Aid climbing is one of the major climbing disciplines, along with free climbing and bouldering. Aid climbing, also called aiding, is simply using protection devices, including cams and nuts, to ascend a rock face. This is in contrast to free climbing, which is ascending a face by physically climbing the rock, using your hands and feet for upward progress, and placing gear and using a rope only as protection from the dire consequences of a fall.
Aid climbing is basically rock engineering. When you aid climb, you rely on gear like cams, nuts, and pitons placed in the rock surface to hold your body’s weight as you move upward by standing in aiders, ladders made of webbing, that are clipped to the gear placements. An aid climber creates a trail up a vertical face by placing a string of gear placements, each within an arm or body length of the previous one. The second climber usually ascends the climbing rope, which is fixed to the belay anchors, with ascenders and cleans the gear placed by the leader.
Aid Climbing Relies on Technology
Almost anything goes in the aid climbing game—anything that is except for placing unnecessary bolts and using pitons, which damage and scar the rock, when you can use a clean climbing tool like a nut or cam. Aid climbing relies then on technology and gadgetry as the solutions to climbing problems. Besides the obvious pieces of equipment like nuts and cams, aid climbers use specialized tools like hooks on flakes and edges, cam hooks and Birdbeaks in thin cracks, cheater sticks to reach past blank sections, and copperheads, which are tapped with a hammer into shallow cracks.
Aid Climbing is All About Process
The process of aid climbing requires lots of gear handling and rope management, especially on multi-pitch routes or big walls. You don’t want to jump on a big wall and expect that you’re going to learn all about the aid climbing game and process as well as get up the route. Just won’t happen. Instead your experience will be a trial by fire and you will probably end up bailing off the route and end up hating aid climbing.
Practice Aiding to Learn Skills
There is a single reason why the attrition rate on a big wall route like The Nose of El Capitan is so high—lack of aid climbing skills, which usually translates into rope management problems and slowness. To acquire the aid skills to climb El Capitan takes lots of practice. Get out and climb routes, doing clean aid placements on every section of a route. Work on becoming efficient and speedy when you clip your aiders to placements and step up in the rungs. Set up hanging belays so you know how to arrange multiple ropes and equalize several anchors. You will also have your share of epics and problems to solve, but since you are only a pitch or two off the ground you can learn how to manage whatever problems arise—a good skill that you will use later on most big aid routes.
Learn Trad Climbing Skills
The best skill to becoming a competent aid climber is to have a strong background in traditional rock climbing. If you want to learn to aid climb but have only free climbed bolt-protected sport routes, then you are at a disadvantage. If that is the case, you need to hook up with a trad master and follow her up a lot of multi-pitch routes and then start leading trad pitches and placing gear. Along the way you will become fluent in reading the rock and placing and removing cams and nuts. You will learn how to manage your ropes efficiently; set up belays; make smooth leader changeovers from pitch to pitch; and make route-finding decisions. Later you can bring these important skills to your aid climbing adventures and you’ll have more fun and get up more big routes.