How did you prepare for climbing your first big wall?


Original Post
Jess Arnold · · Minneapolis, MN · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 366

Heyo. 

I've been increasingly enthralled by tales of big wall climbs and know that within the next couple of years that I'd like to climb one myself. Some of my earliest memories include peering through binoculars with my parents in Yosemite Valley up at El Cap climbers when I was a kiddo and hearing my dad's stories of climbing Half Dome in the 80's. Since taking up climbing about two years ago/immersing myself in the sport; I can't help but picture myself up there, someday, as well. 

I'm aware that there is no one-size-fits-all time frame for approaching and preparing for these larger climbs, but in general, for those climbers who began much like I did (quite poor, young, excessively enthusiastic, etc.), how did you start breaking down your training, gear prep/purchasing, skill building, etc. for ultimately getting on the likes of El Cap, Half Dome, Moonlight Buttress, Washington Column etc.? 

I've read countless articles and talked to a handful of experienced climbers, but my sample group is quite limited considering that I'm from the Midwest. If you have any tips or personal stories you feel would help me along my way to climbing a big wall within the next couple years, please share! 

As far as my climbing experience thus far- I've been at it for about two years, began trad leading within the last couple months and am beginning on some easy multipitch in CO. I can lead at about 5.9 and climb 5/7 days a week. I am planning to work and live in central California next summer & hope to make it out to some big schtuff while I'm there. 

20 kN · · Hawaii · Joined Feb 2009 · Points: 1,348

Well if you want to climb El Cap my suggestion would be to start by spending the next year or two working on getting up your trad ability. You should be comfortable onsighting 5.11- single pitch trad if you want to climb the Nose. Yes, there have been people with less skill who have climbed El Cap, but the chances of you topping out if you only climb 5.9 are just a tad over zero (again, assuming you want to climb the Nose). Note that 5.10 on El Cap is absolutely not the same as 5.10 right off the deck. When you're on the ground you can see most of all of the route, you know what gear you need, you only have the stuff you need, and you probably only have one rope. On El Cap you have two ropes, neither of which are likely to be some 9.2mm redpoint special, and a full aid rack with hauling device, ascenders, aiders getting in the way and getting snagged on crap, and you have the wind blowing all over the place with insane amounts of exposure. You also have to put up with that for 30 pitches. Thus, 5.10 on El Cap is going to be more like solid 5.10+ or 5.11- single pitch, thus you should be able to onsight 5.11- single pitch trad if you want to be half-way efficient at walls that require free climbing. Otherwise, you can look into walls that are more aid focused. The Prow is a good option for that type of ascent as it has little free climbing on it.

kevin deweese · · Oakland, Ca · Joined Jan 2007 · Points: 350

Tell us the style of ascent (free and fast, long aid focal party wall, roped solo, etc) and the formations/routes your looking at to get the best approach/training advice.

Norm Larson · · Wilson, Wy. · Joined Jan 2008 · Points: 55

Sure if your looking to do the nose in a day you need to be able to climb 5.11 If you just want to climb the nose you can be a 5.9/10 leader and have a great time on the Nose. When I climbed it 35 years ago I prepared by climbing a few small walls to get hauling down and then we just launched. Did it in 3 days and had a blast. If you want to do it just go do it. Motivation,inspiration, and climbing a few small walls first will get you up the big ones.

Stagg54 Taggart · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2006 · Points: 10

Don't underestimate mental preparation...  Wall climbing is fun (type 2), but there is definitely plenty of suffering involved along with plenty of doubt and uncertainty.  

John Barritt · · OKC · Joined Oct 2016 · Points: 1,053
20 kN wrote:

Well if you want to climb El Cap my suggestion would be to start by spending the next year or two working on getting up your trad ability. You should be comfortable onsighting 5.11- single pitch trad if you want to climb the Nose. Yes, there have been people with less skill who have climbed El Cap, but the chances of you topping out if you only climb 5.9 are just a tad over zero (again, assuming you want to climb the Nose). Note that 5.10 on El Cap is absolutely not the same as 5.10 right off the deck. When you're on the ground you can see most of all of the route, you know what gear you need, you only have the stuff you need, and you probably only have one rope. On El Cap you have two ropes, neither of which are likely to be some 9.2mm redpoint special, and a full aid rack with hauling device, ascenders, aiders getting in the way and getting snagged on crap, and you have the wind blowing all over the place with insane amounts of exposure. You also have to put up with that for 30 pitches. Thus, 5.10 on El Cap is going to be more like solid 5.10+ or 5.11- single pitch, thus you should be able to onsight 5.11- single pitch trad if you want to be half-way efficient at walls that require free climbing. Otherwise, you can look into walls that are more aid focused. The Prow is a good option for that type of ascent as it has little free climbing on it.

