My first feeble attempts to climb a technical big wall ended back on the ground. Our best efforts found my partner and I mustering up enough pluck to scratch up two or three pitches. We would string up the ropes kidding ourselves we were fixing. After a week of frigging around, despite our best efforts to slack off, we'd entered the heavily poised stage. When the moment of truth came, distant inclement weather, mysterious gut ailments, and "gear failure" would halt the proud blast off. This happened three times. Each attempt terminated at the base, eating 5 days worth of food in a few hours. If truth be known, we didn't want it bad enough. To our credit we were in love with the idea of climbing a big wall. The trouble came when we had to commit.
I was lucky. I had years to waste groping around the Yosemite Valley until I bumped into the right combination of psyche, partner, and experience. The clincher came when I got sick of everyone asking me when I was going to get up something. I reached an exquisitely sharp juncture where I'd have rather died than face the hoots again. After that it was easy. When I pulled over the summit of El Capitan after the harrowing nightmare of my first Grade VI nail-up, I was relieved and satisfied. So replete was I that I raced off on a six month sport climbing trip. But I was back the next fall. While my sport climbing peers pushed onward, magically consolidating big numbers, I did the retro aid shuffle. Though I lost my lithe fitness and steely finger power, I gained a stack of memories and experience. And sometimes when I topped out after some week long epic I was so tired I didn't care about anything. And that was reward enough.
Most of you don't have years to squander. No doubt you'll want to avoid the hassles of jerking around waiting for the magic moment to arrive. If getting up a technical big wall is a major goal in your climbing career then read on. It might save you a few wasted years.
What is Wall Climbing?
Two general rules transform an extended rock climb into a real wall climb. If we disregard incongruities like one day "push" ascents or free climbs of big aid lines, the criteria is: any route where an average party takes more than one or two days using specialized gear including aiders, pitons, and hooks. The Zodiac on El Capitan is a perfect example of a big wall climb. The average party spends 3 or more days climbing it. They make liberal use of aiders, hooks, and in situ or self placed pitons. The party hauls gear using a pulley and jumars. They sleep on natural ledges and fold up porta-ledges.
What Can You Expect on a Big Wall?
The aspirant wall climber can expect to be scared on their first big wall. Exposure, commitment, and the slow burn of aid climbing will extract a severe mental and physical toll. He or she can anticipate harder work than they have found on any multi-pitch rock climb in their past experience. At the topthere will be no great revelation. Sometimes there isn't even a real summit to tag.
So why bother with the drudgery? Personally, I don't know. I didn't know why after my first wall. I still don't know why to this day. Maybe big walls are nice to get over with. I always seem to think after a particularly nastyroute, "Killer. That's one thing I never have to do again." Reasons aside, the allure is strong. Nearly every year, I find myself tacked on a steep rock face, miles above the ground, wondering what's around the next corner.
To tackle a big wall, you must have a background in traditional multi-pitch rock climbing. Big wall climbing, is the most equipment intensive facet of our sport. It requires intimacy with racking, placing, and removing your own cams and nuts. Efficient ropework, smooth belay setups and changeovers, routefinding skills, and proper "headspace" should become second nature. You must put in long days of rock climbing. These outings will help develop the mental and physical stamina necessary to deal with the trials of life on a big wall. Acquire fortitude and tenacity. Patiently manage whatever epics you might encounter on the small stuff. These will pale in comparison to thehateful Snafu's which are an integral part of the big wall experience.
The trad climber's rack is also the backbone of the big wall rack. Mostof you have a set of nuts, quickdraws, and two sets of cams. Your partnerwill have a similar selection of gear. This combined quiver should meet thebulk of hardware needs. Extra gear will depend on the choice of climb. Youwill probably need to obtain 25-50 pitons, 30 tie-offs, hooks, copperheads, rivet/keyhole hangers, and more carabiners.
The type and number of pitons and copperheads one needs will depend onchoice of route and the current state of its fixed gear. Nailing conditionsmight change week to week. Walls go clean, made possible to a large extent byin situ hammer placed gear. Occasionally someone will remove most or allthe in situ gear. The safe bet is to bring a good selection of pitons and'heads. Consult those who have climbed the route recently.
RURP's and beaks are micro pitons used in the wee-est of cracks. RURP'sare flat and hatchet shaped while beaks have a tiny hooked blade.Knifeblades are horizontal pitons with a ground taper. Their dimensions resemble thoseof a short kitchen knife. Lost Arrows are horizontal pitons filling the sizegap between blades and angle pitons (4mm to 8mm). Angle pitons are cut andfolded heat treated sheet steel. They range in size from baby angles (1/2") to fat angles (1 1/2"). Z-pitons fill the dimensions of large arrows up to standard angle size. They are the ticket for stacking on blown out trade routes.
