Ode to the seconds

Posted: April 24, 2012 by None Smith in Climbing, English
Tags: , , , , ,

In almost any outdoor excursion, whether it be a big expedition, a day hike, or a climb, the overall outing is divided into sections. Each section has it’s set of leaders and followers. This can happen in a day hike where the front person is switched out every x number of miles. In climbing, each climb is divided into “pitches”, and each pitch has it’s follower and leader. Being that I spend most of my time climbing, and climbing has one of the clearest depictions of leaders and followers, I will relate mostly to that outdoor sport. This is, my ode to the second. In honor of the followers.

Quick trad climbing lesson! A climbing route is divided into pitches. At the Gunks, the most pitches I’ve encountered is 3-4, but to give you perspective, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California has routes with over 30 pitches! A pitch can be determined by either: running out of rope, a convenient belay ledge, an convenient place to create an anchor or pre-existing bolted anchors.

Each pitch then has a leader and a follower. A leader is on the “sharp end” of the rope. As they climb they place gear (protection for themselves if they were to fall) and then clip the rope into that gear. The leader has a bit more precarious of a job, which can be stressful! If the leader falls they can fall quite a bit. Depending how far they are above their last protection, how much slack is in the rope and other factors, they could be halfway up the pitch and still hit the deck! (This is rare and probably evidence of not the strongest leader.) The leader also has the stress of setting quality gear. These SLCDs and nuts must hold if the leader were to fall on them. Falling only to have your protection pop out of the wall is never a situation you want to be in.

Once the leader reaches the belay ledge, they tie into an anchor, get taken off belay, and pull all the rope up until the second’s (who is still on the ground) side of the rope becomes taught. The leader then belays from the top of the pitch and the second climbs up and takes all the gear out of the wall. When all is said and done, it’s as if the climbing team weren’t even on the wall (a beautiful thing for conservation and the environment!).

The second’s job is relatively safe. They are essentially on top rope (for those who’ve climbed top rope at the gym you know how safe this is as opposed to lead climbing), and they must take the gear out of the wall and put it on their harness. Pretty simple right? Without a doubt the stress is reduced as is the responsibility. But is it? It’s a big misconception that the follower is “without responsibility” as the safety of the team is on the shoulders of both climbers.

An efficient and well versed second (hopefully with some knowledge about leading) can make the biggest contribution to the overall climb.

So, to all those seconds who re-rack alpine draws mid climb, thank you! To those who are busy flaking out the rope while the leader is busy racking up, thank you! Those seconds who keep all the nuts together when giving them back to the leader and who place cams strategically on their harness, thank you! To all the followers who bring extra cordelettes, nut tools, locking carabiners, thank you! To the seconds that know what a clove hitch is, use it to tie themselves into the anchor and carry their own leashes, thank you! And to all those seconds who know what gear they should have on their harness before the leader sets up the pitch… thank you!

The list could go on, but the point is there… efficient followers are an integral part to any expedition. And with enough knowledge, both climbers will probably be swapping leads – creating an extremely efficient climbing team.

  1. I really enjoyed this post, good work! Seconds are the unsung heroes especially on single pitch climbs. More of a hindrance on multipitch unless they can lead as well! Met someone recently who described himself as the best second in the world. He was a hardcore boulderer but hated leading! Long live the seconds!

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