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I'm off this weekend for a three-day big wall with two other friends. I read "Big Walls", by Long and Middendorf, but the book is too old and doesn't really mention strategies for a three-member crew. For a two-member crew, the strategy is quite standard:

  1. Climber 1 (C1) climbs pitch, attached to a lead rope (R1) and carrying with him a second rope (R2), which will serve as a zip-line and a haul line;
  2. C1 arrives at belay, fixes R1 and sets a hauling system for R2;
  3. C2 lowers off the pig (haul bag), which is then hauled by C1 while C2 jugs R1 and cleans the pitch;
  4. Repeat for next pitch;

P.S: If the pitch is long and horizontal, a third rope can make things easier: not only it'll be used to lower off the pig, but also to cancel pendula C2 might have to deal with during the cleaning.


Now, when dealing with one more person, things start to get a little weirder, since there are many possible strategies.

A possible one I was thinking about is Method 1:

  1. C1 sets off with R1 and R2, same way as before;
  2. C1 arrives at the belay, fixes both R1 and R2;
  3. C2 helps lower out C3, which will jug the fixed line R2;
  4. C3 arrives at belay with C2 still waiting. After arriving, C3 sends a signal to C2 to start lowering off the pigs;
  5. C2 lowers off the pigs and starts jugging the fixed line R1 and cleaning the pitch. Meanwhile, C3 and C1 are hauling the pigs;
  6. When hauling is done, C2 is probably halfway cleaning, and C1 or C3 can start leading a new pitch. Hopefully C2 will arrive at belay before the leader is halfway through, because most of the gear will be hanging with C2;

P.S: As always, another rope can be carried by C2 to help him clear the pendula and lower off the pigs.


Another one is Method 2:

  1. C1 sets off with R1 and R2, same way as before;
  2. C1 arrives at the belay, fixes R1 and pulls up R2 and two other ropes, R3 and R4. R2 in this case will be a very thin, 7mm zip-line;
  3. C1 fixes R1 and R3 and sets a pulley system for R4;
  4. C3 starts jugging R3 and leader starts hauling from R4 at the same time. C2 immediately sets off to clean the pitch;
  5. After C3 gets to belay and helps C1 with the hauling, he or C1 can already start leading the next pitch;

P.S: a fifth (!) rope can be carried to avoid pendula, etc.


I hope I was transparent enough in my descriptions.

Now, let's talk about the advantages of each method. Method 1 has the downside of C2 having to wait till C3 got to the belay to lower off the pigs, and only then start cleaning. But C3 is the fastest of the group anyway: he needs only to jug fast and tight. The main advantage of Method 1 is that C3 can help C1, which just leaded a possible A3+ and is thanking Odin for being alive, to haul the pigs. This method also involves a maximum of 3 ropes.

Method 2, on the other hand, can be faster: C2 starts cleaning immediately after C1 fixes R1. C3 can deal with lowering off the pigs and then can sprint up from a fixed line, to help C1 haul a little, and to lead the next pitch. C2 will be cleaning throughout the whole process, so the next leader will have available gear earlier than in Method 1. The problem is that at least 4 ropes must be carried, and that C1 will have to haul at least a little bit on his own.

Do you know another method? Does anyone have any experience with both of these methods and can suggest any improvement/comment?

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  • 1
    Maybe it's because I haven't done Big Walls, but I got a bit confused near the beginning. What do you mean by C2 lowers off the pig (haul bag). Is this common terminology? I guess it confuses me to think that it's lowered (down?) to be hauled (up?)... So my next guess is: maybe I don´t know what "lower off" means.
    – Roflo
    Aug 7, 2017 at 20:06
  • 3
    @Roflo No problem. It's common terminology and works like this: you want to haul the pigs up, but the down belay is not aligned with the upper one. This means the pigs will simply swing in plain air if you just let them go. If they swing and hit the wall, your water (or worse - you poop) will explode. This will end your adventure. So it's common practice to thread a line around the pig to let it sway gently and keep the contents intact. Aug 7, 2017 at 20:35
  • Are you aiming for speed, to have fun, or something else.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 8, 2017 at 2:16
  • @StrongBad I'm aiming for efficiency! And you're quite right: R2 was a typo. Aug 8, 2017 at 3:25
  • read everything by andy kirkpatrick! and this ukc article is good too... oh look who its by... silly me. additionally consider contributing to his kick starter.
    – llama
    Aug 11, 2017 at 14:25

2 Answers 2

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One issue with Method 1 is that after C3 finishes jugging on R2, C2 needs to be able to pull R2 back to the anchor and attach the pig. If the lower end of R2 is attached to the anchor, then it may become difficult for C3 to tie in short as they are jugging since the rope could become taught. A way around this is to either attach the pendulum rope R3 to R2 to allow C2 to retrieve the lower end of R2. A slightly different system would be for C3 to drag a second haul line R4 as they are jugging.

One issue with Method 2 is there is a lot going on (two people jugging and one person hauling). It might be better if C2 lowers C3 and the pig out immediately and both C2 and C3 start jugging, but C1 does not immediately start hauling the pig. Then when C3 gets to the belay, they can start leading the next pitch immediately. When C2 finishes cleaning, they can then start hauling (sucks to be C2). This not only gets the next pitch started sooner, but also means only two things are moving at once (two people jugging, leader and cleaner, or leader and pig).