A solid pin selection for most first time aid walls could be the following: several RURPs and birdbeaks, three Z-pitons, six knifebades, four bugaboos, 12 Lost Arrows, three 1/2-inch and 5/8-inch angles, two 3/4-inch angle,and one or two each angle up to 1 1/2-inch. For the blown out pin scars on well traveled routes you might need a few sawed off angles, maybe one each 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch. For 'heads bring two #0's, three #1's, 10 #2's,four #3's, and two #4's. On harder trade routes, you may need double thisnumber of pins and 'heads.
You will need hooks. For easier trade routes like the Zodiac, a few regular skyhooks is all you'll need. On harder climbs, two each hook: skyhook, Leeper flat, Leeper point, Grappling Hook, and Fish Hook will keep you moving.
You will need plenty of tied two-and-a-half foot lengths of 1/2-inch and9/16-inch tubular webbing. These should be tied into loops with a waterknot. About three dozen of these will work to tie off bottomed out pins,thread lower out points, and runner placements. Carry a dozen slightly longer tie-offs as "keeper slings" and at least a dozen doubled runners. Carry a minimum of 80 free carabiners. You will still run out of them on the lead. Bring six each keyhole and rivet hangers depending on route. Some climbs require a dozen each.
A beefy 10.5 or 11 millimeter dynamic rope in 60-meter length is the ideal lead cord. Tough and long, it will last under the rigors of leading and jumaring. It will have enough length to handle rope stretcher pitches.You probably have one already. A nine millimeter static rope in 60-meter length is a great trail line for hauling up extra gear in mid-pitch. The non-stretch rope provides spring free hauling while wrestling the bags upward. An additional 9 millimeter rope is useful on some routes as a lower outline. A 10 millimeter dynamic lower out rope can double as a spare lead or fixing line.
Bullet List -- General Wall Gear:
Hammer and holster
Double Gear Sling
Fingerless Leather Gloves
Wallspoon and Swiss Army knife
A0: Grabbing gear; tension traverses; pendulums; resting on gear.
A1: Aiders required; bombproof gear like bolts and straight forward piton, nut, and cam placements.
A2: Awkward A1; occasional less than perfect placements.
A2+: Consecutive less-than-perfect placements; potentially dangerous passages like fixed heads, hooking, and decaying rivet ladders.
A3: Increased fall potential; hard to get or bodyweight placements.
A3+: Sustained tricky cruxes and multiple bodyweight placements; ledge falls and other hazardous landings possible; clean 60+ foot fall potential.
A4: Big danger; Long strings of bodyweight placements; long (60-100 foot) and dangerous falls possible onto hazardous ledges or obstacles.
A4+: Sustained A4; long loose or uncertain bodyweight passages; huge fall potential with serious landings.
A5: The top end; maximum fear and danger; a full pitch of bodyweight placements; no drilled holes.
A6: Theoretical grade; A4+ or A5 with bad belay anchors.
Big Walls, by John Long and John Middendorf.
Big Wall Climbing, by Doug Scott.
Advanced Rockcraft, by Royal Robbins.
Big Walls: Breakthroughs on the Free-Climbing Frontier, by Paul Piana.
Downward Bound: A Mad Guide to Rock Climbing, Warren Harding.
Big Wall Home Page -- This site was created by John Middendorf. It contains wall climbing information, articles and links to other wall and climbing related sites.
Fish Catalog and Big Wall Info Center -- Here you will find products, information, tips, and stories from Russ "the Fish" Walling.
Teton Mountaineering's Aid Climbing and Big Wall Info and Photo Page --This page provides a rating breakdown, route list, photos, and links.
Pika Mountaineering -- This has Pika's gear catalog along with technical information, pictures, and links.
Dave Bengston's El Cap Page -- This site was created by YosemiteMountain School Guide and wall ace Dave Bengston. It has El Capitan information on a FAQ page.
*You can use rec.climbing to hurl queries into the ether of cyberspace. Expect mixed results and plenty of entertainment.
Yosemite Mountaineering School
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite, CA. 95389
American Mountain Guides Association
710 Tenth St.
American Alpine Institute
1212 24th St.
