Articles - How to climb a big wall: Essential skills and techniques
Mark Reeves - Posted on 31 Jan 2012
Inside most climbers is the ability to think big and dream even bigger. Big Walls are as big as it gets and are at the deep-end of the pool when it comes to the game we call climbing. Simply turning up at the base of one of these mega-routes and trying to climb up in a traditional fashion just isn’t going to work for the majority of rock climbers. There is a new set of skills which, at their most basic, break down into to aid climbing, making big wall belays, seconding, hauling and generally living in the vertical for days on end.
Don’t be fooled that aid climbing is easy. The nuts and bolts of it are, but it does require a degree of general fitness and a very good understanding of traditional gear placements and how to stay safe. As such, to tackle a big wall, the best training you can do to start with is loads of trad climbing. As a rough guide you’ll need to be able to lead 10 pitches of HVS+ climbing in a day. The harder you climb the easier it will be. Because you can potentially be leading 50-60 metre pitches by pulling on gear every move you’ll need around 30+ runners in an average pitch. So the size of your rack is going to be a lot larger than for UK cragging. For a route like The Nose on El Capitan you'll need a double or, better still, triple rack of cams, a double rack of wires, RP’s, 14+ quickdraws and 20+ snapgates. All this will need to be racked on a bandolier, and getting used to climbing with one in the UK is a massive help, as is climbing with such a large rack.
(Llion Morris climbs pitch four of The Nose on El Capitan, Yosemite. Photo: Mark Reeves)
You’ll need two daisy chains, two aiders, two screwgates and a fifi hook.
- Larks foot the daisy chains and fifi hook to your belay loop.
- Make a loop at the other end of the daisy chain, and clip through this loop with the karabiner.
- Now attach you Aiders to the screwgate.
(Here is the set up for one half of the aid climbing rig. Note the Petzl Wall Step - this seven-step aider has two top steps, making those high steps feel really secure. It also has a rubber captivation device which helps it stay in place. Photo: Mark Reeves)
Aid climbing sequence
- Place a piece of gear, test it, clip a karabiner to it.
- Attach one of your aiding arms to it, and use the lowest foot loop to bounce-test the gear. Bounce-testing is important because if you fail to bounce-test a piece of gear, you will be reluctant to test the next, and so on, as you run it out on what could be gash gear.
- When you are happy with the placement use the aider like a ladder and ascend until you can fifi hook into the karabiner that’s attached to the placement. Make sure you clip the fifi hook into the karabiner so that it can slide up and down the backbar of the karabiner not across the gate. Then sit back and relax.
- Identify the next placement, get ready to place it, and move up to get stood in the top step of your aiders, if its not high enough then you might have to use the ‘hero loop’ (the small loop above the top step!). As you do this you can layback/undercut on your fifi hook by keeping it tensioned. This makes your legs and core do more work and stops it falling off. Also remember you can use any handhold to help balance.
- Start again at step 1, but this time as you move onto the next placement clip the one you are moving off as a runner with a single karabiner (not all runners are extended in aid climbing).
(Belays on big walls often become a confusing mess of ropes, slings and other equipment, so try to keep them as tidy as possible. Photo: Mark Reeves)
BIG WALL BELAYS
The forces that go onto a big wall belay can be the largest forces that climbing belays can face. While not dynamic forces, at times the haul bag, the leader and the second will all be hanging off the belay. In the most part, popular routes have good bolts on the belays, usually two or three. In those cases you are going to need a 240cm sling or a long cordelette to equalise the belay to one strong point with two or three loops. This gives you a couple of loops to attach to. Typically this will be one loop for hauling and another for fixing the lead rope to for the second to jumar. If there is a third loop double up the lead line.
Whilst many people get away with simple 1:1 hauling, this can be extremely hard for the first day or so. The required four litres of water a per person per day, plus food and other equipment soon adds up and, during the initial days, the bag can feel like you are dragging up a spare adult. Consider taking a couple of extra small pulleys along, the Petzl Oscillante and Partner are both small, light and great for setting up a basic 3:1 system that gives you some mechanical advantage, and can really save the harness sores from pitch after pitch of hauling. You’ll also need to practice tying the bag off with a third short ‘lower-out line’; a 7mm cord about 25 metres long will do, which is used to both secure the haul bag to the belay with a tied off Italian hitch, and then to lower the bag out across any traversing the pitch does.
