I Feel The Need, The Need For Speed - Guide to Climbing Faster

Article by Toby Dunn
Monday 19th July 2010

I feel the need ....the need for speed

Fall 2007, Yosemite

I'm struggling down the final stretches of the descent from El Capitan in the gathering gloom; after an arduous onsight attempt on Freerider. The haulbag is cutting into my shoulders in an increasingly painful sawing action, and every step feels like its taking ten minutes. Two figures pop out of the darkness in between pine trees, "Those look like heavy bags," the long-haired one remarks with a touch of smugness. " What you guys been on?" he asks, more friendly now.


"Nice. How long that take ya?"

"errr... three and a half days I guess"

"What you guys been on?" I sensed he probably would have told me anyway, so I might as well ask.

"The Nose. Six, thirty-two, seventeen. Anyway, have a good one guys." They jogged off through the trees with a deeply irritating efficiency.

"Pretty keen on times that guy." I remarked, needlessly and slightly grumpily.

"You do know that was Hans Florine?" answered my partner. 


Hans Florine, for those still in the dark, is the current Nose of El Capitan record holder (with Yuji Hirayama) at a ridiculous 2hr43min33sec. Most teams do the route in three to four days. There is little or no interest in speed records within UK climbing, but there is plenty we can learn in terms of efficiency and speed from ascents like this, by harvesting the appropriate nuggets of technique and approach that can improve our everyday climbing experience, even if it is just about getting one more route in after work, or making it to the café before it starts raining!


Speed Climbing - Toby Dunn planetFear

Even a relaxed evening's grit cragging can be streamlined with a few tweaks to fit another route in.


Why do I need to climb faster?

Why go fast? I always saw climbing as a relatively slow sport compared to my previous obsessions of windsurfing and mountain biking; part of the attraction is having the time to think, to plan and execute the moves. Why get all stressed out about trying to get it over with? Why not just enjoy climbing at your own pace?


Perhaps the most important thing about climbing fast is actually that  climbing fast is perhaps the least effective way to try to speed things up. This article is more about doing everything you possibly can to allow you to climb without hassles, which I think is something all of us enjoy. Climbing more smoothly, if you like.

Toby Dunn - Speed Climbing

Speed and efficiency leaves you to concentrate on the important thing - actually climbing!


Five reasons to want to go faster
  • Live longer. Speed gives you the ability to escape objective danger. This might mean getting off the route before it is exposed to stone fall, storms or even dangerous levels of busy-ness later in the day on popular routes.


  • Sleep more. Going fast means you can do longer routes without bivying. If you know you can move fast, you can climb long routes with a minimum of clutter (which speeds you up for a start) and be back for a night of comfort rather than shivering on a ledge halfway up a route. On popular classics, it means you can start late and avoid tangling with other teams, and still have the route done by the end of the day.


  • Longer, harder routes become within reach. Dreaming of doing Yosemite's Astroman, or the Cima Grande's Brandler-Hasse? Harder, longer routes will become much more manageable if you know you can motor on all the pitches up to a certain grade - you get more time on the harder pitches, and the whole thing becomes less daunting when you know you can turn up the pace, even when your ‘time' on the route is of no importance to you.


  • Climb more: knowing you can climb fast gives you the option to exploit narrower weather windows and still get routes done. In places like Patagonia, this is absolutely crucial to getting anything done; but the principle is also applicable to making it worthwhile going climbing after work, as you know you can get a couple of routes in before darkness.


  • Closing time: important matter, this: everyone knows the most important feature of summer evening cragging is the debrief pint, and making closing time can be a struggle in midsummer if you try and fit one last route in - a little swifter on the crag equals plenty of chilling time!


Planning and preparation prevents poor performance (PPPPP!)

For their Nose record (now beaten) in 2007, the Huber brothers tick-marked virtually every hold and gear placement on the entire route. The Nose is pretty much a mile of vertical climbing. I'm not suggesting for a moment we all start going out and emulating this level of route prep, but it shows the difference some forethought can make.

