Yosemite big walls - and by Yosemite I mean El Cap, which is THE big wall to climb - can be roughly broken down into three types:
- Pure free climbing (West Face, Free rider, El Nino etc)
- Aid Climbs (Shield, Zodiac, Tangerine Trip etc)
- ‘Alpine’ walls (Nose, Lurking Fear, Salathé)
Now free climbing big walls, on paper, looks quite easy, just get good at free climbing between E4 to E10. What makes these routes harder is you’ll need to be able to climb may be the hardest you have in your life pitch after pitch, day after day. Throw in some very long days, heat, lack of water, wide cracks, hauling, jumaring, poohing in bags, and well it’s more than just a grade thing. Even most good climbers need a month to get into the swing of the cracks and the granite, and grades tend to take a hit (I know E5 climbers who struggled in Yosemite 5.9s).
Aid routes can include some free climbing, but these pitches tend to be done in approach shoes and are primarily ‘whack and dangle” (although there tends to be little whacking). These routes require time, nerve and skill and having done a lot of ‘aid’ routes with climbers who could knock of E7s they’d attest to how dangerous, exposed and scary they can feel. I like to make the analogy between surfing and cave diving, that yes they take place in water but they require a very different set of skills and talents (surfers are the free climbers BTW). To do proper aid routes requires either a fair bit of pre-training in hauling, leading and cleaning or the time (that means water on a wall), to take it very slow and learn by doing (2 pitches a day). Beyond the hurdles of such routes, I’d say these kinds of routes offer the best chance of success for the average climber, but also requires the most work, preparation and outlay in equipment.
‘Alpine’ walls are walls that sit between the two and could be aided (if you were really crap/terrified) or free climbed (if you were amazing), but tend to be climbed by what’s the most expedient. This style of climb would be classed as ‘free as can be’, which for most UK climbers is anything below low 5.10/5.9 (about UK HVS/E3 cracks climbing), and aiding the rest, which would be easy aid, about A1 (every placement is bomber and easy to place). The routes could be climbed without aiders, just by plugging in gear, pulling and hanging (French Free), but it would be more exhausting than free climbing (most of the Nose can be climbed without aiders, or just one aider), but most climbers will mix and match. This would be say a pendulum, followed by free climbing, then pulling on a cam or two, then switching into aid mode to reach the belay. What you want are speed and safety. This style of climbing requires a lighter approach (mentally and physically), and you can put together your ‘alpine rack’ easily, with no recourse for portaledges, hooks, pegs etc, just a haul bag. Again it’s alpine style, so you’re applying a very fluid approach, something that Brits do very well.
I covered some ideas on training in my Q&A ’UK Nose Training’ blog last week, and maybe check my UKC piece “The Nose: How to Climb El Capitan’s Most Famous Route” (I’m working on a new updated version of this after spending another 10 days on the Nose last March).
More specifically, what route to climb? Well you can learn a lot at home (just down the climbing wall), and the biggest factor rather than route is the amount of time you can give it, and I’d go at least four weeks in late Sept (you can throw money and energy at most things but you can’t beat a ticking clock). You could jump straight onto the Nose, learn the hard way, but often you’ll get fried by other peoples dramas and not your own. A better option would be to work out your dramas on a route like Leaning Tower (avoid the Prow), where you’ll nail your aid and hauling and cleaning, then throw in some long free climbing (my favourite is East Buttress of Middle Cathedral, then be tactical. The Salathe has some hard climbing that cannot be aided and so often stops climbers, while Lurking Fear - although great - is not more soup than steak. An option that gets’s you away from the drama is to climb the Triple Direct (5.8 A2), which allows you to climb the Freeblast (it’s not free and it’s not a blast!), then the Muir then go over to the Nose below the Great roof (some fun climbing getting there). This option also allows you to haul your bags up the Heart Ledges (don’t haul the free blast… unless you want to look like a Brit : ). Of course, this option misses out on the Stove legs, King Swing, Texas flake, but non of these are enjoyable with a Korean team on your ass! Once you’ve climbed the Triple Direct you can go back, full of skill, confidence and grit and nail the wall with two bivvys.
Last bit of advice is don’t fuck around. Get there and get on with it, and if you realise you can’t/dodon’t want to, then just have a great free climbing holiday and don’t sweat it.