Climbing in a three – how to swap leads

Gayle and Paul


Instructors and guides climb in a three a lot. But it’s not uncommon to climb in a three just for fun. You do need good rope work and organisation to make things flow smoothly to avoid tangles. Typically, the leader gets to a stance, makes a good anchor and brings both seconds up  at the same time on a guide plate (ATC, Reverso) at the same time.



If the leader is going to lead every pitch; on arrival at the stance the leader positions himself with the back to the next pitch, brings the seconds up;  the seconds stack back the ropes, and off the leader goes again – like in the photo below.

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What if you need to swap leads? Well, it’s better if the leader leads the whole climb.

But, if you absolutely have to,  here’s a method that has minimum faff. It does require some fore-thought, too.

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The leader leads up a pitch and keeps the ropes as separate as possible. It’s been decided that climber on the red rope is going to lead through. (EDIT – I note form this picture, I should have got my models to swap T-shirts to the RED rope climber had a RED t-shirt. The only problem is Andrew;s red t-shirt would never fit David. Or, I could matched ropes to t-shirt…. )

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In this climb, the next pitch goes up and left, away from the belay. The leader had made a good anchor, and has tied in with the red rope. The leader is going to use an ATC guide plate to belay both climbers at the same time.

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The climber on the blue rope climbs second, red rope third.

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The leader stacks the ropes over his tie-in loops to keep it all neat and tidy while belaying both climbers.



Some thought is required here to prevent a mess.  Tie the second climber above the leader – blue and red , on top of this, furthest away and ready to lead off to the left.



Once the second and third climbers are both at the ledge, get them tied into the anchor. The leader is facing in, towards the anchor. Because the leader is not leading on, the leader must be facing the way the route is going to go next, and the leader needs to make sure the second the third climbers are placed between the leader and where the route goes next.


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The second and third climber are organised on the ledge, to the left of the leader. Both climbers stack back their ropes into separate piles.

Now, the climber three is going to lead off. He has the red rope and needs the other end of the blue rope.

The leader stacks back the red rope off the third climber and back to himself.

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The leader double checks he is tied into the anchor on red.

All climbers double check they are tied in.

Be careful here !!

The leader unties the end of blue from his harness, and the third climber ties this end of blue onto his harness.

Check as the leader passes the blue rope to the third climber, that the blue rope is going to run from the second climbers stack cleanly and is not under any of the ends the are tied into the anchor.

Climber three now has tied blue and red on his harness. Both ropes are stacked the right way.


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The third climber now is ready to lead off. Sort out the gear, and off he goes, up and left away from the stance. Note – the new leader has placed a runner and clipped in.

Comments welcome. I’m sure there are other ways to do this!

(Thanks to Andrew and David for being willing models at a damp Hawkcraig!)




3 thoughts on “Climbing in a three – how to swap leads

  1. That all makes perfect sense, many thanks for a great blog post.

    I often use a PAS or similar when climbing in a 3. We’d still swap the ropes in a similar way but the PAS means that you’re always clipped into the anchor etc..although I guess you are limited by the length of the PAS so may still need to use the rope if it’s not a really spacious stance.

  2. I knew about the differences between dyneema and nylon but wasn’t aware the PAS systems failed at such low forces – I guess given they are constructed from static slings it’s not surprising. Certainly food for thought.

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