On a multi-pitch route when all climbers have reached the belay point, what is the best way/what considerations need to be made, in order to swap lead? Obviously the leader will need to be tied into both ropes, but the second will be tied into only one.

Update: I appreciate the answer to this question is "Not to swap lead" in this scenario and appreciate the safety aspects involved, but carried out my own investigation under controlled conditions.

So myself and two friends climbed Bosigran ridge using a pair of half ropes. With various belays being large and flat, swapping lead was not too difficult.

In one instance we had a hanging belay. After establishing the anchor over a spike I belayed the seconds (one at a time), coiling the rope over my personal anchor. When the seconds had both arrived I untied one of my ropes (red) and gave it to the climber who was not leading the next pitch. He tied a safety with this. He then untied his other rope and handed it to the other second, who then tied in. That climber was now ready to lead the next pitch. He climbed and there was little tangling/snagging in the ropes as he went (he climbed un-impeded).

I think in this instance we may have been quite lucky not to create a big mess and since it was the last pitch any further tangling was avoided. One thing to note was that I passed one of my ropes underneath the coils so as not to create tangles, and both of the ends of rope that the final leader used, we emerging from the top of the pile.

Update 2:

i can now say with great certainty, from much experience, that climbing in a 3 and swapping leads, is not only easy and safe, but proper ace

  • 1
    +1. And your question is about how to do this efficiently, right? How to avoid a massive rope tangle, and 15+ minutes at the belay, trying to transition?
    – DavidR
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 13:00
  • I don't have an answer, other than to just not to do multipitch routes with 3 people. Every time I've done it I regretted it.
    – DavidR
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 13:01
  • i can now say with great certainty, from much experience, that climbing in a 3 and swapping leads, is not only easy and safe, but proper ace
    – llama
    Commented Jan 10, 2016 at 16:23
  • To increase safety, as you have 4 rope ends and 3 climbers, its possible to climb so at all times all climbers are tied into at least one rope.
    – user5330
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 1:11

4 Answers 4


I love doing routes with 3 people. Once you are efficient at it, those don't take much longer than going with 2 people, you have someone to talk to when the leader is taking forever, and you have an additional hand, if you need it (for taking pictures, dealing with rope tangle, keeping an eye out on the weather, another belayer if the leader gets in trouble...)

You specified half-ropes, which pretty much only leaves you with one option: You don't swap leads. You have a designated leader. The alternative is a big untying mess at the anchor with three people and two ropes. Absolutely not recommended, and unsafe in my opinion.

Here are some things to consider when you belay two people from a belay anchor: Make sure you have an appropriate belay device (ATC guide or reverso,) and you know how to use it in it's auto-locking mode. Practice belaying two ropes that are moving at different speeds, without taking your break hand off! This is important, even though the devices mentioned above are auto locking. If you are belaying from a ledge, I find it much more efficient to just stack each rope on it's own pile, and then have each climber re-stack their pile once they are safely attached to the anchor. If you are not on a ledge, you have three options:

  • 1) stack both ropes as if you were belaying one second and are getting ready to lead the next pitch (your previous question). This is the least amount of hassle, but both climbers have to climb at the same speed, and each climber has to be aware of how much slack is building up.
  • 2) Buy a rope hook, or use a sling clipped to your belay loop and one gear loop to stack one of the ropes, making coils (small to large), and use the rope with which you are tied to the anchor to do the same with the other rope. This is slow and complicated. You also have to be careful that the second and third are not getting twisted once they are at the anchor. This you just have to practice, I find it impossible to list everything to look out for (someone else might not?) Once both climbers are at the anchor, flip and give each their rope back.
  • 3) Buy two rope bags that can be used as rope buckets and proceed as if you were on a ledge.

If you are using ropes that are also rated as single ropes you have one additional option: Either the second or the third can lead on one strand, belay the second up, who will be attached to two ropes (one of which is trailing), and finally belaying the third up. I have done this, and it is fine, but you asked for "the best way," which this is not. Not swapping leads and leading up on two ropes is more efficient, since you can belay both, the second and the third simultaneously, given you have an ATC guide or a reverso.

In case you were curious why you can't to the latter with two half-ropes: It would mean that one climber is leading on one half-rope, which is not what they are rated for, unless they definitively state so. I do have a rope that is rated as both, and there are even ropes that are rated as singe- half- and twin.

As a closing remark: I would suggest being really comfortable with the system of one leader and one second before you take a third, both with swapping leads and one leader leading every pitch. Rope management becomes exponentially more difficult with two ropes, and everything becomes just a little less neat and intuitive at the anchors. As a bonus, here are a couple of skills that you should know before you even attempt to do a multi-pitch climb: Rappel without a rappel device (on a munter hitch or a carabiner break), belay a second from the anchor with a munter hitch, joining two ropes with the appropriate knot, being able to defend why you chose that knot, know how to back up a rappel with a prussic loop and fireman's belay, know how to ascend a rope with two prussics and how to back up your ascend with backup knots, know how to build multidirectional SRENE anchors (I guess this one is an obvious one), know how to escape a belay... I would suggest taking a class, if you haven't done so.


