Please note that short-fixing is an advanced climbing technique and is not suitable for beginners or anyone new to trad climbing. In using this technique, it is necessary to have sufficient climbing experience to make a sound judgement call as to when it is appropriate to short-fix, and when it is not. This article seeks only to describe the concept of short-fixing and will not help you in making that judgement call. If you have any doubts, you should stick to regular belaying practises.
Short-fixing is a technique that allows both a leader and a seconder to move continuously up a climb, with very little time spent stopping to belay or swap the lead.
The short-fixing concept is that the leader is continually climbing—they will spend around half their time climbing with a traditional belay and the other half leading on self belay while the seconder jumars and cleans the pitch the leader has just finished. This means you can effectively remove the time it takes to belay the seconder on each pitch. If you are on a 30-pitch route and it takes your second an average of 20 minutes to follow each pitch, you can save 10 hours on your ascent time by short-fixing. Short-fixing is most effective on long routes when you are trying to reduce the time required to complete the climb; it works best on long, difficult, technical terrain where good anchors can be found at regular intervals, and is very useful for short weather windows in places like Patagonia or for fast ascents on big walls like El Capitan in Yosemite.
Short-fixing is not the solution to moving fast on every type of terrain. Usually an unroped soloist will move the fastest. (Guy McKinnon climbed the east face of Popes Nose in five hours, whereas the original four-person rope team took two days).
But as the difficulty of the climbing increases, a soloist will necessarily slow down (you really don’t want to fall while soloing) and at some point on the difficulty vs ability scale, a simul-climbing team will move faster than a soloist. This is because a simul-climbing team can afford to take more risks due to having a rope on. A good example of this is the standing record times to climb the classic Ravages of Time rock climb at Chinaman’s Bluff in the Dart River valley. The fastest solo time on the route is around 50 minutes, but it has been simul-climbed in around 40 minutes.
As the climbing difficulty continues to increase, your personal difficulty vs ability scale will at some point dictate that simul-climbing is no longer safe—this is when short-fixing becomes the fastest method. Short-fixing can also be faster and easier than simul-climbing when the second’s pack is too heavy for efficient free-climbing.
Another climbing style used commonly by teams in the mountains is to block-lead—this is when one climber will lead for three or more pitches before swapping out. The slowest way to move on a long route is by using the traditional technique of swinging leads, where the leader and seconder swap roles at each belay.
Short-fixing works best in situations where the terrain is difficult enough that having both the leader and seconder climb will be more time consuming than having the seconder jumar. On difficult terrain, a person who knows how to jumar well will always be faster than a seconder climbing with a pack on. For all the best speed ascents on El Capitan, the seconders jumar while the leader short-fixes and climbs continuously.
Short-fixing is least effective on easy terrain, and on ice or rock that does not protect well. It is most useful for crack routes where you have the option to aid and build anchors in many different positions along the route.
Personally, I use the short-fixing technique most often in Patagonia and Yosemite. In both of those locations the rock quality is usually good, the routes are long (which means the second has a heavy pack) and the climbing is generally dificult enough that the leader has to climb with no pack. While I would have liked to have short-fixed on some of the routes I’ve done in the Darrans, I have never found the crack systems to be continuous enough to provide adequate protection, so I have mostly avoided short-fixing in New Zealand.
Gear needed for short-fixing
To short-fix you will need a chest harness. The simplest way to make a chest harness for alpine climbing is to take a 120cm sling, put in two twists, add two clove hitches, and attach it over your shoulders with a locking carabiner. Almost all alpine climbers use a modified Grigri with auto-locking carabiner to short-fix. Think carefully before you drill a hole in your Grigri asthis is not recommended by the manufacturer. Purpose-built devices for self-belaying with achest harness exist, such as the Rock Exotica Silent Partner, if you don’t want to modify your Grigri you could add one of these to your rack (note that you’ll still need to carry a separate belay device).
You will also need a tag-line, this can be either your second rope or a dedicated 6mm tag-line.
The leader climbs the first pitch with a traditional belay and builds a solid anchor. The leader must stop at least 20 metres short of the full ength of your rope. If you don’t leave enough rope for the leader to be able to keep climbing for the duration of the time it takes for the seconder to follow, you’ll actually end up moving more slowly than if you were block-leading.
Ensure you create an equalised power point that the seconder can easily secure to when they arrive. Pull up the remaining slack in the rope and tie the rope to the power point with a figure eight knot. You now have a loop of rope which you can use to keep on leading while on a self-belay. The anchor doesn’t have to be multi-directional because the seconder will weight it when they begin jumaring.
It is important that the leader clips the tag-line through the anchor each time they leave a belay. This ensures that when the seconder arrives at the belay they can always reach the tag-line in order to clip the gear to it and send it up to the leader. If the pitch traverses, or it is windy, and you don’t clip the tag line through the belay, it usually ends up out of reach of the seconder and you’ll lose valuable time retrieving it.
Ensure your Grigri or ATC is clipped to your harness correctly (see photo diagrams) and double check that it will lock in the correct direction for arresting your lead fall. I always check that the little picture of the climber on a Grigri is on the end of the rope coming from the belay. Test that your belay device locks correctly before leaving the belay. For added security, you can tie a back-up knot into the section of rope you are climbing on at around the ten metre mark.
Place your first piece of protection close to the belay. It is essential that you avoid a factor two fall as you do not have the benefit of a fully dynamic belay when on self-belay. There are ways to rig a dynamic belay for self-belaying using sliding knots but I find it too time consuming when climbing in the mountains. If you’re worried, attach the end of the rope you plan to climb on to the belay with a screamer.
When you reach the end of the rope and are waiting for the seconder to finish cleaning the pitch below, simply secure to one or two good pieces and prepare to haul up the cleaned gear on the tag-line.
When the seconder arrives at the belay, all the gear in their possession should be racked on a 60cm sling. I usually try to put one of these slings on my first piece when leading to give the seconder something to rack onto. The seconder attaches the sling to the tag-line and yells ‘Ready to tag!’
Hauling the tag-line
While the leader sorts the hauled gear, the seconder should remove their jumars and put the leader on belay. They then remove the knot to free the lead line. It is important tp ensure the leader is on belay and the second is secured to the anchor before taking out the leader’s knot in the lead rope.
When the leader has finished with the tag-line, they can remove the knot in the line and drop the slack back to the belayer. Ensure the tag-line stays clipped through a carabiner close to the seconder and belay in case the leader needs anything else sent up. This will also ensure your tag-line does not blow away and get caught on something if it is windy.