Route-finding is one of the things that makes multi-pitch trad climbing adventurous and exciting. When you’re heading into unknown on lesser traveled terrain, there’s very little fixed gear and no trail of bolts to guide you. Successful navigation relies on doing your research, understanding topos, and relying on instinct, which usually comes from years of experience. And navigation isn’t restricted to vertical rock. You must also nail the approach and the descent, the only mandatory part of the day. When it comes to learning these skills, nothing beats just getting out there and doing it, but there are ways to plan, be prepared, and read topos and route descriptions to maximize your chances of making it back to the car before dawn. Between long-route masters and first ascensionists Miranda Oakley, Tim Emmett, and Paul Rachele, we’ve distilled down decades of experience into the best advice for route-finding on multi-pitch climbs.
Oakley says she has been scared away from many climbs because she read the comments on Mountain Project. “Remember that no one leaves comments if the climb went well. Many of the comments are from people getting in way over their heads so they write that the climb was scary and/or hard,” she says. “It’s likely that you are a much better climber than the guys commenting, so don’t let their comments scare you off a climb if you know you are ready for it.”
The team should always have at least one copy of the topo, which the leader carries with her while climbing. Sometimes having a copy in your phone is enough (put it on airplane mode to save battery, you can take a picture of the guidebook or screenshot an online version so it’s available when you don’t have service), but it’s always a good idea to have a hard copy too, in case your phone dies. Ideally both climbers have a copy of the topo, either on paper or in their phone.
1 hour per thousand feet of elevation gain + 20 minutes per mile
For harder free climbing, Oakley allows for one hour per pitch, which includes leading, following, and transitioning. For easier climbing, plan for less time per pitch if you and your partner are experienced and climb well together. Emmett suggests doing smaller objectives in the week leading up to the bigger objective if possible. “That will give you a good idea of how fast you usually approach and climb.” For figuring out descent times, make sure to factor in rappels, any loose sections where you have to downclimb, and off-trail hiking.
Once you get to where you think the base of the climb is, look for signs of other climbers like stamped-down ground, chalk, fixed gear. Emmett suggests dropping your pack there and walking to the side of the face or back away from it to get a better vantage point. Try to find any of the features that might be mentioned on the topo or other route descriptions.
Oakley suggests familiarizing yourself with subtle signs of human impact. “Don’t wait until you’re trying to stay on-route to start this practice,” she says. “Start recognizing what well-traveled rock looks like next to terrain that doesn’t see traffic.” If you find yourself on loose or bad rock or in totally unprotected terrain (that wasn’t mentioned in your route research), there’s a good chance you’re off-route. It happened to Oakley when she was attempting the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral in Yosemite. She followed old webbing she thought must have been on-route, only to find herself in unprotectable terrain. “It turned out the webbing was super old and likely used as a rappel anchor by someone else who was off-route,” she says. “I ended up downclimbing back to the route.”
Oakley agrees, saying not to rush on descents unless there’s a really good reason. “Also, keep eating and drinking water so that you don’t bonk and do something dumb,” she suggests.