Aid & Big wall
Techniques for alpine climbing, big walls and self rescue
08 December 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).
As we all know Aid climbing is plain cheating and anyone who even considers hanging off their protection will be cursed by the free climbing gods forever. Never the less there will often come a time when even the strongest free climber finds that strength is not enough; at which point some knowledge of how to frig your way up will come in handy.
For the Alpine and multi-pitch climber there may come across sections that must be aided in order to link the free pitches together, something as simple as a line pegs right through to full-blown hooking and pegging. Also with global warming routes are becoming more unstable, meaning that established free climbs may sprout blank sections after pitches decide to part company and head for the ground, with routes like the Walker spur or Rimmond route being a good example of climbs that may prove unfeasible.
Having the knowledge of how to apply a bit of jiggery-pokery can mean the difference between quickly frigging a section of rock or retreating all the way back down.
The simplest of all jiggery-pokery, French free (or freedom free if you’re American!), is simply out and out cheating, while still avoiding giving the impression that you’re actually aiding. This means no aiders are used, and the climber simply makes use of the gear at hand, pulling on it, standing on it, tensioning off it. Imagine you get to a move you can’t free easily, perhaps because you’re on a sea cliff and it’s raining, or you’re racing up the Frenay pillar. All you do is place some gear, yard on it and hopefully pull through to better holds. Using a piece of protection as a handhold will dramatically reduce the difficulty of a move (this is graded A0), either held in the hand or hooked with an axe. If you use 30cm extenders then these handholds can become footholds once you’re above them – just don’t put your whole foot in just in case you pop off. French free can prove far more physical than free climbing and so is only really used for very short sections of climbing. You need to decide if it’ll be faster to crank on the gear or break out the aid gear, but generally, if you’ve got more than a few metres to go then it’s usually faster to switch to a full aid system.
The second often plays a big part in this technique, providing tension on each piece so the leader has their hands free (if the leader uses a fifi hook it will reduce the workload of the belayer considerably).
Like many alpine-style techniques (which can be applied to self-rescue) this type of climbing does not come easily to the UK traditionalist who either free’s everything or bails. The difference is on some routes the aim is to just get to the top which means freeing what you can and friggin what you can’t.
There are dozens of aiding techniques around, involving many different set-ups and gear, but what I am about to describe is what I feel is the fastest, simplest, lightest and most importantly safest way to move, and is an amalgamation of everything I’ve learnt on over ten kilometres of frigging.
In order to move using this technique, you will need three pieces of gear and below I’ll describe each of them and include how to improvise if they’re not available.
Also known as an etrier the aider is used as a ladder up which you can climb when attached to the gear above you. On hard big walls climbers may use up to 4 aiders at once, but for the guerrilla technique, only one is required, which saves weight, bulk and increase speed while reducing tangles.
If a dedicated aider is to be carried then make sure it is of a lightweight ‘alpine’ design, meaning it’s made from thinner tape and shorter. The lightest model on the market is the Black Diamond Alpine aider, which although light, will wear out if used intensively, especially if worn with crampons. My favourite aider is the lightweight Metolius pocket aider, which although very tough is still light but best of all is the easiest to use with big boots on, due to its ladder design (rather than the usual offset loop design). The other advantage of the pocket aider is that it comes with its own small stuff sack meaning it can be stowed out of the way when racked on the harness. If you’re using a standard aider then rack it by passing its grab loop through all steps then clipping it back into its main karabiner. When it comes to using it just unclip the grab loop and all the steps will tumble down into place. The best karabiner to use as the aider’s attachment karabiner is a key lock design.
If you need to improvise an aider then take a 120cm sling and first tie an overhand knot in the top which will be the aiders clip-in loop. Halfway down the sling tie enough loop in the sling, only this time make one side of the loop larger than the other, creating a loop that will stand out when the bottom is weighted. This is your top step. Below this you will have a loop into the bottom of which you should tie another overhand knot, making it offset from the very bottom so that when it’s weighted the bottom loop will still stand out. This is your mid-step. Next larks foot a 60cm sling into the bottom overhand knot, making sure that the sling’s bar-tacked section is at the very bottom of the sling so that it keeps the step open. This is your bottom step. The bottom step can be left out but to do so means that you’re going to have to be very gymnastic and probably only end up wasting energy and time.
