Alpine Quickdraws 101: Everything You Need to Know
Alpine quickdraws are an absolute essential on just about every trad route.
If you’re making the transition from sport to trad climbing, extension is one of the big skills to master. On some routes, it can make the difference between smooth sailing and scary drag.
Here’s what you need to know.
A Bit of Theory: Why Use Alpine Quickdraws?
First, let’s cover why alpine draws are so important: they allow you to straighten your line.
Imagine a trad route that traverses before turning vertical, or one that zig-zags back and forth. This is fairly common, especially in multi-pitch climbing. Combine a wandering line with long pitches, and you have a recipe for crippling rope drag.
Extending the point of attachment decreases the distance from a piece to the line that your climbing rope wants to take. On a zig-zagging line, it means that the rope has to cover less horizontal distance and stays closer to plumb.
That means an easier time for the climber, but it can be a safety concern as well. When connected close to the piece, the rope will often rotate protection away from its original direction of pull.
Nuts can pop and cams can walk, neither of which is reassuring when you’re above. Long draws minimize the forces on pieces from the rope, which helps mitigate the danger.
What You Need
The ingredients for an alpine draw are simple:
- 2 wiregate carabiners
- 1 shoulder-length sling
Wiregates tend to be a little more versatile than solid-gate ‘biners because of their lighter weight. On a climbing harness already heavy with gear, carrying light draws makes a difference.
Don’t get too crazy on the gram-counting, though — the smallest carabiners on the market (Metolius FS Mini II, Camp Nano 22) are finicky to handle. It’s best to compromise on a ‘biner that’s light and versatile without sacrificing usability.
The great debate of slings rages between nylon and dyneema. Dyneema is light, strong, and absorbs less water, but doesn’t stretch and takes knots poorly. Nylon provides some dynamic stretch and knots well, but is bulkier and heavier. In different situations, some of these virtues are more important than others.
Both work well — dyneema makes for a smoother experience on alpine draws, but nylon works fine and provides a tad more versatility.
Check out our guide to the best climbing slings and runners for our favorites.
How to Build an Alpine Quickdraw
Building an alpine draw is one of those things you would never think to do until you’re shown, but it’s simple once you know how.
The steps are these:
- Clip both carabiners to your sling
- Pass one carabiner through the other
- Clip the passed-through ‘biner onto both strands of the sling
And that’s it.
With the ‘biners pulled in opposite directions, the result is a tripled sling about the length of a conventional quickdraw. It can be racked in just the same way.
If that’s not clear, check out this demonstration:
How to Use an Alpine Quickdraw
Once folded and racked, an alpine quickdraw is ready to join the rest of the gear on your harness.
To deploy it:
- Clip one end to the piece you want to extend
- Take the other carabiner and remove from all three strands. If you’re slick enough, you can unclip from two strands and leave the third, but this can be finicky depending on the sling and carabiner.
- Clip the removed carabiner to a single stand and pull. With a pull, the draw should revert to fully extended form.
- Draw extended, the free-hanging carabiner can go on your rope. You’re all set, and you can move on with a clear conscience knowing that you’ve done what you can to minimize drag.
Occasionally the strands may bind on the gear-side carabiner, which can weaken the sling or make unclipping slightly more likely.
It’s a pain, but it’s usually best to make sure that the sling hangs free. For the same reasons, most sources recommend against conveniences like rubber ‘biner-keepers or clove hitches.
How to REALLY Use an Alpine Quickdraw
Truth be told, using alpine draws comes down to more than just the mechanics. Remember the theory on why extension reduces drag? You’re not done using your brain.
It’s usually neither possible nor practical to extend every placement. Some climbers carry entirely alpine draws, but many don’t.
In fact, there are situations when extension can work against you — if you’re climbing above a ledge, you may want a piece to catch you sooner rather than later.
And not every piece needs extension. In sections where the climb is vertical or the rope will always cover the same path, extension may not help at all.
Extend where it matters: the pieces close to direction changes are the ones that will create drag. The last piece before a roof, for example, is a frequent source of drag and should be extended when practical. This is another area in which trad climbing requires compromises and good judgment, but luckily extension is intuitive once you get the hang of it.
To make matters more complicated, slings fill many more roles than one on a typical trad climb. Need quick equalization between two pieces? Take that sling and make a sliding X. Need to sling a tree or horn? Grab a runner.
You may end up breaking down an alpine draw to use its components elsewhere, which is why it’s always nice to have a few around.
How to Clean an Alpine Quickdraw
You thought you were done, right? Not so.
Let’s say your partner did a stellar job extending pieces on the crux pitch of the day. It’s your job to clean the pitch and be ready for your lead when you get to the belay. It’s surprisingly easy to make a mess while cleaning — reracking alpines is much harder than extending them.
The problem is exacerbated when you’re pumped or without a solid stance. When you’re following it’s sometimes possible to hang for a moment from the rope if necessary, but not always.
A few solutions are possible.
Solution #1: Remake the Quickdraw
Ideally, remake the quickdraw when you clean. This usually means cleaning the piece, clipping it to your harness, then unclipping the ‘biner from the rope and reforming the draw.
This method minimizes the possibility of dropping gear, but it can be awkward for some placements. If necessary, remove and reform the draw before cleaning the piece.
It’s tricky to rerack an alpine draw one-handed, but it’s worth it — you’ll be glad when you get to the belay and don’t have to go about sorting and folding all the slings hanging down around your waist.
Solution #2: Loop the Runners Over Your Shoulder
Some climbers solve the problem by looping runners over their shoulder bandolier-style. This is convenient, but comes with its own drawbacks.
Multiple slings will easily get tangled over a shoulder, and the carabiners will hang down and hide your feet on slabs. The slings are only easily accessible with a certain hand free, and if you happen to need one while holding on with that arm, you’re out of luck. And on larger falls, slings around the neck can catch on horns or flakes, which could be disastrous.
Solution #3: Clean, Clip, & Go
If there are no other options, one last-ditch option is to clean the piece, clip it to your harness, and simply move on. The rope-end ‘biner stays on the rope, just above your knot.
The next time you reach a stance (or the anchor), you can sort out and rerack the slings. This is a messier approach, but it works in a pinch.
How Many Alpine Quickdraws Do You Need?
That covers the basics of alpine quickdraw use. So how many do you need?
This is a subject of debate, and different climbers prefer different methods. Some climb exclusively with alpines for maximum versatility, placing them in folded mode when they don’t need extension.
In general, I don’t find myself needing more than 12-14 quickdraws on trad pitches unless the pitch is a rope-stretcher. Of that number, I like to have several light conventional quickdraws in 12 cm or 17 cm lengths. They’re lighter and handier than alpine draws when full extension isn’t necessary.
That usually leaves around 8 spots for alpines. Unless a route requires very frequent extensions, this should be plenty.
Be aware of how many alpine draws you have remaining — it’s a bummer to reach a placement you need to extend only to reach back to an empty gear loop. And speaking of racking, make sure to throw some draws on both sides of your harness. Exact location will depend on how you like your gear to hang, but having draws available to both hands is key.
8 alpines means at least 8 slings and 16 carabiners. Differentiating between gear-end and rope-end ‘biners is less important here than it is in sport climbing, but some climbers still prefer to have color-coded carabiners for easy visual recognition.
And that’s it!
Alpine quickdraws are a little like learning the piano: easy to learn, but tricky to master. Learning when and how to extend is one more dimension to add to the puzzle of gear placements and route planning.
Like many aspects of trad climbing, there’s no formula. Alpine quickdraws are just one more tool in the box, but they are an especially useful one.