Fast Tracking those Big Wall Skills
12 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Big wall climbing is becoming increasingly popular with UK climbers both in the traditional areas of Yosemite, Zion and the Alps and in new areas like Greenland, Pakistan and South America.
Big wall climbing is not necessarily all about the old ‘whack and dangle’ of traditional aid climbing, as many old and new routes are now being tackled with a faster ‘free what you can, frig what you can’t approach — or totally free but in big wall style. This plays to climbing’s rising free climbing standards and by not being too bogged down in a ‘its got to be free’ mentality, allows you to jump on to routes only the superstars could totally free (Salathé Wall, American Direct, Fish etc).
Many climbers seem to think that big walling is beyond their ability – when in fact it is merely just a test of stamina and logistics (you don’t need to climb harder than VS, although you may need an E7 mentality) and is well within the grasp of any keen climber who’s prepared to put the effort in.
Whether or not you’re attempting a wall in full-blown big wall style (haul bags, portaledges etc), or in a faster ‘push’ approach, you’ll need good knowledge and understanding of the crucial components of big wall equipment along with ropework, belays and a general Alpine safety ‘paranoia’. The logistics of big walling requires you have the tools that will fit all those pitches together in order to reach the top. It’s not necessary to have thousands of pounds worth of gear if you choose the correct route.
Firstly, let’s look at the fundamental pieces. Although this info is focused on North American big walling (the best place to learn), much of it is also applicable to other areas. I’ve left out most of the hardware info (cams, wires etc), due to a lack of space and the fact that anyone heading up a wall will already know it anyway.
Most walls require the second to jumar the rope rather than the second conventionally. The reason for this is that it’s infinitely faster to jumar (once you can do it efficiently) an aid pitch, rather than clip each piece – especially if your partner has back-cleaned all the gear for 20m. Even on a free pitch it often saves time and energy to jumar (you’ll need to save that energy for the next pitch). Secondly, jumaring leaves the leader free to haul and sort out the belay (stack ropes, sort gear) for the next pitch, saving a great deal of time as the bag can be hauled up to the belay by the time the second has cleaned the pitch rather than belaying then hauling. Due to the fact that a haul line is necessary on most big walls, it’s only practical to lead on a single rope, with the haul line clipped to the back of the harness.
A big wall can be incredibly destructive on your poor rope and, due to the fact that you have no real back up, this rope should be of good quality and in good condition. Ropes don’t snap, so the two main dangers will come from falls over sharp edges or being chopped by falling rocks. In the past, I tended to buy the thickest rope I could find (11mm), with this diameter being inspiringly sturdy - if very heavy. My old Mammut Flex has done five trips up El Cap (over 125 pitches) and I could probably squeeze a few more out of it. Recently I’ve gone for 10mm ropes, due to their lower weight and impact force (important with marginal gear), but have found after two routes they are pretty trashed. Personally, I wouldn’t go for sub-10mm ropes (9.5mm), as I find these better suited to sport and Alpine use.
Double ropes may be used on some big free or Alpine walls, but their use will severely limit hauling or long aid sections (plus jugging on single skinny half ropes is SCARY). These drawbacks may be outweighed by the increased security (edges and rockfall) and lower weight a double rope offers.
Sixty-metre ropes are the new standard (although 50s are still fine), allowing pitches to be run together and modern ‘short fixing’ techniques to be employed (which I’ll cover in a later Off the Wall). Dry treatment is a bonus but not generally necessary unless tackling Alpine walls.
The haul line’s importance and security increases as the length and load increases. For most climbers starting out on classic intro walls (two-day walls like Leaning Tower, Half Dome for example) a dynamic half rope should be fine (8.5 or 9mm). If you’re heading up the bigger, longer walls, or in a three-person team (meaning heavier haul bags), then a single dynamic rope should be employed (9.5mm to 10.5mm). Why dynamic instead of static? Well, having a spare dynamic line could prove very useful when your lead line gets trashed halfway up an un-retreatable wall. In my experience hauling on a dynamic line makes no real difference with a heavy bag attached to the other end.