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  • Regarding Method 1: in case of a very long (60+m) aid pitch, I think your suggestion of tying R2 and R3 together to lower C3 off if great. This is almost never needed, since aid pitches are not usually longer than 30~40m... But I'll keep it in mind. Regarding Method 2: this is indeed very stressful for C2. Cleaning a hard aid pitch is very often harder than leading it... But it is a possibility. Aug 9, 2017 at 15:32
  • @QuantumBrick yes cleaning is often physically harder than leading, but generally does not take as much time. C2 can take a nice long break before starting to haul; they just have to clean and haul in less time then it takes C3 to lead the next pitch, but as I said sucks to be C2 on that pitch. As for rope lengths, you may be fine, but just be prepared if there is a long pitch.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 9, 2017 at 15:45
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As with all things climbing, the exact strategies employed will vary with the route/terrain, conditions, and the competencies of the party members. I'll try to give some general guidelines and considerations.

The largest increased difficulties with a party of three are potential for increased cluster f#&$s at anchors (more ropes, more people clipped in, more organization), more necessary communication and coordination (radios!), and especially a heavier haul bag load. Having another person means 50% more water, food, clothing, sleeping bags, and an additional portaledge (if applicable to the route).

In big wall climbing with three people, there are five general tasks that need to happen: Leading, Cleaning, Hauling, Belaying, and Jugging a fixed line. Leading is generally the most mentally & physically demanding, followed by cleaning (which can be harder than leading on a severely overhanging or traversing pitch), followed by the brute force of hauling, then belaying with an assisted braking device (Gri-Gri), and finally jugging a fixed line. Ideally, we would parallelize these tasks as much as possible so that each climber is performing at least one of these tasks at all times. Having all progress stop while a single climber jugs a fixed line is ideally avoided. Increased parallelization (and thus speed & efficiency) happens whenever one climber can combine tasks, for example C1 leading while self-belaying/short-fixing as C2&C3 clean and haul or C3 simultaneously belaying C1 and hauling.

Perhaps the biggest dictator will be whether the hauling is still light enough for a single person to haul without the added friction of a mechanical (dis)advantage system. In all scenarios, we will assume that C1 has just finished leading the pitch on R1 and tagged up the haul line + kit (R2) and an additional rope R3. We also generally assume leading in blocks. These methods are additional possibilities along with those in other answers and the OP.

  1. If the time to lead each pitch is the limiting factor: C1 fixes all the ropes and begins leading the next pitch while short-fixed or perhaps self-belaying. C2 lowers out the haul bags as C3 jugs up R3. C2 breaks down the anchor and begins cleaning. C3 finishes jugging, gets C1 on belay with an assisted braking device, and hauls. Once C2 finishes cleaning the pitch, they either take over belaying C1 or hauling and the rest of the rack is tagged up to C1.
  2. If the load is too heavy for a single person to 1:1 haul: join ropes R2 & R3 (or just double over R2) and have C3 counterbalance the weight of the haul bags by jugging on the tail end of the haul system. Be sure that everything is rigged to withstand this loading and back up the the progress capture pulley with a locking quickdraw. C2 lowers out the bags, breaks down the anchor, and begins cleaning. C1 hauls with the benefit of C3's counterweight while jugging. If C2 reaches the anchor before C3, they put C1 on belay so that C1 starts leading the next pitch, and simultaneously takes over hauling. Alternatively, C2 begins leading the next pitch while belayed by C1 who continues hauling. If C3 and the haul bags reach the anchor before C2, then C1 starts leading the next pitch belayed by C3. Once C2 reaches the anchor, the rest of the rack is tagged up to C1. Alternatively, C3 reaches the anchor before the bags and C2. C3 puts C1 on belay as they start leading the next pitch; once C2 reaches the anchor, C2 & C3 finish hauling the bags. NB:: counter-balance hauling / space hauling can vastly increase the danger. Thoroughly understand what additional risks are being assumed (what happens if the straps on the haul bag(s) break?) and take appropriate measures to mitigate them. This can take the form of backing up the haul kit with a locking quickdraw at the bare minimum or even going so far as to fix a separate rope (R4) that C3 uses to loosely self-belay.
  3. Split the haul load into two separate loads with haul ropes + haul kits R2a and R2b. As C3 jugs R3, C2 lowers out both loads onto R2a and R2b and then cleans the anchor and begins cleaning the pitch. C1 hauls R2a. C3 reaches the anchor, gets C1 on belay for the next pitch, and simultaneously hauls R2b.

Some final tips:

  • All the usual big wall efficiency tips go double. Keep neatly organized anchors & ropes, be ready to lower out and start jugging the moment the leader gets lines fixed, etc.

  • Pay extra attention to group dynamics and communications. Don't let the resentment of someone slacking off build until it hits a breaking point.

  • Leading in blocks will generally be more efficient and help minimize clusters with three people. Strategically plan who will do which role on which pitch: strongest leader for the hardest aid pitch, heaviest and most physically strong party member in place for the most difficult hauls (slabs, roofs, most water weight on early pitches), etc. Consider alternating the roles of C2 & C3 on each pitch to help spread the load.

  • Since C3 will be blasting up a fixed line each pitch, consider bringing along a ropewalking/roperunning setup (from the caving and industrial rope access worlds) to increase their speed and efficiency on overhanging pitches. If they're dialed on this system (or other methods of quick jugging), they might be able to jug the pitch in the time it takes C1 to rig the haul system and C2 to lower out. This can greatly simplify your system, obviating any need for short-fixing/self-belay/space-hauling.

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