If you’re embarking on a route that may require a big descent then it may be worth making an aider out of tubular webbing beforehand, so that it can be untied and used as abseil tat once finished with. If doing so make sure the tape is sound and hasn’t been damaged, perhaps by aiding in crampons.
I covered the daisy chain in detail in the last issue, and although another thing to carry the daisy has many uses other than aiding and so may well be carried anyway. If you want to reduce redundancy the aider can also be used as a sling until it needs to be used for aid. For this technique the daisy should be larks footed directly into the belay loop, and if you’re using a Bod style harness either into the legs and waist loops or into the rope loop if tying into the harness creates too much tension (remember not to untie the rope if you’re hanging from just the daisy!!!). Into the end should be clipped karabiner, again preferably a key lock karabiner, and if possible one that can be identified as belonging to the daisy.
To make an improvised daisy chain simply take a 120cm sling and tie knots in it every 20cm. The sling should reach from your harness to the tips of your fingers once a karabiner is clipped into the end of it. If it doesn’t then add another sling to the end to extend it further.
The fifi hook is a fiendishly useful piece of gear and is highly recommended for any climber who’s pushing their limit and isn’t bothered about the odd naughty rest. The hook is attached to your harness’s belay loop via a 30cm length of cord or tape (most people have this loop too short) and is used to clip into either gear or slings. This means that the belayer no longer has to take the weight of a resting climber, and the resting climber feels more secure as they aren’t slowly slipping down as the rope stretches. The beauty of the hook is that unlike a karabiner it can be instantly inserted or removed from any piece of gear, no fumbling with gates or fighting with hooked karabiner gates that are caught up on extenders. The downside is that unlike a karabiner the fifi hook is only secure when weighted so you need to keep your eye on it.
If you which to get closer to the piece your hanging on then pass the fifi through it and hook it back into your belay loop, halving the distance.
The fifi hook features a small hole in its top for a pull cord, used to pull the hook out of pieces more easily. This cord can either be a single length of 3mm cord or a loop, with the loop offering the user the option of clipping the hook off to the side so that it doesn’t snag on anything. If this technique isn’t used then just took the loop into your trousers or harness so that it won’t catch on everything as you climb.
Just use an extender and clip it in via your belay loop.
First of all, imagine you’re standing below a very thin crack. The crack is impossible to free climb but at the end of it lies an easy way to the top. You can either frig it or abseil off. Deciding to lower your standards is how you climb it.
Step one. You place a piece of gear as high as you can in the crack. Into this, you clip your daisy chain, clipping into a point that will allow you to remove it while the piece is weighted (you need to always leave a clip-in point below the daisy if at all possible). This means if it’s a wire you should clip an extender into it before clipping the aider and if it’s a cam then clip it into the cam’s karabiner rather than its sling.
Step two. To test the piece by hooking your fifi hook into the nearest pocket on your daisy and give it a few very stout tugs until you feel it’s solid. If it pops then try another piece.
Step three. Now that you know the piece is solid, take your aider and clip it into the piece above the daisy chain (this is why you need to leave space for it). Get your foot as high as possible in the aider and crank into it and stand up. Move up so that you can clip your fifi directly into the piece and rest. Now look for the next piece of gear.
When moving around in aiders don’t ignore footholds and handholds around you as they can help you reach higher.
Step four. Once you’ve placed your next piece as high as possible clip the piece you’re on into the rope, then remove the daisy chain and clip it into the new piece and test it. It’s vital to clip the rope in at this point because once you remove it you’re no longer attached to the piece meaning if the top piece pops you’ll take a bigger ride.
Step five. Once tested remain hanging on the daisy chain and remove the aider from the last piece and move it up to the new piece. Crank into it, hook in your fifi and look for the next piece.