A zip line is a trick soon adopted by anyone tired of lugging up huge racks on every pitch. The zip line (8 to 9mm rope) is clipped to the harness instead of the heavier haul line and allows the leader to climb with the bare bones of a rack, pulling gear up, or sending gear back as they climb. The zip line can also serve as a spare haul line (if the haul line becomes the lead line) and as the lower-out line for lowering bags out on big traversing pitches (or for the second to back rope themselves when cleaning scary traverses).
You don’t need a specialist big wall harness but you do need something that fits and supports you adequately. Adjustable leg loops aren’t as important as you’d imagine (you can do all your toilets duties in fixed leg loops), but you need plenty of gear loops and a haul loop (or be able to slide a short extender on to the back). When climbing most of the weight is on your feet (in your aiders), and when belaying you have a belay seat so you don’t necessarily need a harness like an armchair. The harness needs a sturdy belay loop and plenty of room to cinch it down as the days go by, as your waist will shrink due to weight loss through dehydration and general hard labour.
Big walling calls for big racks. Carrying a ton of hardware on your harness is often just not feasible, as your harness will quickly end up around your ankles. The two options open to you are to use one or two bandoliers or a specialist big wall chest rig. Bandoliers are cheap (you can just use a wide sling) and quick to get on and off and are great for easy routes, or if you can’t afford a full-on big wall chest harness. The drawback of a bandolier over a chest rack is that they get in the way more, especially on slabby ground. A major danger with bandoliers is that they are easy to lose in a fall — potentially very serious on a big route. This can be combated by tying a keeper cord to the bandolier and clipping it to your harness. Some climbers try making a double gear sling using two bandoliers — don’t bother, the outcome will only be a few quid cheaper than the real deal and half as good. Most of the harness companies make padded bandoliers, with the Metolius models being perhaps the nicest.
A double gear sling can either be just for carrying big loads of gear (Fish, Black Diamond, Cassin), or double also as a chest harness (A5, Troll, Yates). It’s well worth having a full-strength chest harness on hard routes, as this will keep you upright in a fall. They can also be used to gain support when climbing across roofs. The non-load bearing chest harnesses are good because they are lightweight, cheap and are less intrusive.
Take along a comfy pair of rock boots each if you’re both going to do free climbing, or else just one pair (the best free climbers). When I did Iron Hawk with Andy Perkins he almost didn’t take his boots, thinking his Five Tennies would do. Luckily he took along his boots because right at the top was a super run out and scary pitch of E3 slab climbing with no pro.
A good big wall shoe (I go for shoes as they are cooler), should have a good stiffish midsole, with support under the arch, a stickyish sole and a secure fit. The balance between a shoe that you can smear with (when busting those free moves dude) and a stiff aiding shoe is difficult. On the Reticent Wall my Scarpa shoes (just leisure trainers — not proper big wall boots), were too soft, and I ended up with bone spurs on the sides of my feet caused by over 120 hours standing in aiders. I’ve also had stiff Sportiva Trangos that was great for standing in aiders but scary to free climb in. Whatever you use, whether they are dedicated ‘big wall boots’, approach shoes or just a pair of old trainers, don’t expect them to last more than one or two routes.
Don’t buy your shoes like rock boots, as your toes will get pounded when jugging and bounce testing and get totally trashed when staggering back down with a heavy load.
A lot of UK climbers feel that they lack the ability to tackle a big wall, which is generally not the case. They often have the drive and ability but simply lack some of the easily learned skills necessary to make their dreams happen. John Middendorf’s Big Wall Climbing handbook is a great place to pick up an overview of the skills necessary to succeed. Taking this to a crag and playing around (no hammering pegs or sky hooking) can help fill in many of these gaps. Placing gear is second nature for UK climbers so the focus should be on how to lead (aider technique), seconding (jumaring, cleaning gear) and hauling. A day spent on a steep crag or in a climbing wall could make the difference between success and failure.
