What is a Big Wall?
If you ever have the pleasure of seeing a big wall you will surely recognise it! Other than the obvious, the basic definition of a big wall is a route that takes the average party, one that is capable of climbing multi-pitch extreme routes comfortably, two or more days and requiring specialist equipment and techniques. Most big walls require aid climbing skills although today there are walls that competent free climbers can attempt with confidence.
Regard a big wall as a vertical camping trip
The first few steps towards climbing a wall are all in the head. The following text aims to provide the aspirant wall climber with the essential basic knowledge necessary to succeed on a Yosemite-style big wall. There are a few psychological tips that will help you on your voyage:
- Regard a big wall as a vertical camping trip.
- Equip yourself with the suitable supplies and sufficient food and water for the duration of the trip. Consider the port-a-ledge as your tent.
- Take it a pitch at a time. Divide the route down into something you can deal with. There's no point in worrying about the next 20 pitches if you can't do the next move!
- Keep a positive outlook. Things may go wrong, but with a little initiative and tenacity a properly prepared team can overcome almost any obstacle.
- Remain clipped in to at least two separate points at all times. (This means usually being attached to three).
- A competent knowledge of how to place and remove 'clean' gear such as cams and nuts as well as efficient rope management, smooth belay set ups and good route finding skills should all be second nature before attempting a big route.
- It is strongly advised that the techniques described below are practised on smaller cliffs prior to 'blast off'. (However, it would be hypocritical of me to say it is essential, since I tested most of them for the first time a thousand feet off the ground!)
- Hammer, holster + defunkness device
- Ascenders (2)
- Daisy chains (2)
- Comfortable harness with fifi hook
- Belay/abseil device
- HMS screw-gate karabiner
- Etriers (aiders) (2 or 4)
- Double racking bandolier
- Stiff boots
- Sun/Safety glasses
- Neck scarf
- Fingerless leather gloves
- Knee pads
- Swiss army knife + spoon with clip in loop
- Head torch + spare bulb and batteries
- Synthetic sleeping bag (with clip in loop)
- Sleeping mat (closed-cell)
- Waterproof gear
- Suitable clothing for all conditions (i.e. fast drying and warm)
- Insulated mug with lid
- Camera (even if it's just a disposable, take one!)
- Port-a-ledge + fly
- Wall hauler + extra pulley
- Haul bags (2)
- Food bucket
- Emergency first aid kit (include crepe bandages, finger tape, painkillers)
- Duct tape (for fixing everything)
- Hanging stove + pans and several lighters
- Poop tube + paper bags and loo roll
- Baby wipes (a.k.a. wall showers), lip balm, moisturiser, sun screen
- A pack of cards? (Storms can be very boring)
- 2 full sets of cams from 0.5 - 4
- 2 sets micro-cams
- 2 sets wires 1 - 9
- 1 set RP's
- 1 set offset microwires
- 2 skyhooks
- 2 camhooks
- 2 RURPs
- 3 Bird beaks
- 3 Z-pins
- 6 assorted knife blades
- 12 assorted arrows
- 2/3 of each angle from 0.5 -1.5 inches
- 20 assorted copperheads
- 10 rivet/keyhole hangers
- 30 quickdraws
- ~ 100 free snap link karabiners
- ~ 10 free screwgate karabiners
- 10 short and 6 long slings
- 60m fat lead rope (preferably dry)
- 60m static haul line
All food needs to be non-squashable (i.e. no eggs) and needs to use water efficiently. Calculate your supplies and pack accordingly. Most Yosemite climbers carry cold, tinned or dried food such as:
- Tinned chilli, ravioli etc.