Bellingham, WA 98225
Yosemite National Park, California -- Zodiac (VI 5.9, A2+), PacificOcean Wall (VI 5.9, A3+). These classic and historic aid climbs scale the steepright side of El Capitan. Depending on the state of fixed gear, expectmoderate to difficult nailing, heading, and hooking in wild positions. YosemiteClimbs: Big Walls,by Don Reid.
Zion National Park, Utah -- Peyote Dreams (VI 5.10 A3+) This routefollow splitter cracks on the Twin Brothers formation. One of the longer routesin Zion, it gets five stars in the guide. Enough said. Desert Rock: RockClimbs in the National Parks, by Eric Bjornstad.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado -- Hallucinogen Wall, (VI 5.11,A3+). This historic testpiece resides on the dark and friable North Chasm Viewwall. It is classic Black Canyon, intimidating and committing. Consultthe Black canyon Visitor Center for information.
Diamond, Longs Peak, Colorado -- Dunn Westbay (VI- 5.10, A3). This isperhaps the most sought after technical aid route on the Diamond. The crux mightwell be getting your gear to the base. This challenging line tops out above14,000 feet, making for an uncommon and elusive summit. Rock Climbing: Rocky Mountain National Park, The High Peaks, by Richard Rossiter.
Mount Hooker, Wind Rivers, Wyoming -- Original Route (VI 5.10, A2). Thisis wilderness big wall climbing. Expect cold temperatures at best, alongwith a 40 mile round trip approach. Climbing and Hiking Wind River Mountains,by Joe Kelsey.
Whitesides Mountain, North Carolina -- Volunteer Wall (VI 5.10, A4-, or 5.12a). Whitesides is the crown jewel of southern rock. This routeoffers atmospheric ambiance on steep granite. A Climber's Guide to NorthCarolina, by Thomas Kelley.
You've done a handful of trade nail-ups and you want to up the ante. What do you need to get prepped for the Sea of Dreams or Jolly Roger?
1. Get more gear, from pins to slings to carabiners. Extended hard aid outings require more copperheading, thin nailing, expanding and loose terrain, and hooking. Double or triple the head rack depending on theroute. Triple the number of pitons. You might need four or even six times thenumber of beaks and blades listed on the first time nailing rack. Consult the guidebook and local aid masters.
2. Get more tie-offs -- double or triple what you brought on the trade route.
3. Get more carabiners. 125 free carabiners is not an outrageous number to have on the rack.
4. Be ready to deal with higher levels of mental anguish. Up the ntensity level and sustained over more days. Stay focused. Be patient.
5. Pay closer attention to bounce testing. Stay low and bounce test aggressively. If each placement in the chain gets tested, you can string together longer dubious aid passages with greater security.
Navigating the wide open spaces of big wall country might seem amonumental task. Skills like placing exotic aid gear, hauling huge loads, andfollowing rope baffler pitches require practice. Almost all essential techniquescan be rehearsed on low cliffs or local crags. How-to manuals are helpful, butthey are no substitute for hands on practice. Practice the technique. Referback to available texts. Visualize step by step procedures. And remember,nothing will take the place of total commitment.Driving pins might evoke golden images of big wall climbing's halcyondays. The actual process, sans sentiment, is straight forward and brutish. The basic procedure follows:
From your stance in the aiders, look and feelthe chosen section of crack. Select a piton that corresponds with the crackswidth. The pin should freely slide in its prospective location abouthalfway. Hold in place and set with a few light taps of the hammer. Next, drivethe piton home with several accurate and heavy blows of the hammer. The pin should ring like a heavy chime and go in to the eye. If the piton shaft juts out and refuses to sink any further, cinch the exposed body with a clove hitched tie off. A girth hitch or slip knot works as well. Thread the eye with a longer keeper sling to retain the piton if the placement fails. Test the placement with vigorous bounce test (see below). In most cases, cleaning pins requires a mere bashing back and forth on the piton eye along the longitudinal axis of the crack. The pin should loosen up enough to pluck out with the fingers. A cabled "funkness device" or cleaning sling will retain, lever, or jerk out a recalcitrant piton. Use an expendable "cleaner biner" at one end of the retainer sling or funkness device. This is used to clip the piton eye and endure misplaced hammer blows. Explore the subtleties of basic pitoning on the local rubble heap.
