Developing new routes is a highly rewarding and often time consuming activity. Motivations for doing it range from from the personal challenge of opening big lines on unclimbed walls to developing your local crag. Personally I have usually decided to open a new route when I am looking for my own challenge rather than the desire to establish routes for others to climb. I really enjoy the excitement of running it out above my gear on unclimbed terrain, not knowing what's coming next. For me this is the most challenging form of climbing where you can put your skills to the test. The creative process of finding a good unclimbed line, working out the right way to approach the route, selecting gear, working with your partner are all parts of the sport that hold and keep my interest year after year. As a mountain climber I also wish to develop routes in the mountains in a good traditional style. While I happily rap bolt when developing cragging routes on multipitch climbs or alpine walls I enjoy the challenge of developing new routes ground up.
Gear for route development
Drill, drill bits (as short as possible long drill bits get in the way when your climbing), spanner, hammer, crow bar, hose for blowing our bolt holes medium strength lock tight.
Aid climbing equipment – sky hook, grappling hook, 2 x bat hooks, 2 x daisy chains (adjustable ones are best), fifi hook, pocket aiders Piton rack , personally I usually just carry some thin pitons. For any routes I think people might like repeat and im carrying a drill I usually place a bolt over a piton. It does depend on the nature and location of the climb though. In more remote settings I will favour pitons over bolts.
Tag line, this allows you to tag the drill, rack, food / water etc on long leads. It is normal when climbing ground up to just climb with what you need. i.e you don’t have to carry all the gear all of the time. Use your tag line to allow the leader to tag up big cams, drill and any other gear as and when they need it.
Good quality wire brushes. Buy wooden handled ones and save some pointless plastic. Think of some kind of pointy metal hook that can be used for crack cleaning. Your nut pick works but doesn’t last that long. We have found a fire poker or similar is great for removing dirt from cracks.
Rope edge protector for when your fixing lines. You can make these out of almost anything. Garden hose or pvc pipe work just fine.
lead line and static rope for fixing & hauling. Often new routing with a drill and bolts involves allot of heavy gear. i.e your going to want to know how to haul. Get your system sorted and decide what pully’s / extra carabiners your going to need in advance so your not having to rob your to set this up.
A small sturdy bag for tagging gear up to the leader.
Approach ground up new route rock climbing on a multipitch the same way you would approach an ice climb. Position your belay in a safe position away from the intended line of ascent and ideally protected by a natural feature like a roof or corner. With a drill there is no reason you can not have a safe belay stance or navigate a large loose block. Sometimes you will have to re position a belay mid pitch If your belayer comes into the firing line. Always keep an eye on your position relative to your belayer and take care to run your ropes well to avoid them being cut by any rocks you dislodge.
Remember to consider on a long pitch how far a rock might bounce if it is dislodged and hits the wall on the way down. Large loose flakes Often the argument for rap bolting new routes in the alpine is that its to dangerous to go ground up with loose blocks or flakes on the wall. However with a drill and a couple of bat hooks it is quite easy to move around any loose features you encounter. The main two ways we do this is by drilling some bat hook holes to the side of any large loose feature, then moving around it on aid if its to loose to free climb on. The other good tactic is to build a belay off to the side of a loose feature , bring the second climber up and once they are safely alongside any loose features lever the block off the wall.
Picking the moment to aid or to free climb
This is crucial to the speed of your ascent. Depending on the difficulty and the angle of the rock its sometimes going to be easier and faster to aid climb rather than to continue trying to free climb. For example I know on most pitches around grade 20, I can usually climb and drill whilst holding a hold or I have enough reserve to find a good hook to drill off. However if the rocks a bit dirty or the climbing to hard i.e above 25 and theres no trad gear then im better to switch to aid climbing mode and simply hook my way up using natural features or drilled shallow holes.
The real fun and challenge of ground up new routing is in trying to see how far you can push yourself before you need to stop and either rest, place a bolt or hang off a hook. Its nice to onsight when you can but often the hard pitches must be done once the rock is cleaned and any gear is found, bolts are added etc. The amount of aid will often depend on how loose the rock is and how much natural protection is available. Its quite intense climbing above a bolt you have just placed and taking whippers while you find a good hold to hook or a stance to drill a bat hook hole. This is a skill that develops with practice. Start with some easy terrain and build up to the harder stuff. Make sure you send some time in advance learning to aid climb. A large amount of ground up new routing involves some aid climbing especially if the terrain is steep and difficult.
Organising your bolting equipment
Think of how you will attach the drill and hammer to yourself. We found a chest sling for each was ideal. One on each side of your body. I also secure them to a gear loop just encase I take a big fall. This stops them flying up and hitting you in the face. i.e the weight of the drill and hammer rests on your shoulders but they are also locked in place on the harness. Ensure your tether is long enough to operate with your arm extended. The same goes for your tube for blowing out drill holes.