I would second everything 20kn has to say and add; During the year you spend getting ready (possibly two if you are only climbing weekends) you need to perfect your rope handling speed. You can waste a lot of time if you aren't setting up and breaking down quickly. You should do a ton of multipitch and be able to easily do over 1,000 feet a day (1,500 to 2,000 per day would be ideal). So if you are climbing at walls that are 200' (for example) you need to do 8 to ten routes a day without any hauling. Spend some days doing nothing but aid even if it's on routes that are normally done entirely free. Spend some days doing nothing but hauling and jugging. Having your systems and skills down will save you a lot of anguish. Spend more days hauling every pitch and aiding some pitches the closer you get to going.

If your goal is to do single day big wall ascents you need to smash out 3,500 to 4,000 ft. per day on multipitch trad like falling off the couch, rope handling should be fast and flawless. Your partner and yourself should be interchangeable on lead. Leap frogging will save a ton of time at belays. 

Good luck! JB

Kim Ran · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2015 · Points: 430

Don't underestimate having a high level of general fitness. Big wall climbing is grueling and hard on the body if you are not used to it. There's a lot more to it than just the climbing. You need to know how to jumar, how to fix lines, how to haul, how to lower out, how to self belay, etc. It takes time to build up the skills needed - a lot of times you have to get creative while on the wall because nothing really goes as smoothly as you think it will. Be confident in building gear anchors. Do lots of single pitch and smaller multipitch trad routes and just dial in the rhythm of it. And echoeing a previous commenter, mentally you need to be strong - it helps a lot to stay positive and in good spirits. 

George Perkins · · The Dungeon, NM · Joined Apr 2006 · Points: 3,109

Climb trad and multi-pitch, as much as possible.  Accumulate the trad rack you need for these routes, which will serve as the start of your basic rack for wall climbing. Remember, your partners probably have some gear you can borrow (so don't just go out and buy a full triple rack right away- you may see you favor certain brands of gear as you learn).

1-2 months before your wall, practice aid climbing and jugging while cleaning gear, at 1-pitch cliffs.  This gives you a chance to try aid-specific gear (figure out if  you have preferences with aider/daisy types, what type of shoes to wear, etc.), and figure the aid and jugging sequences out, before doing it in a situation where you want to be more efficient with it- you'll want these skills still fresh in your memory when you're ready to go.

Try a smaller (Grade IV or V, 1-2 days) aid climb before a bigger one.

Hamish Malin · · Fredericksburg, VA · Joined May 2017 · Points: 15

I dunno, all the above sounds important and all but my training is focused solely on pooping in a pvc pipe.  I don't have much time to climb what with the family and all, so this is a skill that I can focus my big wall training on from the comfort of the office.

Cheers!!   

King Tut · · Citrus Heights · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 430

A "real Wall" (Grade VI) is doable first time with motivation, but your odds of success are like 1% and you really got to want it.

Better is SF of Washington Column or Chouinard/Herbert on Sentinel, Prow if you want more aid and steep training (Grade V's) to get your head together.

Also, having no time constraints like have to be at work on monday sort of thing. You want a window that allows you to get fully psyched and leave you time to be slow so that you stick with it.  You want to cancel out all those little voices saying "bail" and stick with it.

On many routes if you can do the first day you can do the whole route. How do you eat an Elephant? One bite at a time. It helps if you really, really like Elephant.

Ryan Hamilton · · Orem · Joined Aug 2011 · Points: 20

I'll add a slightly different light to this, with some topics repeated. I don't think you need to be able to onsight 5.11 trad. Having that skill and climbing ability will certainly make big walls more fun and speed up the climbing, but I'd say 5.10 is what is needed for the Nose. But this has you aiding most of the pitches. 

Being very comfortable climbing trad, placing and cleaning gear is very important. Good rope management and anchor changeovers are huge. You don't realize it, but changeovers and sorting gear and ropes can easily take 30 minutes if you're not in the right mind set. Before you know it, the anchor changeovers have taken up 2-3 hours of your day. Rope tangles are another place that will get you. Big walls and aid climbing are such a giant mess, even if you're careful that if you're not careful you soon have stuff strewn everywhere. The anchor is a mess and ropes are tangled and running behind or through things that you don't want them too. You have to make this a priority. 