Leading an aid pitch demands efficiency. For the big jobs, the prevailing aider/daisy setup requires two long daisys (longer than arms reach) and four aiders clipped into two matching pairs. Girth hitch the daisys through the waist and leg loops of the harness. Girth hitch or tie a slung fi-fi hook in the same manner. Though many permutations exist, the preferred method follows: While leading, place the next gear. Clip the new placement with a set of paired aiders. Clip a daisy to top aiders. Test the placement by stepping into the lowest rung of the aider and gradually applying body weight. Gently bounce your weight and build force until you are slamming up and down on the piece. Keep as low as you can while testing. Remain closely clipped to the previous gear with the other daisy. If the testing piece fails, you will experience only a short daisy fall on the previous placement. Move up the top placement. Clip in with the fi-fi hook. Reach down and clip the leadrope through the old placement. Retrieve the daisy and aiders from below. Next, move up into the highest possible step while hooking in short with the fi-fi into the daisy chain. Place the next piece and repeat the process.
Standard belay techniques work great. Only remember, you will be feeding two foot increments of slack for tedious hours on end. For hands off chores like sending up gear or taking a leak, tie figure eights on the slack side of your stitch plate or ATC. Clip these figure eights to the belay loop of your harness. Better yet, use a Gri-Gri with the back up knots. Both tricks will free your hands. Minimize tangles by keeping ropes separated and flaked over slings or on the portaledge. Better yet, use a rope bag.
Hauling is like the worst blue collar labor. It is the price you pay for summit dreams. Body hauling is the standard method. The procedure follows: At the belay, equalize two bombproof anchors with a sling and attach the pulley. Two systems can be employed. The first uses a standard pulley combined with one weighted jumar which retains the load end of the haul line. The other jumar, attached directly to the harness grips the slack end of the haulline. This second jumar applies the hauling force. An easier system employs the Rock Exotica Wall Hauler. This integrated pulley/cam system eliminates the need for a retaining jumar. Back up possible pulley breakage with a sling and carabiner loosely clipped to the haul line adjacent to the pulley.
Next, feed out several feet of slack from your tie in point. This provides the working slack as you bear down with full body weight on the hauling jumar. While hauling you will stand in a pair of aiders clipped to the belay. Some situations will demand you pull directly on the haul line with a gloved hand or jumar.
The follower can release and lower out the bag using a short (20 ft.)section of 8mm perlon. This is tied to the top of the bag. Thread the line through a carabiner. Heave the bag yard arm style off the belay anchor, then lower it out with a belay device.
When the load arrives at the belay, clip the bag in. Load the pulley and deactivate the weight bearing cam or jumar. Feed slack through the system, thereby transferring weight onto the belay and off the pulley. Back up the bag by clipping off the haul line. Re-stack the haul line and break the pulley system down. Repeat the process on the next pitch.
Following aid pitches gets tricky when the second is confronted by a traverse or pendulum point. Lowering out is the solution. When you arrive, thread the pendulum or traverse point with a sling. Tie into the tail end of the rope. Thread a bight of rope through the sling. Clip this bight through a locking carabiner at your waist. Pull the slack up tight so that your weight is transferred onto the sling. Unclip the lead rope and remove the carabiner from the traverse point. Lower yourself out by hand until your weight is taken on the jumars. Unclip the bight and pull the rope through. If you are hurting on slack, you can back-tie and thread the lead ropes tail end through the sling and lower off. For huge pendulums you will need a full length rope to rappel the distance.
Copperheads are copper or aluminum sleeves swaged onto cable. They are used to gain progress in shallow corners and grooves where pitons and nuts won't work. To place these, clean out the prospective section of rock with a piton or chisel. Select the size which looks to fit best. Shape it to fit if necessary by hammering on the rock. Tap the copperhead in place with the pick of your hammer. If the copperhead is small, use a Lost Arrow piton, or blunt chisel. Next, crosshatch the body mashing all available material into the rock. Tap the top and bottom to see if it shifts or "rocks". Apply the bounce test. Practice placing these on the local bunk rock before trying it out on the sharp end.
Hooking is so captivating, it should thrill the most steel nerved among us. Hooks should be slung so the downward force is translated into stabilizing forward thrust. Practice hooking edges on chossy boulders or crags before embarking on the real thing. Expect to find bomber edges and cavities on trade routes. Harder climbs might use sketchy flakes and gaps between nubbins to seat the hooks. If traversing, stay low in the aiders as you transfer your weight. Duct taping hooks to the rock on grim runouts is often better than nothing.
Sometimes you can gingerly test hooks before applying body weight. Avert your eyes and ease onto it. Pinging a hook (or any other aid placement) can put a nasty dent in your skull. Wear a helmet.