Something we used to do in the UK bitd was use three half ropes tied in a triangle. A bit more weight, a bit more cluster potential, but allows leading through without any of the time-consuming and dangerous re-tying.

  • thats really interesting, il have a think about that
    – llama
    Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 9:12
  • I'd be interested to hear more about this technique. Do you get three guys at the belay at once before the leader goes up the next pitch? Or does the first follower pass the belay then simul-climb with the second follower while the belayer manages two belays? If the latter, how is that belay set up?
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 18:15

My answer is nothing new, but as the method is only mentioned in the question itself and the existing extensive answer takes the opposite view, I still think it is worth writing down.

We do this very often in our local mountaineering group. It is perfectly save (provided everyone knows how to handle half ropes in a party of three), but can lead to serious hassle due to tangled ropes - ropes love to create very sophisticated knots in no time at all :D

Even if you manage to keep the rope tidy, it is slow. A party of three is anyway slower than a party of 2 and when changing leaders you get even slower. So consider whether you really want it and try to minimize changes. In our use case it is usually two experienced climbers with an unexperienced and both of the former ones want to lead. So they swap once in the middle of a multipitch.

Two rules to keep you save:

  • Use some kind of personal anchor sling for self arrest at belay, not the rope with a clove hitch.
  • When retying rope ends, both involved parties do that and only that until retied and partner-checked.

One (obvious) rule to keep the rope usable:

  • When exchanging rope ends, take a lot of care to not thread it through/around/... any other strands. This sounds really moronic, but trust me, knots in the middle of the rope happen.

Idgorman already explained in the question how to do this, I will write it down in my own words for completeness:

The climber leading the lower pitch belays both up normally after establishing the belay. Once everyone is secured at the belay, the one climbing both pitches as second gives his rope end to the leader of the next pitch. He then receives one rope end from the previous leader. Now they are set to go again, the rope is already stacked correctly.

  • 1
    Perhaps a safer sequence - The one climbing both pitches as second receives one rope end from the previous leader. He then passes the other rope to to the new leader. At no point is any climber untied from all ropes.
    – user5330
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 1:09
  • Thanks for the pointer @mattnz. I wrote it the other way around, because it eliminates the possibility of the second giving the wrong end to the new leader. The security gain of never being untied from all ropes is that you would "only" fall for length of rope if exactly your self belay (not the entire belay) fails, which is nothing really. What am I missing?
    – imsodin
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 9:22
  • As long as the previous lead has secured both ropes, The newly attached rope is secure. The wrong rope means the new lead is still 'safe', just a cluster . to fix up once hes started climbing. Its also comes from core rules I teach students- Once on a climb you should NEVER be untied from the rope. I do not like adding exceptions, they cause confusion
    – user5330
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 18:06

There're a few options all with drawbacks and maybe no advantages:

  • Tie the second 10 metres above the third with. When he gets to the anchor, he'll have to untie and retie 10 metres before the end of the first climber before starting the next pitch. The third climber can then go in the end of both ropes. That way the only one changing ropes is the second climber the third and first will alternate lead/belays. The second climber is usually the least experience one. This is bad if the third climber falls, so don't do it. For the second falling isn't as bad, that's why the least experience climber in the part should take this spot, so he/she doesn't have to lead/belay and if he falls is not as bad.
  • Do it with two ropes and do the same as above.
  • Tie each climber on one end of the rope, then lead gives one rope to the second, second unties one end, gives it to the third climber and it all becomes a big tangle mess.
  • Bring one up at a time, then throw the rope for the other one. Some friends did it this way and it takes ages. Don't do it.
  • Don't do it with three. Find another climber and do it in two groups.

My personal preference, if the climb is more of a fun team adventure rather (e.g. easy for everyone) than a hard climbing project just do it with the second tying on a bight.

  • 1
    "...throw the rope for the other one." - Really BAD idea for multiple reasons: 1) Unless the route is perfectly vertical and theres absolutely no wind, this is going to be a mess. 2) Two people have to untie, one ties in without anyone checking him/her 3) The rope can get stuck, forcing someone to abseil. 4) The second and third can't climb simultaneously. 5) if something happens to the leader while belaying the second, everyone is stranded.
    – DudeOnRock
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 23:05
  • 2
    "Tie the second 10 metres above the third" - The OP is talking about half ropes. One person toproping on half ropes: maybe. Two: absolutely NOT!!!
    – DudeOnRock
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 23:07
  • Are you describing having the two followers both tie into the same rope? I have seen people do that, but its pretty sketchy, and much safer just to borrow a 2nd rope from someone, and bring the two followers separately. Each person gets their own rope.
    – DavidR
    Commented May 20, 2013 at 15:49
  • i think this is missing the point a bit, i specified the use of a pair of half ropes
    – llama
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 13:04

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