If you're not able to onsight 5.11 then you will be doing a lot of aid climbing. Aiding C1 isn't hard, but it can be more tricky at first than you think it will to get comfortable balancing in your aid ladders when you're in the top coupe of steps. Your pivot point (where your ladders are connected) suddenly moves from chest height to below your waist. Just doing laps on single pitch stuff will get you much faster and more comfortable in your aid ladders. 

Jugging is another thing that can be so much harder to do at first until you get the rhythm down and figure out how long your daisy should be so that you're not hanging to far or to close to your top ascender. It can be hard at first, but after you do some good jugging practice you'll get it all down and it will go from an arm busting job to something fairly easy. (I had to bail from my first big aid climb because I didn't know how to jug and I just totally wiped out all strength and energy that I had).

Lastly know that a big wall is hard. Just don't give up. Know that hauling will feel harder than it should be and it will suck your energy. You just have to know that you're not going to quit. Your mental ability to deal with it is huge. Once you know that you're not going to give up then the hard stuff is just part of the climb and you can just get on with it an enjoy it. Doing some hauling practice will help, but also just being fit will really help. You use your legs and back a lot when hauling. Do weight training or something to stay fit there and your day will be much more fun. 

Do some 3-4 pitch stuff that you haul a small bag on. Then get on some 6-10 pitch stuff and grow from there. Have fun. 

Mark Hudon · · Lives on the road · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 415

BIMD (Back In My Day), at Cathedral Ledge in NH, 4, 5 or 6 pitch aid routes were pretty common. Anybody heading out to Yosemite to do a wall would always have three or four of those routes under their belt. Even then, it was the rule to do a grade V before attempting El Cap or Half Dome. Even still, the success rate was pretty low. 

Imho, if you can't ramble middle 5.10 (climb with almost casual disregard), set up an anchor and have the second jugging in less than 10 minutes, can set up a functional hauling system and haul a 200 pound bag (AND get it to the anchor before the second arrives), do leader change overs in 15/20 minutes or less, your chances of success are very slim. 

kevin deweese · · Oakland, Ca · Joined Jan 2007 · Points: 350
King Tut wrote:

Also, having no time constraints like have to be at work on monday sort of thing. You want a window that allows you to get fully psyched and leave you time to be slow so that you stick with it.  You want to cancel out all those little voices saying "bail" and stick with it.

I bailed a lot when I first started for this exact reason. Don't fall into the trap of looking at your freeclimbing multi-pitch speed as an indicator of how long aid pitches take on a bigwall. When I first started bigwalling, I was able to lead a 10-pitch multipitch 5.9-5.10 freeclimbing route in a day with plenty of time to do other things, (hell, 2 5.7-5.8 10 pitch multipitch routes close to each other was not a big deal) so when I started planning my bigwalls, I'd think of 4-6 pitches a day as a good goal. Not even close. The hauling issues, the rope issues, the cleaning issues for my second, the heat issues, the cold issues, the I've-been-setting-up-this-portaledge-for-how-long issues, the you-want-me-to-clip-that?!? issues all led to about 2-3 pitches a day max. We were fit we were ready but the time constraints of needed to get back to work trumps all. 

And just to reiterate, trust that seconding on a bigwall is an art all unto itself. Make sure you and your partner have practices cleaning a pitch while jugging the lead line. Make sure that there are traversing portions of the pitch. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is to clean while you're weighting to rope that the piece is attached to until you get a hang of it. 

Aleks Zebastian · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 175

climbing friend, 

you must practice taking a massive dump into small tube or bag right next to your special friend you are on the wall with, and then putting this into your backpack for safekeeping.

Daniel Joder · · Boulder, CO · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 0

Among all the other great advice...Kevin brings up a good point in his last paragraph that I would emphasize--practice cleaning traverses while jugging. (Hopefully the leader hasn't spaced the pieces out/back cleaned too much.) I would add: practice the same thing on a roof or two (Bishop's Balcony in Yosemite, or Practice Roof on Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon, are examples of short, fairly easy access roofs). This will help when you are battling away on Kor's Roof of SWF Washington Column. It should go without saying that you should be tied into the end of the rope while jugging and also be tying off with intermediate knots occasionally to shorten any fall if your ascenders happen to pop off. (Seems I recall some story about someone falling the length of the rope on The Prow when their ascenders popped off on a traverse--luckily he had at least tied in to the end. It's an amazing tale if someone has a link.)

nathanael · · Riverside, CA · Joined May 2011 · Points: 304

My path:

start: onsight 5.10 trad all day, struggle on 11- though

2 months of studying big wall specific stuff obsessively, practicing at single pitch crags, and also climbing lots of trad 5.10

Climb the nose in 4 days

(no previous big walls or aid climbing experience)

anyways it was tough but I don't agree with those who say you need to climb 5.11, need to start on a smaller wall, etc or else you have 1% chance of success. you need to want it and get a little lucky but it's definitely >1% 

Jess Arnold · · Minneapolis, MN · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 366
kevin deweese wrote:

Tell us the style of ascent (free and fast, long aid focal party wall, roped solo, etc) and the formations/routes your looking at to get the best approach/training advice.