The advantage with doing a little preparation is that it's ‘free' speed when you are on the route, in that you are not expending any extra energy or concentration in order to go faster, or to have more time in which to do other things which allow you to go faster. So here are some things you can do before you get anywhere near the crag to enable you to focus and enjoy the climbing when you are actually there, remember, some of this can be as useful to do at work (when the boss isn't looking, obviously) before an evening on the crag, as it is the nervous night before a big route.


Toby Dunn Speed Climbing

The faster you go, the less you'll wake up in places like this.


Five ways to go faster without trying harder!
  • Read your guidebook, memorise the route description or topo; and take a copy with you if the route is long. Keep it handy in case your ‘photographic' memory fails you. A climbing partner of mine used to write the route description on his forearm in biro so he could make sure he was on the right course whilst mid move. If it works for you, do that.


  •  Try and assess the right rack to take. Although this cuts down on excess weight by not taking more than you need, it also has the added benefit of not rifling through the stacks of extra karabiners you don't need on your harness every time you are placing a piece of gear.


  • Organise your rack - have a racking system and stick to it, and ideally make it the same as your partner's. This means you can clip gear to each other's harnesses at changeovers and know it is the ‘right' place for the other person. Colour coded krabs for cams can be really handy, especially with bigger racks.


  • Pick a route at the right level for you. This sounds obvious, but try and factor in how long the route is, its level of difficulty, and how much the approach and descent will take out of you.

Toby Dunn - Speed Climbing

route selection can be crucial - know how factors such as exposure may affect your performance.


  • Have a good system for eating and drinking. As an example of the right attitude, experienced mountain marathon competitors will often not carry a water bottle, instead having a plastic mug on a string that they can scoop and drink with every time they pass a stream. It's fast, light, simple and efficient. Obviously you can't do this on a route (unless you climb a lot in the Lake District perhaps). But you are looking for minimal weight, maximal accessibility. Use a hydration bladder / tube if you get on with them; though be aware that on a longer route, having all your water in one container is potentially risky if you drop it or the bladder gets damaged. I favour a slung bottle or separate bladder for each member of the team. Take food that you can shove in a pocket and get to quickly and at regular intervals. Cereal or energy bars, a chunk of malt loaf, dried fruit and nuts or whatever you like eating really. Energy gels can be a lifesaver and are very portable and convenient, although I'd avoid relying on them for an entire day for taste reasons!

 Check out Heather Clark's article Nutrition for Long Days for more advice on food and hydration.


Gear Choice


Clothing - have stuff that is versatile, adaptable to a range of conditions, and not too heavy. There is a huge range of this sort of thing on the market, so choose something appropriate for where you intend to climb. One recommendation is the lightweight softshell style top - such as a

Rab Vapour Rise

Rab Vapour Rise Jacket planetFear

Haglofs Lizard Top

Haglofs Lizard Top planetFear


Marmot Rom jacket.

Marmot Rom Jacket planetFear 


These tend to be breathable, durable and adaptable to a wide range of conditions so you don't need to keep taking things off / putting them back on which wastes valuable time. If it is cold, a synthetic insulated jacket or vest like the Rab Generator jacket, for the belayer / follower can be an immense benefit.

Rab Generator Jacket planetFear



Footwear - again, appropriate to the climbing you are doing. If you feel you can go quicker if you really trust your feet, it's probably better to have tighter, more precise rock boots - something like the 5:10 Anasazi Verde - and have to remove them every pitch or two while you belay rather than climb in more comfortable boots that can stay on, but slow up your climbing. If you are doing this, it's well worth getting some thin bungee loops that you can tie to the pull-tabs on your boots, and make a loop around your ankle. This means you won't have to worry about dropping them, or clipping them in, and can rip them off whilst belaying if you need to. If, on the other hand, the climbing on your chosen line is easy for you, consider going for ‘sticky' approach shoes rather than rock shoes. Many of the modern models are amazingly precise, and you can walk in wearing them as well, cutting down on weight. 5:10 do the amazingly sticky Guide Tennie.