- Tinned fruit, rice pudding
- Hot dogs
- Tortillas, bagels
- Peanut butter
- Candy bars
- Beef jerky
However I feel the comfort of hot food and drinks makes a hanging stove more than worth its weight, especially if no tins are carried. Consider:
- Couscous (cooks instantly in boiling water and wastes none)
- Dried soups for flavour
- Strong coffee for mornings
- Tea or hot chocolate for relaxation in the evening
- You will be on the rock for 24 hours days so the minimum water requirement is 3.5 litres per person per day more if it's hot. Carry many small bottles (2 litre) instead of a few large ones just in case of leakage.
Here is a brief overview of wall specific equipment but also see the Kit
This is basically a fold-up stretcher that is suspended from a single point. An attachable flysheet makes it into a solid vertical tent. It's far more than just a comfortable place to sleep; it offers shelter where climbers can weather the most vicious storms in relative comfort and safety. Their development has drastically altered the face of big wall climbing and just like beds, they are available in several sizes: single, double and king size.
Singles provide some well-needed personal space; doubles lighten the load and simplify bivi set-ups although they are a little cosy for two people. Personally, I prefer a king-size ledge. It's heavier and more expensive but simply luxurious.
A poop tube is three feet of four-inch wide drainpipe, capped at one end and with a removable lid on the other
Rain (or 'storm') flysheets are available. This is a lightweight sheet that is draped over the ledge and secured underneath it. They are a precautionary measure for unexpected weather. If adverse conditions are expected then a heavy weight storm fly is essential to create a closed pyramid with a door at each end with the ledge hanging inside.
Haul bags (a.k.a. the Pig):
Ex-army duffel bags are a cheap option although that saved cash will mean little if you loose all your kit halfway up. Proper haul bags are made from ultra abrasion-resistant material (such as Kevlar - as used in bullet proof vests) and are designed with removable shoulder straps and waist belts to provide a sleek, snag free profile. Two medium sized bags are preferable to one giant one, as gear is more easily organised and accessed, and the load can be split for the approach/descent.
Wall haulers and pulleys:
A large pulley wheel vastly reduces the work of hauling. A pulley and a jumar can be used; I prefer the simplicity of an all-in-one device such as the Petzl wall hauler.
Three feet of four-inch wide drainpipe, capped at one end and with a removable lid on the other and chunky clip in loops. Add some cat litter to reduce odours. Hang this underneath everything else on the haul load.
A strong bucket with a good lid and solid clip in loops. Useful for squashable food and gives easy access to munchies.
Aid climbing, nailing, cleaning and solo aid systems are described elsewhere in the Techniques section.
Aid pitches tend to zigzag a lot. Use long extenders and slings to reduce rope drag. Always carry a topo on lead and pack a couple of spare copies. Finding your way on established routes is usually fairly simple due to the trail of in situ gear.
This is the process for ascending ropes and there are various methods. (See Ascending)
Hauling puts immense strain on the belay, which also serves as your temporary home. Belays must be totally secure. I call them 'bombproof' or 'super bomber'. Use a cordelette to equalise several pieces to one bomber point. (See also Belaying)
This is the price you must pay for the pleasure of walling. Be warned - it totally sucks! There are many complicated systems that can be applied to ease the work or to haul exceptionally heavy loads.
One to one, counter-balance hauling:
This is the simplest hauling system.
Bivouacs (aka 'bivi' or 'bivvy')
- At the belay equalise bomber anchors with a cordelette or sling and attach the wall-hauler.
- Pass the haul line through the pulley with the cam positioned to lock off the load.
- Attach both jumars to the load free line.
- Clip one directly to your belay loop; use the other for your hands and haul with your whole body weight. Try to get your feet above you and push down with them.
- When the load is free from the belay below get your partner to release it.
- If the load is not too heavy, get your head down and haul it up whilst the second cleans.
- If it is heavy, wait for your partner then with the lead line as a back up, put them on the other side of the pulley to the load using their body weight as a counter balance.
- As you haul they descend until the back up rope goes tight (say 20 feet) then rest whilst they ascend to repeat the process.
- If the bag gets stuck abseil down to free it, where possible remain counter balanced.
