catch your climber has ever felt. Be prepared to get piledrived into the wall; – if/when it happens, put your free hand in front of your face and hold on to that break stand with everything you have! It’s going to be a wild ride, but if you are prepared for it, it is a controllable, unfortunate situation. There are methods to avoid this, but that’s a long debate for another time. I would seriously consider using the Edelrid Ohm in this case, if climber was 10kg+ heavier than me.

Ryan 1on1Adventures
Ryan 1on1Adventures

Adventure Guide & Skills Trainer


  1. Some points:
    1. The leader should never leave the ground without everyone tied in.
    2. Cow tails are unneccessary if you are climbing as a party of two. Use the rope. They clutter your harness.
    3. The best way to learn multipitch is with someone who does it all the time and is experienced. I do not agree that it is best to learn from an instuctor or guide. Their methodology involves a lot of the “book” which is a requirement for their certification and so on. But it then also involves a lot of redundency including carrying all those heavy unneccessary cordelletes, biners and other equipment like radios. Multipitch climbing is all about weight and speed and common sense I.e. efficiency. I also find that instructors and guides often find it difficult to get out of that guiding mode and you will never learn to climb (trad) multipitch efficiently that way and especially the building of minimalist but safe stances. For exampe sitting down on a ledge is part of making a safe stance and as good as a really good cam placement. So your butt placed firmly with a single bomber placement can suffice.

    It is fine to the instructed in the basics but then go an be mentored with an experienced climber that will trim the fat and then go climb with your mates and fashion your own simpler and fast methods.

    Also learning that way (like with experienced MCSA members) is free.

    • Hey Snort, thanks for weighing in. I always enjoy these type of conversations and think the community can benefit from them – and it keeps me on my toes.

      1. The leader should never leave the ground without everyone tied in.
      Yip agreed, and I covered that in Step 1 – The Partner Check.

      2. Cow tails are unneccessary if you are climbing as a party of two. Use the rope. They clutter your harness.
      Pros and Cons of each. I personally teach the cowtail method – as a base level skill, as the students should already use them and be comfortable with them from the other areas of rope work skills like Cleaning Anchors, Extending Abseil Devices, etc. Using the rope is definitely a necessary skill to have – I just feel that method should be learnt little further down the line. Hence it was left out of this article.

      3. The best way to learn multipitch is with someone who does it all the time and is experienced. I do not agree that it is best to learn from an instructor or guide.
      Let’s agree to disagree. My opinion/view is that Guides/Instructors are in some or other way vetted against theoretical and practical assessments. Someone who just does something all the time SHOULD get better, will HOPEFULLY learn as they go and will MAYBE develop the “best way” to do a particular skill. Or maybe they won’t and they just keep scraping by with their old methods served with a dangerous dash of “unconscious incompetence”. Agreed it is an option – But that is ultimately up to the leaner to decide I guess. I just hope they make an educated guess and learn from someone like you, who really knows what they are doing.

      If you want to chat further please PM me. I hope to one day have the privilege of sharing a rope with you in Yellowwood. And if you’re in the north and looking for a partner please shoot me a msg. It would be an honour. Thank you.

      • Hey Ryan you welcome to join up YW or Blouberg anytime. Hope to see you here soon!

        Some more tips for anyone interested in efficiencies from a FOS* old school goat :

        I see the use of a Jul in the photos. Quite frankly this is probably the safest belay device at present. It is unneccessary to use it in guide mode and very difficult to feed the rope. Better to use it in normal mode attached by biner to your belay loop but re-directed through an anchor above or near you.

        If I look at the photos of the anchors. Each one shows a complex system with like 3 heavy locking biners and a cordellette with 3 complex knots – a fisherman and two figure eights. This uses a huge amount of rope and expensive and heavy biners. It is just as safe and arguably more so if you rather use clove hitches whether you use a separate cordellete, a sling or you climbing rope. This allows for quick and easy length adjustment and the clove actually tightens on the biner which will prevent it coming off even if the biner is not locking and somehow opens. If you are extremely proficient (at guiding people) then sure this system works but it is unneccesarily complex and difficult to teach and learn.

        A useful device that saves time and is worth its weight is a micro-traction. But to explain its uses here is a bit too difficult. However it is very useful for ascending a rope, belaying a second, self belaying when following, and hauling a bag or in rescues.

        A shunt is also useful! And especially as it can be fitted to double ropes.

        A figure eight is a very complex double knot and really does not have to be backed up with a fishermans or hitches or a very long tail (which I feed back into a loop of the figure of eight to get it out the way.) These back-up knots take time to do and undo, and interfere with clipping draws and a fisherman’s that is not tight up against the primary knot can be a great hinderence with clipping. People are TAUGHT this with the fisherman’s up to 30cm away from the primary knot. This knot also can fall through the biner of a draw as you climb past and cause a major problem. Again it is an unneccessary redundency.

        One of the important lessons is that of equalizing points. This is not neccessary in most cases as long as their is not huge slack in the system. An experienced climber at least on trad will be satisfied with two “bomber” points more or less equalized with the rope using clove hitches. Then preferably sit down facing outwards or away from the sun and belay from the belay loop with a directional to add friction or direct the rope away from an edge. In the very very very rare instance where the belayer needs to escape the belay a microtraction or a prussic knot can be used to anchor the rope to allow escape. In 43 years of climbing I have never had to escape the belay but I do have a plan if I need to. Sitting down allows rest and comfort. It can be a long day if you are standing belaying off anchors above waist height!

        In mulitpitch it is always better to haul your extra stuff using a thin 6mm tag line and a microtraction. That extra line can be used for escape, extra slings and even abseiling. Very useful indeed. And in so doing you climb more freely and effortlessly.

        I can go on and on but enuf is enuf, heh?

        Locking biners (the smallest and lightest) you can find are a must for your approach shoes. Or tie them on to your harness. Lost one at Krakadouw once and Andy Court lost one at Blouberg.

        Always have some finger tape with you and roll some on to a biner or nut pick. This is if you damage the rope mantel.

        One more thing, Jul’s require a nice thick biner to bite. Small lockers are no good.

        * FOS (full of shit)

  2. Thanks Snort… Ja the tips and tricks of “How Best” to multipitch are never ending and infinitely flexible/dynamic to the particular situation the climber will find themselves in. Tools in the toolbox.

    Lets keep in mind I was asked to keep this article short, basic and beginner friendly. Also asked myself while writing this – If someone were to try multi pitch using just this article and going with exactly what all my photos and wording say to do – If they were to try the rope anchor skill – I would REALLY want them use this fig 8 method. Easy for any climber to check the knots are good – as you say, not the easiest, definitely not the quickest – but most certainly the easiest to check. Which equals safer (and I can sleep at night). I don’t teach that fig 8 method in person – as you say – clove hitches here are the clear winners hands down! And a carabiner master point with a girth hitch is also a super cool and simple trick to know. Tools in the toolbox. But I also want to sleep at night and felt that this method, for THIS ARTICLE is was best choice to show/picture.

    YES BLOUBERG is next on my radar. But first my heart is set on Energy Crisis and a few others at Wolfberg.

    Can we stop typing now and go climbing 😉

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