What Is a Pitch in Climbing?

A Section of a Climbing Route Between Two Belay Points

Brian Shelton leads the last pitch up sharp pockets on the first ascent of the Tower of Kor in 2012. Dennis Jump belaying.
Climbers do the last pitch between ledges of a 5-pitch route in western Arizona. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

A pitch in rock climbing is a section of a route on a cliff that is climbed between two belay points, using a rope for protection from the dire effects of falling. Sport climbing routes are usually one pitch in length because the climber ascends the cliff to a set of bolt anchors on the cliff face, which he lowers himself down from.

Multi-pitch routes are climbing routes that are more than one pitch long.

These can range from two- or three-pitch climbs to routes that are longer than 20 pitches on big walls. The difficulty and number of pitches on a route contributes to the climb's rating in the  National Climbing Classification System.

Length of Pitches in Climbing

The length of a pitch is usually determined by the availability of belay anchors and ledges, as well as rope drag and the quality of the rock. Pitches are always shorter than the length of a climbing rope, which ranges between 50 and 80 meters long. The usual length of an American rope is either 50 meters (165 feet) or 60 meters (200 feet), although some ropes are as long as 70 meters (230 feet).

Most pitches on long climbs are between 100 and 160 feet long, although pitches can be as short as 20 or 30 feet. Sport climbing pitches where the belayer is on the ground are seldom longer than 100 feet from the ground to anchors.

Pitch Climbing

The lead climber is the one who goes first on a pitch, placing gear and making sure they are anchored.

The second or follower is the next climber, who cleans the pitch, collecting the protective gear.

The length of the pitch may vary depending on the length of the rope, how much protective gear is available, where there are fixed bolts or belay stations, or the leader wants to exchange the lead. At the belay station, the team may decide to change leaders.

Swinging leaders is often the most efficient way to handle the ropes. However, care is needed in changing from belaying the second to belaying the leader for the next section. They collect the equipment, make any lead exchanges, and start the next pitch.

Before taking on a multi-pitch climb, be sure you are confident with your skills (and that of your partner) for leading single-pitch routes. Select shorter routes with just a couple of pitches and where you won't run into many difficulties. This way, you can focus on the techniques of pitch climbing in your first few multi-pitch climbs. You want to practice on routes with obvious ledges for belay points.

You will also need more gear on multi-pitch routes for setting the belay points. When you study the route before the climb, you'll need to estimate how many quickdraws you will need, rope length, cams, and slings. You'll need belaying gear and the equipment needed to build anchors.