Five Ten Guide Tennie planetFear


Rope(s)  - if possible (unless the place you are climbing is much more suited to using doubles) go for a single - it's lighter, less complicated, makes simul-climbing much easier to deal with and tangles less likely. I like to use something around 9.8mm most of the time, a good compromise between weight and durability, and not too worrying to jumar or hard to ‘batman' (see below!)  on if need be.

Speed Climbing - Toby Dunn

A 'magic plate' set up as an auto block belay to belay a second.


Other gear - Use ‘magic' belay plates like the Petzl Reverso whenever possible to enable you to belay directly and auto block belay the second, this allows the leader time to drink, re-organise the rack, and slip rock shoes off without losing time.

 Petzl Reverso 3 planetFear


Use cams whenever possible and appropriate instead of wires, they are generally quicker to place, quicker to clean and less hassle to re-rack at the belay. 

DMM Dragon Cam planetFear



Five things not to sacrifice for speed

  • good belays - safety is always paramount.


  • enjoying going climbing - efficiency , not rushing, is the name of the game enabling you to relax and enjoy it more in the long run.


  • extending runners - a few seconds extending things properly saves time you might lose later with horrific rope drag. DMM revolver krabs can be very handy for reducing rope drag.

 See a previously published article on extending gear here>>>

And the ever-controversial article - Making the Ultimate Trad Quickdraw here>>>


  • Spare gear - carrying genuinely essential extras (e.g.: head torches if appropriate), an extra couple of quickdraws, you won't be quicker if you're trying to extend gear with your belay plate because you though some weight saving would be a good idea.


  • eating and drinking enough - you'll be slower and climb badly if you are dehydrated / have low blood sugar.


Toby Dunn - Speed Climbing

Having a comfortable and well organised belay stance will make changeovers faster.


Five ways to really start motoring

Proviso: these techniques demand practice and confidence to execute effectively. This is a list of suggestions, not a technique manual- seek out further reading or instruction if you are unsure. Do not try them for the first time as the thunderclouds are gathering halfway up a mountain. Whilst we are interested in being as fast as possible, this always goes along with being as safe as possible.

  • Simul climb - everything from the alpine style moving together on easy ground to the Yosemite style, where mini ascenders are used on runners to safe guard a fall by the second member of the party. This confers an increased, though still somewhat dubious margin of safety.


  • Short fix - used when the second man is jumaring. Lead a pitch, pull up all the slack, tie it off to an unquestionably solid belay and shout ‘rope fixed. Now continue to ‘lead' as far as you can on the available slack rope. Obviously you should be supremely confident of you ability on the ground ahead, or able and willing to self-belay (the details of which are beyond the scope of this article).


  • French free - essentially, cheat whenever possible. When speed is of the utmost importance (e.g.: approaching storm), forget pulling tricky moves and pull on the gear, if that is the fastest way to get to the next decent hold when you are leading.


  • Batman! When following, you can call for tension in the rope' and ‘batman' (hand-over-hand) up the rope to the next decent hold. Then drop the slack created and call for the leader to take in whilst continuing to climb conventionally. This makes following pitches very quick indeed. This works best on intermittently difficult, or not steep ground. Yarding up a rope is obviously very strenuous on steeper pitches, and it is generally more efficient to jumar to follow for speed in these situations.


  • Changeovers - when swapping gear, consider using a bandolier. Have an organised routine of swapping gear, drinking or eating if necessary, checking the next pitch, and go! It can be just as handy to have a routine on a relaxed cragging day - you get to climb more, relax in the sun more, get to the pub earlier - but generally spend less time fiddling with gear.


Toby Dunn - Speed Climbing

Having a good system is crucial to changeovers at belays.



All Images - Toby Dunn


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