[3] Work Smart, Not Hard. Route Development Techniques and Tips.

This story is part of a series on route development. Click this tag to see all.

One of the things I realized from my first development project is how much repetitive work you have to do if you go back to the top and re-clean. I have to go all the way down the moderate routes again and brush all the holds. I’m sure y’all can remember topping out using sandy holds or trying to pull on even the best jug with dirt on it.

My process for cleaning the “Welcome to Nightvale” Area

  • Day 1: Scout the rock
Can you see the potential for five routes in this picture?
  • Day 2: Make trail to crag, trundle the biggest boulders and clean most of mouse poop
  • Day 3: Improve approach trail, finish cleaning mouse nest behind pillar, pull on every hold possible to remove rot
  • Day 4: Clean all the branches and dirt from the easy 5.4 route which still feels 5.6
  • Day 5: TR a bunch of routes to see if ready to climb (it wasn’t ready)
  • Day 6: Throw down a lot of volume of dirt from the second tier, bringing the rake up
Raking off the top of the first tier
  • Day 7: Clean all the dirt out of the cracks again and brush all holds clear of dirt any mouse poop
  • Day 8: FA the climbs with friends and get grading locked down
  • Day 9: Failed first bolt installation (underpowered drill)
  • Day 10: Finish bolting
  • Day 11: Document and post to mountain project

Each day was about 3-5 hrs of work, so the whole project good # days * 3-5 hrs = 30-50 hrs of work for eight routes of 15m height.

Hindsight is 20-20

How I would do it differently with what I know now so I have to re-brush the routes again.

  • Day 1: Scout the rock
    • I wouldn’t change this because this day was really about ground-trothing whether the routes are good or not
  • Day 2: Make trail to crag, trundle the biggest boulders and clean most of mouse poop
  • Day 3: Basically do Day 7 above to clean off all the dirt from the top
  • Day 4: Clean all the cracks out all the way
  • Day 5: Brush off all the holds
  • Day 6: FA Day and some minor route cleaning
  • Day 7: FA Day #2 with friends to verify grades
  • Day 8: Bolt the routes
  • Day 9: Document and publish
The routes as currently established in Welcome to Nightvale

So mainly, I would save brushing holds until I clean out all the rock on top of the first tier. I probably touched up the same route 2-3x in my actual cleaning. One thing I found with the dislodging of a lot of dirt volume from the top was it put enough material to rake a really nice, flat belay station of dirt on top of the rock. So I’d say there is a lot of utility in doing so.

From this experience I’d classify the following tasks from most important to least important:

  1. Survey rock quality and route potential (i.e. is this place good to climb)
  2. Setup a semi-periminant, reliable anchor and fix static line for cleaning
    1. Make sure you use webbing or chord depending on the rock
    2. Ensure the anchor doesn’t go over any sharp edges
  3. Trundle all large stuff from top to bottom that could fall on belayers 
    1. Involves both stuff on top of the climbs and pulling on large stuff on the climbs
    2. I didn’t use a crowbar since I figured if my 210 lbs of dynamic force kicking something didn’t move it, it was going nowhere. I didn’t want to clean too much ascetic pieces from the climbs too
  4. Clean up any other hazards above the climb or would dislodge from rope drag, etc.
    1. Even small pebbles hitting people can cause injury. 
  5. Clean all the rot off the climbs by pulling on everything
  6. Clean out all the cracks so they are clean, fun and provide easy placements
    1. Cutting branches, digging out dirt, cleaning any nests or other obstructions
  7. Scrub the baked white holds free of bird poop
    1. typically this feels like a near impossible task and I did this very lightly
  8. Go top to bottom brushing all holds free of dirt
  9. Make nice belay stations
  10. Make a really nice trail

A Day at Route Development

Brushing some holds

I feel like people like to know what the daily grind of route development is like so I’ll share what my experience typically is like:

  1. Pack all my gear up to the crag and place it out of rock fall range
  2. Gear up into jugging and attach all tools to harness, fix any extra heavy gear to the other strand of fixed static line to pull up afterwards
  3. Ascend the rope to anchor and inspect it
  4. Orient the rope for the route to clean, move the bottom of the rope out of rock fall danger to avoid any damage
  5. Setup on a double strand rappel with a third hand
    1. Static ropes are really frictionally so there is no slip with this third hand
  6. Descend a route top-to-bottom cleaning the route
  7. Two hours later, I reach the bottom
  8. Repeat on another route

Want to see how route development looks in-action? Check out the short documentary on the development at Storybook Cliff.