I'm mostly eyeballing the South Face on the Washington Column as my first wall in the valley... 

King Tut · · Citrus Heights · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 430
Jess Arnold wrote:

I'm mostly eyeballing the South Face on the Washington Column as my first wall in the valley... 

You want to be solid on basic 5.10 trad in the Valley, imo. Not some horror show like Twilight Zone or Ahab, but things like Gripper, Reed's Direct and Outer Limits. The free is 5.9 on SFWC but as above, you will have 3x more gear with you than on a regular free pitch so your fitness will be challenged if you are getting up only 5.9 trad. 

As well, if you take two ropes up above I really like the idea of leaving the haul bag at Dinner Ledge and firing for the top, then rapping the route. This gives you motivation to fire for the summit w/o a hauling epic. The worst hauling is mostly down low, and you can play big wall down there. But after Dinner Ledge, climbing without the bag (you retrieve it on the rap) you can focus on the climbing and efficiency up above. If you don't make it just get a good high point then  rap to the ledge and enjoy another night on the wall and bail in the AM.

As well, if SF is clogged with gumbies (it happens) you can use Dinner Ledge to start other routes like Skull Queen or Southern Man or something (consult topos) to get some aid climbing in. DL sleeps like 10 so don't let a crowd deter you.

Mark Hudon · · Lives on the road · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 415

A typical 5 day El Cap route can take a total of 10 days. Humping gear to the base, waiting in line, slow parties ahead of you (or you getting passed), bad weather and getting all your gear down from the top can easily eat up 10 days.

I make my best estimate of how fast I can climb a given route and then I add a day for slowness and another day for the unknown. 

kevin deweese · · Oakland, Ca · Joined Jan 2007 · Points: 350
Jess Arnold wrote:

I'm mostly eyeballing the South Face on the Washington Column as my first wall in the valley... 

Oh, then the largest issue you're really going to come across will be waiting in line. 

For South Face, Some notes:

  • Hauling the bags up the first pitch by placing them way to the left of the start is helpful (see Sloan's topo for this)
  • Free as much as you can, a 5.10 leader will dispatch the first pitch without thinking, the second pitch (after moving your bags) is a little harder to free on the left variant but can be a great way to pass a party stuck on the 5.11 corner. 
    • (also, BE CAREFUL where you place your bags after moving them from top of pitch one to the start of pitch two; there's a colony of ants under the boulder beneath the tree that like to make you hate life), 
  • EXPECT to get yer bags hung up hauling the third pitch to Dinner Ledge. It will happen. Knot protector is good to have. (pay no attention to the uber-mutant Mark who never uses a knot protector, he's been blessed by the climbing gods and doesn't suffer from the kind of issues that mere mortals deal with. - I'm only partly kidding) 
  • Wear helmets at all times on Dinner Ledge. 
  • Practice on the Le Conte Boulder Bolt ladder across from housekeeping camp before heading up to to the Kor Roof. No Excuses, do this. It'll take 30-60 minutes and save you hours. 
  • It helps to fix your lines above Dinner Ledge before you go to sleep, yes you'll wake up early and can do it then, but you'll be surprised how many people will wake up earlier than you. 
  • After you're done with Kor Roof it's pretty straight forward and fun. 
  • If for some reason you choose to haul everything to the top instead of rapping back to Dinner Ledge... well, you do you, but have your second stay with the bag the entire time on the upper pitches so anything that gets knocked loose has a chance of being caught by your second. But don't worry, if you second fumbles the ball, there will be plenty of climbers below on Dinner Ledge who like to consider their skulls to be like a catcher's mitt.
Scoop · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2014 · Points: 45

Climbing a wall is like lying on hot asphalt while getting whipped with a bike chain.  You'll love it!  

BTW, Warren Harding never climbed harder than 5.9. I know folks who never did a move harder than 5.7 on the nose. It is whatever you want it to be.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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