If you want to learn more than you can find in books, you can either just get on a wall and learn it the hard way, or you can do a big wall course here in the UK. Plas y Brenin do a good basic big wall course that’s highly recommended, with Twid and Louise sharing some of their hard-earned knowledge learnt walling around the world. I’ve also run several big wall training days over the past few years (from novice to advanced) and it has proved to me that all you need is to be shown the right skills to succeed. Once you have the knowledge of how to make the impossible possible (‘How do I haul a 300lb haul bag’ etc), it’s simply down to genuinely wanting to do it and being willing to put in the monumental effort required.
I’ve done walls with kneepads and gloves and I’ve done walls without. Kneepads really make a difference when hauling (your knees are braced against the wall), or if it’s slabby.
If you go for kneepads any style will do (check out sport shops). Fingerless leather gloves (you can pick up a pair of leather gloves for about £10 from gardening shops) really save your hands if they are not used to heavy labour. Hauling on ropes and jumars can quickly tear your hands up and if your hands get damaged life’s going to be tough.
Take a pair of thick leather work gloves. Cut off the fingertips before the second knuckle and put a few stitches into the seams to stop them from unravelling. Next, add some duct tape to these areas to protect the stitching. Lastly, pierce the wrist of the glove and thread a short length of 3mm cord and tie it into a loop to form a clip loop. The leather will feel stiff, to begin with but will soon soften.
As important as your arms, you’ll need two sewn daisy chains lark’s footed into your belay loop (not through the waist and belt as some books recommend). These are used to hold each of your aiders, connect you to the belay, your jumars and a million other jobs. Buy the longest daisy chains you can find, as this makes tangles less of a hassle. Wild Country, Troll and Black Diamond all make good quality daisies. Adjustable daisies are becoming increasingly popular (Metolius, Yates, Pika), allowing instant adjustment at the pull of a strap. Personally, I prefer the reassuring strength of a sewn daisy.
In order to use your daisies effectively, you need to be able to shorten them. This is done either using a fifi hook or a karabiner. A fifi is quick and simple but can come adrift if unweighted (not likely once you’ve used one for a while). A karabiner is totally secure but can be harder to unhitch if you’re in extremis. It comes down to trying both and deciding what works for you.
Whatever you choose, it should be attached to your belay loop via a 25cm sling or length of cord or a lark’s footed sewn 30cm sling (most novice big wallers have this loop too short).
Aiders are not cheap, so getting the right set up for you is important. The four-aider method seen in books like Big Wall Climbing has fallen from favour with many top climbers in the States and isn’t appropriate for 99% of big wall climbers anyway. A better system is to use two aiders, with a third ‘sub’ aider held in reserve for really hard pitches. Having only two aiders saves a great deal of hassle (less weight and tangles) and is cheaper. Before I get into how best to employ them here’s a rundown of the three main aider types which are: standard classic aiders, ladder aiders and Alpine aiders.
Classic aiders (Black Diamond, Troll, Metolius, Yates) are simply a sewn version of an old-school tied aider. They work fine and are what most climbers are using at the moment. Ladder aiders are a sewn version of the old school Euro rigid step aider and personally, these are my favourite. I find them far easier to get my feet in and out of and are less prone to getting tangled up together or snagging on gear below. Metolius make two of the best ladder aiders, with their 8-Step and Pocket Aider. The Pocket Aider is my favourite all-rounder, being very light, compact and versatile.
Alpine aiders are slimmed-down versions of full-on aiders. This creates a much cheaper and lightweight package with the drawbacks being they are less comfortable to stand in and not so robust. Alpine aiders are great for mostly free routes, or where weight and bulk are crucial (they can be stowed easily out the way on your harness).
If you’re on a budget you could tie your own, but several metres of 19mm tape will only save you a few quid and I guarantee after one route you’ll be paying out for the real deal. If money is a real problem then just buy one set and have the second jumar using slings instead of aiders attached to the jumars.
