From Poughkeepsie, NY
Nov 22, 2012
U.S. mountains are generally bigger and more remote than the British versions. In some places (e.g. the Sierra) the weather is better, but in others (e.g. the Cascades) it can be just as bad. Getting lost in a bog is not a feature of many U.S. excursions, and many of U.S. ranges are so open that a map (and no compass) suffices for most navigation.
The U.S. also has areas with generally mild weather but long routes (Yosemite, Red Rocks) that provide superb transitional training for the mountain environment, places where one can hone the mechanics of moving efficiently without usually being severely punished by the environment when the inevitable learning screw-ups bring darkness on. It makes sense for the single-pitch climber to avail themselves of these locales first to dial their procedures, while realizing that the mild weather still gives them leeway they won't have in the mountains.
The transition from little crags to big routes involves several ingredients, but surely the primary one is speed, which itself has several components.
First, there is speed on easy to moderate ground. Often, people trained exclusively on hard single-pitch routes are not initially comfortable climbing and downclimbing exposed third or fourth-class ground unroped. Pitching out terrain where experienced parties move unroped or simultaneously will add massive delays.
The easy ground itself, with patches of rubble, ice, and snow can be unfamiliar enough to delay climbers whose primary experience is with high-level fifth-class rock. There are skills involved in easy climbing, and they are not trained by climbing 5.10 and above for one or two pitches.
Climbing simultaneously on moderate ground with strategic breaks to belay tricky spots, using properly braced but possibly unanchored belay stances, is something no one learns anymore on single pitches since the demise of the hip belay. Pausing to set up a three-point cordelette-equalized anchor each time this has to be done is a prescription for an unplanned bivouac.
So one recommendation is, do a bunch of very moderate routes in the mountains first and get comfortable on easy ground.
Turning to real multipitch climbing, the biggest hurdle for craggers is efficiency. This means everything from selecting the right piece of pro the first time, building and rigging belay anchors efficiently, and especially managing transitions at belay stances, which can consume a lot of time when done poorly. One test of efficiency is whether both climbers are always fully occupied with essential tasks at the stances. Any time one climber is waiting around without doing anything or having anything to do, time is being wasted.
Actually climbing fast is the province of speed climbers, but economy of movement, not fiddling around with pro and not going up and down at difficult spots matters. A lot of this can be practiced on crags if the team makes the effort. I recommend routes two number grades below maximum onsight ability for practice terrain and as an upper limit for initial mountain attempts.
Another part of the speed equation is routefinding skill. Of course, if you are following a thousand-foot crack, this is not much of a problem, but on jumbled alpine terrain, it can make or break the ascent. I don't know any way to develop this other than by climbing in the mountains, and in all honesty it seems to me that some people never learn it, and some are just better at it than others. In any case, there seems to be no substitute for experience, since correlating the distant view with the particulars of the close-up experience requires trial and error.
Much of the above applies to speed on the descent as well, with the addition of efficient rappelling technique. It shouldn't take you forever setting up, pulling, threading, and throwing your rappel.
Given that the party is not going to be appropriately fast at first, and in view of the fact that shit happens anyway, there is no excuse for not getting the earliest possible start. If you aren't having breakfast in the dark, you've already begun to screw up.
How much stuff to bring is a very tricky question. Carrying too much can doom the party to a bivouac, which although they may be prepared for, still exposes them to the vagaries of the environment for far longer. There are far too many factors to lay down hard and fast rules, but remember that the "light is right" mantra is often used by very experienced climbers who are also willing to take huge risks. Extreme minimalism for more conservative and less experienced people is a dangerous trap. Don't try to be Ueli Steck unless you are Ueli Steck, but don't overload yourself with everything but the kitchen sink. A good way to get a sense about what to carry is to look at a reputable mountain guide service's recommendations for what clients should bring for the season in question and build from there.
At the end of the day, you just have to go out and do it. I sometimes think that those of us who started on easy mountaineering and worked their way up to hard rock climbing had an advantage in that we got our practice in on easy ground when the terrain itself was exciting, we had no illusions about how good we were, and we weren't steeped in the now-elaborate safety procedures of modern crag climbing, at least some of which have to be modified or abandoned to be safe in the mountains.