When you are first learning to climb, one of the most indispensable concepts you will encounter is that of a pitch: the distance separating two belay stations. Being able to articulate and identify a pitch is crucial, especially when you are planning to climb something hundreds or even thousands of feet tall.
There is much more to this process than just what is on the surface, and a misstep can prove dangerous. In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about pitches and how to avoid common pitchfalls (see what I did there?) associated with them.
How Long Is A Pitch In Climbing?
The basic concept of a pitch revolves around a length of rope. Although the length of a climbing rope will vary from one party to another, the mechanics are the same; one pitch is equal to one rope length. It is considered single pitch terrain when a single length of rope is enough to complete the climb.
Say one day you head out to the crag with some friends. By definition, a crag is a smaller cliff or chunk of rock consisting of routes that rarely exceed 100 feet. Using a single rope, one of your friends climbs up to the top. By using a fixed anchor or building their own, they can either lower to the ground or belay their follower from the top of the pitch. You’ll find that most sport routes are single pitch routes.
If you’ve ever looked at photos of Yosemite and wondered how climbers manage to ascend this monster granite wall, like the Dawn Wall or Salathe Wall, you’ve entered the concept of multi-pitch climbing. This technique is a cornerstone of rock climbing, allowing climbers to conquer routes that far exceed the length of their climbing ropes.
Multi-pitch climbing, in essence, is a method where climbers ascend a route in multiple stages or ‘pitches’. Each pitch is a section of the climb that is typically no longer than the length of the climbing rope, which is usually around 50 to 70 meters. The exact length of a pitch can vary, however, depending on factors such as the route’s difficulty, the availability of suitable anchor points, and the climbers’ strategy.
The process begins with the lead climber, also known as the ‘leader’, who ascends the first pitch while placing protective gear in the rock to secure the rope. Once the leader reaches the end of the pitch, they create a secure anchor point and belay the second climber, or ‘follower’, up to their position. This process is repeated for each subsequent pitch until the climbers reach the top of the route.
Things To Know When Climbing A Pitch
Oftentimes, a route does not go straight up the wall. Instead, it will wander left to right, linking features that allow for the climber to, well, climb it! Additionally, a zig-zag pattern is often required for the climber to adequately protect the route.
As the leader climbs, they protect themselves against a fall by placing gear and clipping the rope through it. In trad-climbing, this means connecting natural features in the rock. In turn, your rope economy is diminished from traverses or directional trends, sometimes only producing pitches of 50 ft, or less!
Consider how much more rope is eaten up when the leader is stepping right, then left, then back again. While a 50-meter rope is more than sufficient to climb a 100-foot pitch that travels straight up from the ground, your rope calculus will almost always involve a little back-and-forth movement.
As you progress up the wall on lead, the rope will be forced to travel through more and more carabiners. With more obstacles for the rope to go through, the leader begins to feel resistance. To control the amount of resistance the leader feels, one can choose to make their pitches smaller.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment: A pitch is the distance you climb to connect two belay stations. On multi-pitch climbs, getting to the top of a wall involves connecting multiple belay stations.
Modern guidebooks will often feature a topo – a layout of the climb with the length, nature and protection needed for each pitch included. Where each pitch begins and ends usually coincides with the availability of a nice ledge, or with some natural feature that makes it easier to build a quality anchor.
Belay stations are not always on nice comfy ledges. Sometimes, it is necessary for a leader to build an anchor in the middle of a vertical face. This is called a hanging belay. Once the anchor is built, they clip themselves into it directly, hang, and then belay their follower up.
A pitch can also be defined as the point where one type of climbing ends and another commences. For instance, the first 100 feet of a multi-pitch climb is a splitter hand crack. Then, the crack starts thinning; disappearing. Suddenly, it’s gone and you’re staring at a face, unbroken by a crack of any kind. Yet, according to the book, this particular route continues for another 3 pitches! This would probably be a good time to stop and build an anchor before continuing.
The standards for the length of ropes are changing. For decades, 50 meters was considered par for the course. These days, many climbers are opting, instead, for 70 or even 80-meter ropes. This practice changes the articulation of a pitch; when 200 or even 250-foot pitches are often possible using longer cuts of cord.
Back in the 60s and 70s, everything was done with a 50-meter rope. Incidentally, this was the era in which many classic routes were first put up. As a result, the breakdown of pitches in many guidebooks is obsolete, these days. With longer ropes, multiple shorter pitches can be linked – meaning you do not stop at the recommended belay station, but keep climbing. When you are running out of rope and/or gear, you can start looking for a good place to build a belay.
There are times when the length of a pitch will be decided by how much gear you have. In modern day guidebooks, most route descriptions will include the recommended rack. Many find this useful in choosing what equipment to bring and what to leave behind. This principle has its limits, however; a long wide crack that will require many large and heavy pieces is going to be hard enough without hauling around five #4 camalots. In order to reduce how much weight a leader has to carry, the party might consider shortening pitches, even if it is not strictly necessary.
Ready To Try Your First Pitch?
A pitch is like a chapter in a book. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It is limited by the tools at the protagonist’s disposal, and it lasts only long enough to serve the greater narrative. To be a good climber is to understand what can affect the length of a pitch and how to respond.