The best way to employ this two aider system is to start by clipping an auto-locking karabiner into the end of each daisy. This lives there and is never removed, meaning you always have a locker for clipping into belays and jumars (you never have enough lockers on a wall). An auto locker is used due to the fact the screwgates come undone too easily when moving around, which isn’t good when you need total security. Your two aiders are then clipped into each locking krab. This means it’s impossible to drop and lose an aider and also gives a solid handle to clip into or yard upon (the DMM Boa Locksafe is a good karabiner for this job). Lastly, an oval karabiner is clipped into each locker and this is used to clip into the protection as you climb. This system allows you to clip the aiders into each other (via the ovals), in order to give a double aider system for standing comfortably while placing gear or high stepping (the ovals avoid the scary ‘snap’, of shifty D-shape krabs). If you’re on a very hard route with long reaches, then you may employ the third sub aider (this can be a lightweight Alpine aider). This is clipped into the aider you have clipped to the pro, allowing you to top step without having to reach down to unclip your second aider (leaving you wobbling on one foot). I expect this may make no sense, but once you play around with it you should get a better idea.
There are many possible dangers on a big wall, so wearing a lightweight helmet is one way of reducing the seriousness of an accident. Also if you’re wearing a big rack you will turn upside down and falling upside down on a wall is bad enough without doing it helmet-less. Buy a peaked cap to fit under the helmet and sew a sunscreen into the back French Foreign Legion style.
Jugging with a lightish rucksack can be hell. Jugging with a heavy rucksack full of water is near impossible. If you’re going on a route that’s going to take longer than a day then you’re going to have to haul.
The best receptacle for hauling is, of course, a dedicated haul bag. A haul bag is probably one of the most indestructible pieces of gear you can buy (that’s not to say you can’t destroy it). Nowadays haul bags are constructed out of a weird kind of vinyl (designed originally to line landfills and last a thousand years) which is bombproof. The bags vary in size but all are barrel-like and simple, having a basic padded carrying system that can be stowed away for hauling. The difference in price between a small one-day haul bag and a 30-day grade VII bag is generally not that great. The advice I was given was ‘get the biggest bag you can’, which is still true, as a big bag can be used on short or long routes. A big bag (150-200 litres) will do for a two or three-person team on a moderate two or three-day wall (like The Nose) and will hold one person’s stuff for a week on a wall. The Metolius Chief or A5 Radix are good value models for UK climbers (£140+).
If you’re on a really tight budget then here are some ideas on how to improvise. Soft items like sleeping bags and clothing don’t tend to cause wear to the haul bag and could be stowed in an old rucksack instead. It’s probably best to cut off any excess straps and take off the lid, in order to make it as streamlined as possible. Caving shops often have cheapish, medium-sized vinyl bags designed for rope access and caving that can work well.
Whatever you choose, you should line it with a sheet of cardboard — or your sleeping mats if you’re in an Alpine situation. This will create a rigid shield within the bag, making packing easier and extending the bag’s life.
Another option that is well worth considering, even if you have a haul bag, is to use one of those blue chemical/expedition barrels, creating a perfect hauling container that is totally indestructible. Blue barrels come in three basic sizes. Small, which is good for storing your food and rack in. Medium, which is about 60 litres and a good partner to a second ‘soft’ bag and Large, a huge barrel that although great for big walling, is just about impractical for carrying around. None of the barrels is particularly easy to carry, so you may need to lug your gear to and from the route in a big rucksack and hand carry the barrel or attach it to your pack.
The best thing to do is just buy loads of cheap pop bottles from a supermarket (about 12p each). Pour out the pop (it’s bad for your teeth) and express all the air and take them with you. This means you don’t need to waste time looking for bottles once you get there. Don’t bother with gaffer tape and clip loops — it’s a waste of time and unnecessary if you use a hydration bag (you just need to dig a bottle out of the haul bag to fill your bladder for the day).
