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Vanessa Ball | 09.09.2018

The rules of the game on vertical rock faces

The conditions are right, you’ve planned your climb, and you’re ready to go! You want to feel the raw cliff under your fingers with your climbing partner and work your way, pitch by pitch, to the summit. Now every move must be just right: From knots to belaying and rappelling – well-founded alpine climbing expertise is what’s called for!

In this chapter, we’ll familiarize you with fundamental knowledge about alpine climbing. This knowledge is an important component for any rope team that wants to get into alpine climbing. Topics such as knot tying, belaying or the use of anchors play a central role. When your rope team arrives at the summit, that’s by no means the end of the climb – quite the opposite: The descent can be long and hard. As many mistakes are made here, we’ll pay particular attention to rappelling and descents.

Only when you and your climbing partner have mastered all aspects of alpine climbing can you recognize, avoid and promptly act on mistakes.

Tactics: On the rock face

You and your rope partner are about to start your climb. You now need to set some ground rules for before and during the climb.

The partner check is a fundamental step before the rope team can get climbing. Every rope team must also decide for themselves whether they’re going to climb in crossover formation or using the caterpillar technique. Only when the rope team works seamlessly, with the correct rope commands and the correct clipping can the rope team move quickly and efficiently. If despite good preparation the follower gets into trouble on the rock face, it is important that the climbers have mastered methods such as the express pulley to provide quick help. Finally, clean rope handling is the mark of a good rope team, and helps avoid wasting time and critical situations.

The partner check is important for any rope team before setting out: It is an important component of climbing, be it sport and alpine climbing, ice and mixed climbing or an alpine tour. During the partner check, each climber checks him/herself as well as their partner. Particularly when it comes to routine activities, small mistakes can go unnoticed and have fatal consequences on a vertical rock face.

Seamless rope team cooperation

The helmet is properly fitted and the partner check has been fully carried out. Now it’s time to get started. If the climbers in the rope team cross each other, this means the lead climber and follower alternate. For the following pitch, the follower takes the lead. At the next belay, they switch once again. However, if there is only one lead climber, who takes the lead for every pitch, this is considered a permanent lead. Rope handling and belaying must be adapted accordingly.

The same rope commands are valid for both tactics. With these commands, each rope partner knows what he/she has to do. In well-attuned rope teams – or during alpine climbs where the rope team can no longer hear each other – the commands can be transmitted by pulling on the ropes. In the following section we look at the processes for a two-person rope team from the perspective of the lead and follower:

  1. The lead climber starts climbing and has the first anchor or protection point in view. If there are no pitons in sight, traditional climbing equipment is used. When doing so, make sure to clip from a stable, not-overextended position. The follower belays attentively and also ensures the rope runs cleanly. When the protection point has been clipped, the follower leaves enough rope for the lead climber in good time.
  2. The lead climber has reached the belay. He/she chooses an anchoring method according to the number and quality of anchors. Once the anchor has been set up and he/she has clipped onto the personal anchor, he/she gives the first rope command: “OFF BELAY.” NOTE: If there are multiple rope teams close by, the climber shouts the name of his/her rope partner after the command. Otherwise this can lead to misunderstandings for nearby rope teams. As soon as the follower hears the rope command “off belay,” he/she undoes the partner belay and shouts: “ROPE FREE.”
  3. The climber at the anchor pulls the rope in quickly and cleanly. Where possible, the rope should be placed in a pile on a base. In a hanging belay, the rope must be arranged in loops that start larger and become progressively smaller, and placed above the climber’s feet, over the personal anchor or in a sling. This means the rope cannot slip down when protecting the lead climber in the next pitch. If the rope has “RUN OUT,” the lead climber clips onto the partner's belay. The rope command then follows: “CLIMB WHEN READY.” Only when the lead climber has shouted “CLIMB WHEN READY” does the follower unclip him/herself from their personal anchor. Now he/she can dissemble the anchor and follow. Right before climbing he/she shouts: “CLIMBING.”
  4. Once the rope is no longer tensed, the lead climber knows that the second climber has started climbing. He/she pulls the rope in gradually, taking care to handle the rope cleanly. When following, the climber unclips all protection points and dissembles the mobile anchors set up by the lead climber. He/she always has the nut remover within reach.
  5. When both rope partners arrive at the anchor, either the lead climber is changed or the same climber continues as lead climber.
  6. Lead climber: When alternating the lead climber, the follower switches to become the lead climber. Once the follower has arrived at the belay, the rope partner tells him/her the best place to position him/herself and gives the new lead climber the remaining equipment for the next pitch. The lead climber’s belay must be adapted according to the anchor technique. Follower: Once the follower has arrived at the belay, he/she gets comfortable and sets up his/her own personal anchor using a clove hitch in the rope or a sling. He/she gets into position, takes the lead climber’s equipment and looks at the next pitch in the topographic map. If the rope partner has him/her in the belay, the new lead climber can prepare to climb.


Check out the full series of Safety Academy Lab Rock videos below:

  1. Alpine basics
  2. Basic equipment for every climber
  3. Basic equipment for groups
  4. Additional equipment for groups
  5. Storms in the mountains
  6. Types of rock in the Alps
  7. Tour planning for alpine climbing
  8. Packing a backpack correctly
  9. Rope team procedures
  10. Knot techniques
  11. Belay using bolts
  12. Belay methods
  13. Anchors
  14. Coiling a climbing rope
  15. Rappelling
  16. What to do in an alpine emergency
  17. First aid on the mountain
  18. Rescue techniques while alpine climbing
  19. Bivouacking in an emergency situation

Visit ORTOVOX’s Safety Academy Lab Rock to view the climbing tutorials in their totality and test your knowledge with their fun and interactive quizzes.


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Since the company was founded in 1980 in the south of Munich, ORTOVOX has stood for the highest possible protection during alpine activities. As pioneers in the avalanche safety field, we have played a key role in the development of emergency equipment for the mountains. Innovations such as the double-frequency avalanche transceiver and Smart Antenna Technology, and also targeted training measures, continue to be valuable contributions to making mountain sports a little bit safer and to saving lives.

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