Aid & Big wall
Techniques to span the gap
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).
Being about 5.10 I’ve often found that in the past my reach wasn’t quite up to that of the first ascensionists, often forcing me to struggle like mad to clip rivets, far off copper heads, or even get to the belay bolts. Because of this over the years I’ve developed quite a few strategies that I’d like to share with you, some of which will help the shorties out there, plus a few that will help even those with a giants reach. The following list comes in the rough order of ‘self-discovery’, starting with the basic principles, and finishing with later realizations.
Cheater sticks as the name implies are cheating…but sometimes they can come in very handy, sometimes bypassing ground when you find yourself out of your depth, or when you have to retreat (note: No party should ever embark on a steep wall without a cheater stick).
The problem with having a fully functioning cheater stick (rather than a makeshift one that needs to be dug out and put together) is that it robs you of the chance to push yourself on hard aid, bypassing moves that you may be able to do but dare not. Often it’s only doing such moves that you progress in aid climbing.
A second problem is that making cheater stick moves can put you in harm’s way, as often it’s hard to test a far off piece, meaning you may end up falling anyway. This has happened to me once, on the first wall I did (The Sheild), when I blew a head after cheater sticking it (to be fair my cheater stick was only 2 foot long, and I could have tested the head - if I’d known about testing). The result was a 100-foot fall (I was back cleaning as I didn’t want to pull out any fixed gear as I didn’t know how to place heads).
The one time I remember really finding a cheater stick a real lifesaver (in retrospect), was hooking past the big loose flake below the roof on Iron Hawk. having hooked halfway up it, I suddenly heard it groaning, with the sound getting louder as I weighted my first cam. Terrified I backed off the cam, and used my stick to clip a rivet higher up. Of course, I felt guilty at the time, but when a year or so later the flake fell off and nearly killed the leader and belayer I felt a little more justified.
As a tool for retreat, a cheater stick is invaluable and has saved my ass many times. Generally, it’s best to tape a long sling(s) to the cheater stick and attach a skyhook to the end, so you can hook bolts, heads and features. This enables you to snatch your way back down, or to the side, of your line of descent. If you’re using your pole fly then tape the sections together so it doesn’t fall apart when you pull it!
Cheater sticks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with most being modified poles, and a few being designed for just that role. Here’s a rundown of sticks in order of reach and function.
When making a long cheater stick move it’s best to attach a long sling with multiple overhand knots with bights tide in (one every metre - with large loops so they don’t roll out when the bottom one is weighted!). This can then be clipped up with your aiders to reach the placement.
Another option is to clip in your haul/zip line and pull yourself up to the piece (or jug), being kept belayed all the while so as to limit your fall. Lastly, you can clip two (or more!) aiders together in order to bounce test the piece, and then climb up to see just how bad it is!
One option is to make up a rigid extender by taping a length of stiff wire to a 30 cm extender, securing the end karabiner with tape as well. This option works well as the extender remains duel purpose. The only downside with this is that I’m never keen on using gluey tape on slings for long term use (perhaps you could use shrink wrap), and so I generally use the following method.
Most climbers will have come across larks footing two wires together on trad climbs, and the same can come in very handy on walls when clipping far off rivets. Generally, it’s best to use a thick wire at the bottom, and a thinner wire at the top, so that it retains some stiffness. One drawback when using this on long sections of rivets that need to be cheated is that you’ll find yourself way below normal height for the next placement (a rivet hanger would put you 2 inches below, while this would put you perhaps 10 inches!). The best way to overcome this is to attach a small Malion rapide or tiny accessory krab where the wires join, allowing you to clip this once the piece is in place (you can use two stiff wires, with a small rivet hanger/mailon to get the closest possible clip). Note that on multiple rivet/cheater moves you will have to have two-wire setups, with the last placement having to be removed once you’re above it (replacing it with a rivet hanger).
My favourite reaching tool these days is my hammer, as it’s always at hand, is very solid and doesn’t feel too much like cheating. Using two strips of thin velcro close to the head of the hammer (one side is super-glued in place), I’m able to attach krabs (gate held open), wires, hooks and river hangers, and has proved a lifesaver many times. I use a BD hammer, but the small lightweight Grivel hammer probably works even better in this respect as it has a retractable wire cable that can be drawn out, allowing you to duct tape a krab or wire in place and giving a better reach.
Lastly, after all these years I’ve come to the conclusion that often in the past I simply couldn’t reach because I failed to top step effectively. Top stepping (if done correctly) doesn’t weigh the gear any more, allows you to go from bomber placements (rather than bomber to junk then bomber), and speeds up the whole deal. It also makes things less scary once mastered. Effective top stepping is all about having the right fifi/krab set up, and practising, but once mastered you’ll soon find yourself up in the top steps even on the steepest of pitches wondering what the problem was?