A portaledge and fly is perhaps the most expensive piece of climbing equipment you’ll ever buy, being about the same as a second-hand car. Ignore single ledges, as doubles are easier to set up than trying to string up two singles off one anchor, lighter than two singles (although not quite as comfortable) and for Alpine walls, warmer and more psychologically comforting. The Black Diamond double Skylounger and A5 Double are the two most common ledges to be found in the UK (Fish and Metolius also both import ledges into the UK).
So what do you get when you have a portaledge? Well because most climbers don’t have a portaledge, they tend to congregate on routes with ledges, meaning a portaledge lets you head up the quieter, steeper routes.
What if you don’t have a portaledge? Well, you can either queue for routes with ledges on, or go for routes with some ledges and do it with an Alpine mentality, i.e. not expecting comfortable nights, perhaps using a hammock (very old-school). Learning to climb fast is recommended if you’re going portaledge-less, as this should help you link the good ledges together rather than spending several awful nights hanging in your harness. A good example of this is the Dawn Wall on El Cap, which although very steep and over a kilometre high, has three good ledges on it (including the famous Lay lady ledge which has an in situ barbecues).
Always have a small first aid kit, as infected or damaged hands can stop you dead. Apart from the usual stuff, mine has a roll of wide finger tape, zinc oxide tape and a bottle of Tea Tree oil. This can be used to treat cut hands to ward off infection, sunburn and athlete’s foot (three of the major big wall dangers). Take a Walkman and a mini speaker — this helps everyone relax and chill out at the end of a stressful day — crucial if the team’s psyche is to stay the course of the route. Baby wipes fulfil many roles, from the obvious ones (wiping your bum, cleaning the dirt off your face and hands), to less obvious ones like draping them on your beer to cool it down. If you’re climbing a route and you expect very high temps take along an umbrella to keep off the sun (you can also use it to keep off the rain). You’ll need a bivvy bag, synthetic sleeping bag and bothy bag (not needed if you’re portaledging it). On long routes in spring or autumn, I often take two thin sleeping bags, as they can be combined high up where it’s cooler (and your body’s more tired). Being hit by a storm on a big wall can be incredibly serious, as you are totally trapped and exposed to the elements. So when going up on to a wall you should take full-on storm gear, including a balaclava and thick fleece gloves, no matter how good the weather is.
Setting out on a big steep wall sans belay seat is not a good idea. I’ve met climbers who spent days sitting in just their harness and suffered long-term nerve damage in their legs because of it. The best way to get a belay seat is to make one. All you need is a piece of plywood, some cord, gaffer tape and a sit mat. The wood needs to be about a third wider than your hips and thick enough to inspire confidence when hanging above the abyss. Getting a piece of wood that’ll slide into the back of a haul bag will help give the bag some support when being carried.
Gaffer-tape the sit mat on to the top of the board. Drill holes in all four corners. Then take around five metres of 8mm cord and feed it through the holes so you end up with a kind of swing effect, with the cord crisscrossing underneath the seat, with the knot tied with a double fisherman’s underneath. And now you’re ready for some 10-hour belay duty.
What you need:
* A barrel (duh) * A length of 19mm tubular tape (length depending on barrel size) * Gaffer tape * Five short bolts with large washers and nuts (5mm or 6mm)
Drill a hole in the middle of the bottom of the barrel and four holes around the top (about an inch above where the barrel begins to narrow so the bolts don’t touch the rock when hauling).
With the tape, the aim is to make the barrel’s hauling suspension, which will be two biggish loops made from a single length, crisscrossing under the barrel. The tape is bolted in place using the bolts and washers (just part the weave of the tape and push the bolt through it so it isn’t weakened). Once the tape is bolted in place, wrap duct tape around the barrel to act as a back-up and to reduce wear on the nylon tape. If you’ve got a lid then drill a hole into it near its edge and pass a piece of 5mm cord through it then knot it. Then tie the other end to the suspension tape so you don’t lose it. Lastly, drill two more holes in the bottom (these can act as drain holes) and pass a loop of cord through it so you can clip gear to the bottom (like big cams).