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Big Wall Climbing and Training Tips

How to Climb Your First Big Wall

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Big Wall Climbing and Training Tips

If you train long and hard, you'll be sleeping like a baby on a portaledge high on the side of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.

Photograph © Greg Epperson/Getty Images

You’ve got a bad case of big wall fever. You’ve read all about big adventures on big cliffs like El Capitan in Yosemite Valley and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and you want to savor one of those adventures. You want to bivouac on portaledges, eat cans of cold Dinty Moore stew for dinner, and watch the sun fade on the cliffs opposite you in the evening.

Improve Your Aid Skills

First read the article Practice Aid Climbing Takes You High Places about learning to aid climb and how to improve your aid climbing skills and speed. Now get out and practice both aid and free climbing. As climbing has become more popular, more climbers want to do the big routes but they don’t always have the skills and savvy to pull them off, leading to more accidents and rescues on big walls, particularly in Yosemite Valley, than there was twenty years ago. First and foremost, solid aid climbing skills will help you achieve success. If you don’t have aid skills, consider taking a class from a guide service like Front Range Climbing Company to improve your aid techniques and then practice, practice, and practice.

More Tips for Your First Big Wall

Here are some more tips to increase your chances of success on big walls as well as help you climb faster and better on shorter routes:

1. Pick a Big Wall You Can Do

Pick a manageable goal. It’s easy to read a magazine article or to peruse the Yosemite guidebook and pick out a big wall route to climb. If you’re like most of us climbers, you have visions of glory, of running it out on hard aid leads but the fact is that most big wall routes are too hard for you. It’s only by climbing a bunch of trade routes, the popular big walls that are tried and proven for novice climbers, that you will get up the toughies. Pick a route, say the South Face of Washington Column in the Valley, that is moderate in difficulty, then research and ask questions like “How crowded is it?”; “When is the best time to climb it?”; “What’s the current gear list?”; “How is the hauling?”; “How many days will it take?”; and “Can I retreat off it easily?”. Then ask yourself: “What do I need to do to get up the South Face?”

2. Get in Super Physical Shape

Improve your physical condition. Climbing a big wall is a heck of a lot of work. First you have to carry big loads of gear, including heavy bottles of water, to the base of the cliff. Then you climb—leading long pitches, ascending fixed ropes, hauling heavy haul bags (affectionately called “pigs”), and live in a hostile, vertical environment. You’re going to be hungry, thirsty, tired, wet, and cold, and still you have to keep climbing upward and keep your wits about you. It’s not always fun and games. Climbing a big wall is going to be the hardest, most demanding physical work you will probably ever do so you need to train for it. Go to the gym and work out lifting weights. Load up a pack with at least 50 pounds and go for lots of uphill hikes. Aim to hike for at least two hours when you start out, then increase the time and weight as you improve fitness. Follow this regimen for three times a week for at least a few months.

3. Train with Lots of Crack Climbing

Train to climb fast and efficiently. Big wall climbing is all about climbing. If you can bust out free moves or do long sections free, you will save time and energy on the wall. Free climbing is always faster than aid climbing. Besides practicing your aid climbing, you need to do lots of free pitches, preferably cracks. Go to your local crag and do at least ten pitches of crack climbing to start out. If it’s a small cliff, do laps on the routes (best to do the hardest and most strenuous ones) and work on your crack technique. If you can get on bigger cliffs, work up to doing 20 crack pitches in a day. Pick routes with varied crack climbing from 5.7 to 5.10.

4. Practice Off-Widths and Chimneys

Climb lots of wide cracks and chimneys. It’s a big wall maxim that every long route will have mandatory off-width cracks and chimneys. They’re not always the most fun parts of the route but you have to climb them efficiently. Before trying your big wall, get out and practice your off-width and chimney climbing techniques. You can make that wide crack practice part of your long crack climbing days. It’s best to climb 5.8 and 5.9 chimneys. You might want to practice climbing them while carrying a rack.

5. Practice Anchor and Hauling Systems

Practice anchor and hauling skills. Okay, you’re practicing aid climbing and improving your free climbing skills and you’re getting in great shape, so what next? You need to practice and improve technical skills, including how to create and use both anchor and hauling systems. If you’re inefficient at these skills, you’re going to lose all that time you gained when you free climbed on the wall. Practice leading and following lots of one- and two-pitch aid climbs. Set up hanging belays from multiple anchors points and learn how to safely equalize them. Work at keeping all your ropes separated and bundled to keep them from hanging down and catching on flakes and in cracks. Next practice hauling a heavy sack that mimics your big wall haul bag. Figure the hauling system out and then haul away. It’s best to practice with heavy haul bags because they will not only get you in primo hauling shape but you will realize that you might need to pare down how much you pack in those bags when you get on the wall. Lastly, if you’re going to be using a portaledge, practice setting it up, organizing gear around it, and taking it down. You might even want to spend a night or two on your local crag on it to learn about big wall comfort.

6. Become Proficient with Ascenders

Practice using ascenders. When you’re climbing a big wall, about half of your climbing time will be spent ascending a rope with mechanical ascenders while cleaning your partner’s pitch. You need to become both safe and efficient at using ascenders. First, practice ascending a fixed rope on a vertical cliff; later practice ascending up a free-hanging rope. After you gain proficiency with your ascenders, practice cleaning pendulums and gear on traversing pitches. These ascender skills will serve you well later. Remember too that ascending ropes is dangerous business—always use back-up knots tied into your harness so you’re tied in if your ascenders fail.

7. Practice in Different Weather

Climb in varied weather and conditions. When you’re climbing a wall for two or three days, the weather is probably going to change. You’re going to encounter varied conditions. You might bake in full sun or you might have to climb in drizzle and mist. Go climbing at home in all kinds of weather, not just on bluebird days. Make sure your rain gear is waterproof and will keep you dry. This includes the cover over your portaledge. Hang the ledge from a tree in the back yard and spray it with a hose to figure out where it leaks and how to seal those leaks.

8. Prepare Mentally and Have a Good Partner

Mental preparation. If you’ve followed the big wall training and practice regimen above, you will probably have a strong mind. Climbing a big wall is totally mental. If you’re not in shape; if you’re not competent with all your climbing skills; and if you still get freaked out by exposure, then you probably won’t have the mental toughness to succeed on your big wall adventure. You not only have to get psyched up to do the climb, but you also need to put together a plan. Sit down with your partner and strategize. Who will lead which pitches? How high do you plan to climb each day? Where are you going to bivouac each night? How are you going to carry and rack the gear? What food are you bringing and how much water will the two of you need?

9. Climb with the Right Partner

The partner is important. Remember that your big wall success not only depends on doing all the training outlined above but it also depends on your climbing partner. It’s best to train and practice with the climber that is going to do the route with you. With practice, the two of you will function as a team and you will have a greater chance of big wall success. Good luck!

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