You want to aid climb so you can do a Grade VI, multi-day route up a big wall on the Big Stone, that being El Capitan, the biggest and baddest wall in the United States, in Yosemite Valley. But how do you learn those aid skills and where can you practice aid climbing to make those big wall dreams come true? This question especially rings true for climbers who live in most parts of the country, far removed from big rock walls or even little rock walls that can be aid climbed.
Aid Climb at Your Local Gym
The good news and short answer is that, yes, you can learn how to aid climb no matter where you live. It just takes figuring out what is available locally for you to practice aid climbing. Use your imagination to find what is available. Maybe it is your local climbing gym. Most gyms have lead walls equipped with bolts and fixed quickdraws. Ask the gym owner if it would be possible to come in during off-hours and practice the essential aid climbing skills that you need to know to climb the Big Stone. These skills include leading aid pitches, jugging ropes, cleaning gear, hauling the pig or haul bag, setting up belays, and learning how to rig a bivouac.
Find a Good Local Cliff
If that doesn’t work, look at a nearby crag. You can aid climb even on small cliffs. Actually it is preferable that you begin your aid career on short cliffs because it’s easier for you to concentrate on learning and then perfecting aid skills. Find a crack that readily takes nuts and cams or a sport climb with closely spaced bolts, then aid up it. If it’s a crack, you can place lots of gear. If it’s a sport route, bring some tri-cams, cams, and hooks that you can cram in pockets or hook on edges. Be sure that your hook isn’t on a handhold that free climbers use—you wouldn’t want to damage the route. Also remember to practice aiding on days when it’s not busy with climbers; in other words, avoid the weekend.
Use Your Imagination
If you don’t have a local gym or cliff to aid climb up, then use your imagination…what else looms tall in the neighborhood? Right, trees also offer great practice aid climbs. I know lots of good climbers that started aid climbing by pounding nails into cottonwood trees, tying off branches with slings, and aiding up their gnarly trunks. Tree climbing is fun, and heck, you might even earn some extra cash trimming dead branches!
Practice Your Aid Skills
Aid climbing is all about process, about knowing how to move quickly and efficiently while using and carrying lots of gear. If you have your heart set on climbing Zodiac or The Salathe Wall on El Capitan, a few sessions of aid climbing is not going to cut it. You need to practice, practice, and then practice some more in a controlled setting. You are going to get tangled up in your aiders and daisy chains; you are going to backclip the rope on gear placements; you are going to have a major rope salad at your hanging belay stations; you are going to rack your gear all wrong; and you will probably throw a tantrum if your partner messes up. The good thing is that you’re just practicing how to aid climb and with lots of practice you will get the kinks and snarls and problems out of your aiding system.
Master Aid Basics to be Successful
Lots of aid climbing practice, especially leading pitches and jugging and cleaning pitches, will pay big dividends later as you advance your big wall training and start aiding up multi-pitch routes. Most climbers fail on their big wall attempts because they didn’t practice enough. It isn’t enough to just know how to aid climb, to have learned the techniques from a book or this website. To be successful you have to master the basic mechanics of aid climbing and perform them quickly. The only way you can do this is to get outside on a small cliff or inside on a gym wall and start standing in your aiders. Do that and you will be making positive steps toward standing on top of El Cap in the afternoon sun.