The most important factor in this technique is the ability to unclip the daisy and aider as you move, meaning that if possible try and avoid clipping both into the same point. If you do then it’s usually simply a case of adjusting your weight until you can remove the daisy chain, although doing so may produce karabiner ‘snap’, a horrible sound that is guaranteed to loosen your bowels.
Using this technique you should be able to move up the crack smoothly and quickly, and although it may take a few placements to get into a rhythm, once you get going it’ll feel easy.
Aiding is gear intensive; with one piece going in per metre meaning, you will quickly find yourself out of gear. The only way to avoid this, and to reuse crucial gear you’ll need for higher up, is to back clean placements as you go. To do this safely requires a great deal of practice and if you get it wrong you could end up finding yourself at the bottom of the last pitch!
The trick is to never remove the last piece, meaning you always have a back up in case the piece you’re on blows (it shouldn’t because you’ve tested it). This means once you’re on the new piece and before you crank up the aider, you should reach down and remove the piece below the one you were on (the second piece below the top one or third piece).
As you progress you should leave bomber pieces behind as you would if you were free climbing and these are usually wires as cams are generally the most useful pieces as they are quick to place and quick to remove. If you find yourself running short of gear and the end is still not in site then consider building a belay with two equalised pieces then lowering down to clean all the gear below.
There are many times when it’s possible to free climb between hard sections, which not only saves a huge amount of time but also gear. To do this clip the last piece you’re aiding off onto the rope, remove your daisy chain and clip it on to your harness (or throw it over your shoulder), then move off the aider using it as your first foothold and start free climbing. If it looks like you have more aiding to do and will need your aider then either reach down and unclip it or hang from the piece on your fifi, remove aider and daisy and pull out the fifi once you unweight the piece. If you need a bit of height before you can do this then use a 60cm sling as a makeshift aider.
Now, most people forget about how you’re mate’s going to the second you up a blank piece of rock, especially one that been back cleaned. If you get this wrong you can easily waste any time you’ve saved through slickly aiding the pitch, but get it right and your partner should get up the pitch in no time.
To second the pitch, you have two options.
This is the traditional way to second an aid pitch and should only be carried out with mechanical ascenders; either full weight jumars or micro ascenders. It is most probably that seconding will be done on one strand of a double rope system so care should be taken when ascending as these dynamiters of rope have a tendency to get chopped if you bounce around on them a bit too enthusiastically. The second should pick the rope that most closely follows the gear and be belayed by the leader on the other as a back-up.
The biggest problem when cleaning with jumars on steep or traversing ground is that you’re unable to un-weight the protection so you can unclip it. To do this pass the gear with the top jumar, weigh it, and you should be able to remove the rope.
If you’re using a magic plate then you can use this as your bottom ascender, using it in its auto-locking mode. This way you can safeguard yourself with both ropes rather than one, clipping your ascender into one of the ropes above.
This is by far the fastest way to second but requires more strength, teamwork and a magic plate.
The leader sets up a solid belay and attaches the second’s ropes to it via a magic plate. The leader and second agree on a belay rope and a batman rope (the belay rope will be the thickest rope). The batman rope is used by the second to pull up on batman style when there is no other alternative.
The second starts climbing by a combination of pulling on the gear (axes are good for this), free climbing and pulling on the rope. As they climb the leader’s job is to make sure the belay rope is always as tight as possible, allowing the second to rest whenever they want without fear of dropping back down the route. The batman rope should also be pulled in whenever possible so that it doesn’t snag below the second.
If the aid section is short leave plenty of gear so the second can simple yard up the pieces. Using these combined techniques the second should be able to race up an aided pitch in no time at all.
As will all emergency techniques is best not to wait until there’s an emergency until you practice them! Try out both leading and seconding before you need to sop that you understand what can go wrong and how to avoid waiting time. A good way to do this is to make use of wet weather days, climbing routes in trainers with a combination of aid and free. You can also practice on climbing walls, going bolt to bolt (vertical walls are best for this as the one aider method isn’t good for real steep stuff). Once mastered, having that knowledge that you should be able to get up any obstacle gives you a real psychological advantage when it comes to embarking on your next route.