Avoid setting up camp in obvious water run off lines. Never leave anything behind. It is much easier if you set up camp before dark. Make sure your sleeping bag and mat are clipped in. For increased sleeping comfort it is possible to remove your leg loops and link both daisy chains together. Be sure to stay clipped in whilst sleeping, port-a-ledges can flip!
Shit into a paper bag and deposit it in the poop tube. Use a clearly labelled bottle for urine; don't get it confused with your other bottles!
Once 'space dumping' was considered the norm, however it is now totally unacceptable. Urine stains and stinks ruin otherwise dreamy belays on popular routes. Do it into a paper bag and deposit it in the poop tube. Use a clearly labelled bottle for urine; don't get it confused with your other bottles!
If things go badly wrong it is almost always possible to retreat even from high on a wall. Overhanging descents must be down aided. Make sure that every rap anchor is 'bomber' but remember that 30 abseil stations will require a lot of gear.
Be safe, but sparing.
Beyond the basics
If you have some wall climbing experience and wish to take things further, read on.
The main difference between beginner routes and hard routes is the amount of time and equipment involved. If hard aid is your intention - get more gear. At least triple the amount of nailing gear you carry. Get some shock absorbing quickdraws (screamers) for bad runners and consider gathering some specialist gear such as slider nuts and offset micro cams. Practice bounce testing and aiding on poor placements in a safe position. Hard aid is largely a psychological aid. You need to remain calm and collected at all times, panicking will only make things worse.
Beyond the comfort of Yosemite there lies a world of ferocious big walls in remote locations and high mountain environments
Beyond the comfort of Yosemite there lies a world of ferocious big walls in remote locations and high mountain environments. The commitment and risk involved in these undertakings is greatly increased so the competence and knowledge required of the climber is much higher. If you are seriously planning a big trip then you really must already know your stuff.
Research is key. Small facts can prove to be priceless information at a later date. Find out as much research about your chosen location as possible; get hold of photographs, contact people who've been before you. You need to know: the best season to go, what has been climbed, the exact length of the walk-in, if ice gear or a port-a-ledge is required etc. (I have travelled with a port-a-ledge to South America on two occasions. The cumbersome, heavy load was not unpacked on either trip!)
The main difference between established routes and new ones is drilling. Most big walls contain some bolts, most too many. If you want to indulge in the adventure of new routing do so with an absolute minimum of bolts else you are destroying the adventure which you sought. If you are not are not capable of succeeding without excessive drilling, go down and return when you are good enough. Bolts are destroying the test pieces of tomorrow.
Perhaps the ultimate form of rock climbing? Requiring all the skills of the wall, aid and free climber. Less gear is required than in aid climbing, as it is only possible to carry so much and still hang on!
- Endurance is the key to success
- Stay well hydrated
- Get some practice in on longer free routes (e.g. 10 pitches)
- Link up shorter routes to simulate long days
- If you intend to free the route the first time you climb it, you really want to do it onsight. A single fall high on a route forces the climber to red-point the pitch. This can cause great problems five days into the route with supplies running low.
- Get fit and go for it!
Take a pack of cards - storms can be very boring!
This topic is covered in its own section.
- Check the weather forecast.
- Do as much research as possible on your chosen route or location.
- Make sure you are always clipped in to at least two separate points (i.e. not two pieces behind the same block). This often requires clipping in to three or more pieces.
- Set up camp before nightfall. Darkness changes the whole situation.
- Put clip in loops on everything and make sure everything is always clipped in.
- Stay hydrated. Drink before you feel thirsty. Sip water continuously.
- Look after yourself. A week in the vertical does terrible things to the body. Use a neck scarf to avoid sunstroke. Moisturiser, baby wipes, lip balm and sunscreen are highly recommended.
- Enjoy your trip. Take your time and relax. When the going gets tough take a look around to remind yourself where you are!