I found wearing pants and a shirt with pockets also very handy. i.e my lock tight and drill bit often rested in my leg pocket on my pants while my blow tube for cleaning out holes stayed in a chest pocket in my shirt.
Cleaning loose rock
Often we would do this after climbing a pitch using a small crow bar. Ensure you don’t have any fixed lines or people / your bivy spot in the firing line. During our first ascent of the Airport Wall I tipped a large block off the wall. It bounced and landed partially on Merry’s newly repaired bivy bag. Needless to say the bivy bag had to be repaired once again. The rock missed the portaledge by millimetres leaving a 2ft deep crater in the ground at our bivy.
Often when cleaning rocks off the wall they would bounce and fly off in multiple directions. You will need to factor this in when turfing anything off. Climbing delicately over loose terrain is another developed skill. Learning how to move carefully and lightly over the rock will help you when climbing ground up on unclimbed rock.
Learning to haul Hauling is a key skill for going ground up on a big route. Poor technique will be really tiring. Multi day climbs will inevitably involve hauling food , water and equipment. Get some practice in before you head off to your next big wall project. This is one of the activities that consistently breaks climbers in places like Yosemite. If you don’t know how to haul properly you are going to expend countless amounts of time and energy. This will limit your climbing time and drain your body of the energy needed to free climb.
Picking the right line
This skill develops over time. Sometimes it works other times you fail. Practice learning to read a face without using a topo. A skilled climber should be able to pick the line and guess the difficulties and dangers before starting to climb.
Different rock types and different regions will produce a range of options when it comes to new route possibilities. Sometimes you need to aim for the large features of a cliff ie a chimney or wide crack. Other times it is the micro features that produce the best lines. For our route on Airport Wall we purposefully avoided the big corners which we had been told held loose rock. Instead we aimed for a series of smaller cracks and overhangs. This kept us on solid rock making the climbing much safer. To pick the line we took many hi res photos from different angles. We then tracked our route linking natural features with safe belaying spots. We also visited the wall twice before starting. Carrying loads, marking an approach, picking the starting pitches. Its important to understand that the bigger lines which involve big wall style tactics usually take some time to climb and involve allot of gear. Simply establishing a good approach to the wall took around 4 days effort. Over 14 days were then spent on the route itself, leading, cleaning, bolting, removing bolts when gear was found or a hidden feature discovered. This didn’t include the extra days for cleaning, working the route and trying to send the hard parts. All up we expect to invest around 4 months into a route this size.
For most new routes I carry a fairly standaed rack with a few additions. Personally I like having a good range of gear. Even on long alpine routes I feel the increase in speed due to having a good range of gear easily outweighs the extra effort of carrying the gear in. 2 x sets of cams usually Green C3 - Camalot #4. In addition I would usually take at least one smaller cam and often a single 5 & 6 if I think there will be some wide sections. For wires I also take a double set up to number 8. One of these sets is usually offset and I would include a couple of RP's. I also like to take a piton hammer and a range of pins. Usually this would be a medium and large beak piton plus 2 x knife blades. Along with spare cord and quick draws I also like to take two screamers for helping protect the belay or any marginal gear placements.
Other tips and skills to practice in advance of starting your new route
Learn how to jumar efficiently. Practice on different angles, learn to clean a traverse and know how to fix a static rope safely before heading up a big wall route.
Buying a light weight drill will make a difference to how hard you can climb carrying it. There are many good options out there now days. A nice drill and five amp hour battery should be 2kgs or less. Except to pay anywhere from $600 – 1000 for a good 18v light weight rotary hammer drill.
Get a big wall harness. They are heavy but super nice and comfy for long belays, hauling and jumaring. They often have stronger gear loops that allow you to clip more weight to your harness i.e the drill.
Don’t expect it to be fast or easy to develop a bolted or semi bolted route ground up. Even a tough fully trad route might require extensive aid and cleaning on the first go. These skills develop slowly over time. I have been climbing new routes now for over 20 years, I’m still learning how to do it and still refining the skills needed. I doubt ill ever learn all the skills needed but over time by continually trying I do improve.
Rack your bolt and hanger ready to go on your quick draws. That way if your at a sketchy stance or have a poor hook placement you can clip into the quick draw while you hammer in the bolt. A partially driven in bolt will easily hold you if you pop off.
Expect slow going. You might even fail. Focus on the experience not the outcome. In the long run however, by learning to development a route ground up your climbing will improve, your alpine skills will improve, and one day if you have dreams of climbing on big peaks around the world where you can’t just walk to the top and rap in, you might just find you have the skills and fitness to do it because you developed them before hand!