(1:1 hauling means you have to pull the whole weight of the bag up, which can be extremely strenuous. Here we use the Petzl Pro Traxion, which needs the bottom karabiner clipped for it to be safe. Photo: Mark Reeves)
(3:1 hauling needs a little more equipment but, with either the Petzl Partner or the Oscillante, this extra weight is minimal, and the bottom hole on the Pro Traxion comes into its own. It makes hauling much easier. The wires clipped to the inverted Jumar, make the system automatically reset. Photo: Mark Reeves)
Be under no illusion - belaying an aid climber leading can be less interesting than watching paint dry. You are definitely going to want to invest in a Petzl GriGri so you can maybe read a book, take a snooze or maybe even find time to eat, when you should really be belaying! You’ll also be following the pitch on Jumars, allowing the leader to haul the bag that you have just released from the belay. There are several ways to Jumar up a rope and two ways are suggested below. To follow a route you may also face a couple of problems, the first being a slight deviation, the second being traverses. Deviations are relatively straight forwards, as you can take your feet out of the aiders and layback off the Jumars, smearing against the wall with your feet, this is usually enough to release the tension on the runner that the rope deviates round, allowing you to take it out. Traverses and roofs are a little more complicated.
LIFE IN THE VERTICAL
As well as the challenge of climbing the wall you’ll also need to be able to face the little challenges of life, like finding time to eat, a place to sleep and of course how to go to the loo. Of which urinating will be obvious as you’ll smell the stale piss of the last 100 people up the route every time you are within five metres of a belay. You will also find out how hard it is to poo into a bag, and how disgusting it is to put this into a poo tube and drag it along with you. Your body will become battered, you’ll be held together by zinc oxide and duct tape, rattle with the amount of ibuprofen you are taking and long for the day that you can walk further than two steps away from your mate who will have seen you do stuff that would make your most peoples stomach turn.
(In this set up the fifi hook will run up and down the back bar of the karabiner, not across the gate. If it is on the gate side it will invariably unclip as it moves up across the gate, resulting in an uncomfortable static fall onto your daisy chains! Photo: Mark Reeves)
PREPARING FOR A BIG WALL
If you are still keen, even after all that, and need a training regime then consider getting out for a week of climbing, trying to do as many routes as possible everyday. You’ll need to be up at dawn and in bed at dusk. Camping will help simulate the far from ideal sleeping conditions. Above all, practice all the skills I have mentioned - trying them once simply isn’t enough, as to succeed you need to be slick. Consider going on a 'How to Big Wall' course as what I have covered here is just the tip of the iceberg and there are several other top tips and tricks we can teach you in a controlled environment, and give you a better idea of what you will be dealing with on your first big wall.
ROAD TO THE NOSE
Believe me when I say that everybody, and their dog and their friends wants to climb The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite. If that is your goal then think about having a go at the following routes first as part of your preparation - half a mile up on The Nose is no place to be practicing your aiding and hauling technique for the first time.
- South face of Washington Column
- First 10 pitches of Salathe Wall aka Free Blast
- Regular NW route of Half Dome
- Regular Route Fairview Dome
(The big waller's mecca - mighty El Capitan, Yosemite. Photo: Mark Reeves)
TIPS FOR PRACTICING BIG WALL CLIMBING IN THE UK
- If you are going to practice aid climbing in classic rock climbing areas use only gear you would use on the routes normally (wires, cams and hexes), with maybe the addition of a skyhook. Don’t go around banging pegs in, as you’ll be infamous on UKC before you know it.
- Aid cracks on a top rope, just in case you blow it low down
- Use easy sports routes, or ask your local climbing wall if you can practice there when it's not too busy. Again, start with a top rope for protection.
- Become efficient and slick at everything from racking, making belays to the sequence of aiding. While five minutes here and there on a typical day's climbing is nothing, multiply that by 10 pitches of a big wall route and you start losing hours each day.
- Climb with your partner in the UK, know their strengths and their weaknesses. It will take a strong team to climb a giant wall.
- Book on a big walling course!
(Try practicing aid climbing on a top rope. Photo: Mark Reeves)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - MARK REEVESMark Reeves is a climber, instructor, coach, author and photographer who blogs at www.lifeinthevertical.co.uk/blogs/
THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE OCTOBER 2011 ISSUE OF CLIMBER MAGAZINE