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Rope Commands for Multi-pitch Climbing   

Tagged in: Alpine Climbing, Multi-pitch, Skills, Trad Climbing
by Topher Donahue
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Silent Communication 

Whaaaat?!” is the word most commonly spoken on multi-pitch climbs, where river noise, wind, acoustics, and helmets and stocking caps make it difficult, if not impossible, to use traditional verbal belay signals. If I had $100 for every time I’ve watched a team wasting time or bungling things up by miscommunicating, I’d own this magazine. Though some climbers use small, two-way radios, this isn’t the best option if you’re broke or going light. With a partner you know well, the best solution is a silent communication system. This method is probably safer than yelling in crowded areas like the Diamond of Longs Peak on a weekend, as it can prevent accidents such as your partner hearing a different leader shout “Off belay!” and taking you off mid-pitch. Use the following tips to help dial in your silent-communication skills.

Let the rope talk. If you familiarize yourself with the patterns of rope movement, you can climb safely without ever saying a word. Notice how the rope moves during the different phases of a climb. It will move differently when the climber is leading, with irregular speed and periods of no movement that are unlike the rhythmic tugging of a belay.

Three tugs to safety. Even the most experienced climbers should discuss the specifics before leaving the ground. Be consistent in the number — and timing — of tugs you use to communicate with each other. Use three sharp tugs for “Off belay,” and three more tugs for “On belay.” Never confuse three tugs with the leader clipping a piece or struggling with a high step. If you’re unsure, wait for the leader to try to pull up the extra rope, in which case she’ll realize that the rope is still through the belay and will respond with three more tugs (figure 1). If both climbers are paying attention, signals for “Climbing” and “Climb on” are unnecessary, because pulling on the rope will reveal the second’s movement.

The other signals. “Slack” is hard to communicate, but is still possible with sensitive hands. A gentle pull usually means that the second is stepping down and needs slack: Feed the rope out slowly and be ready to catch a fall. A fall will often be obvious (a sharp tug on the rope), but may be masked by rope drag, so don’t continually feed out rope if you’re unsure. “Up rope” is best relayed with a single hard tug, while “Tension” or “Take” are nearly impossible to communicate. If you know you’re not going to free climb the pitch, and a piece is close at hand, then just grab the bloody gear and avoid the issue altogether. It’s better to aid your way back to the sleeping bags than to hangdog all afternoon and end up sleeping on a pint-sized ledge.

While “Off rappel” seems easy to intuit because there’s suddenly no weight on the rope, your partner could be standing on a ledge hunting for the
next anchor. Once the first climber is off rappel he should pull the rope back and forth through the anchors, a couple of feet each way. This not only
communicates “Off rappel,” but also ensures that the ropes won’t hang up on the anchor (figure 2).

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Comments on Rope Commands for Multi-pitch Climbing Add Comment
By Hans
From: Squamish, BC
Sep 28, 2014
I'll add that rope tugs etc are often a waste of time as it's too difficult to discern what is actually a tug vs. normal climbing rope movement. And don't get me started on radios, which are sold in climbing shops right next to the giant hexes.

When in doubt, the belayer should always leave the leader on belay, and should disassemble the anchor and start climbing shortly after the rope comes tight to him.

This is assuming an intelligent leader who only takes up extra rope when he is 100% ready to put the second on belay, and does this immediately.

To this end, verbal communication is not necessary on a typical pitch.

For example, as a leader I set up the belay, tie in, and shout "secure" (or "off belay" if I'm climbing in the US). If the second can't hear me, no problem. I set up my autoblocking belay device on the anchor first, and when everything is ready I take up slack. When the rope is tight, I put it on belay right away (which takes about 5 seconds) and assume the second is climbing.

The second knows that if he can't hear me, it's not a big deal. He should climb when the rope is tight to him.
By Robert Hall
From: North Conway, NH
Mar 23, 2015
If you think about it, there's no real reason why the second needs to know the leader is secure and off belay. He/she only needs to know that he/she is ON BELAY and can climb. My technique is similar to that of the above commentator.

Thus, in wind or wandering pitches, I will tell my second: "All the rope running out at a rate that is faster than one can climb, followed by 3 tugs means BOTH that I am "Off belay" and YOU ARE ON BELAY."

I reach the belay, tie in, pull to rope up quickly (but not so fast as to seem like a fall). When no more rope is forthcoming, put the second on belay and then give 3 BIG tugs. (Remember, he/she is tied in so you're not going to pull him off.). Then be alert to take up the 6" to a foot of slack that was in the belay device, and the foot or two that was the tie-in. THAT should act to re-enforce to the second that she is really "On Belay".

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