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Leading Your First Big Wall   

Tagged in: Aid and Big Walls, Leading, Multi-pitch, Trad Climbing
by Mark Synnott
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Leading on a big wall is similar to leading on a long day climb, except your rack will be bigger, and you’ll usually be doing a lot more aid climbing. Expect to feel heavy and encumbered—and to use aid on many moves you would usually climb free. Practice basic aid by clean-aiding (no pitons!) short cracks. Then try a few three- to five-pitch routes where you can practice all the necessary wall skills and transitions.

What You Need 

We’ve all seen the classic photos of Robbins and Frost with all their goodies laid out on a Camp 4 picnic table. Those guys had a packing list, and you should, too.

Rock Climbing Photo: The simple life: a portaledge camp on El Cap.  by ...

The simple life: a portaledge camp on El Cap.
by Kevin Steele/Wonderful Machine
Technical Gear: Guidebooks and online resources may give specific gear lists for the wall route of your choice, but a standard rack might look like this:
  • 2–3 sets of cams
  • 2 sets of nuts, including micro-nuts and offsets
  • 2–3 small Tri-cams
  • 2 hooks (1 Black Diamond Talon; one Cliffhanger or equivalent)
  • 2 wire rivet hangers
  • 12 quickdraws
  • 25 spare carabiners
  • 15 locking carabiners
  • 10 shoulder-length slings
  • 1 double-sided gear sling
  • 3 double-length slings
  • 1 60m x 10.5mm lead rope
  • 1 60m x 9mm static haul rope
  • 1 progress-capture pulley
  • 1 swivel for haul bag

Personal Gear
  • daisy chains (2 per person)
  • aiders (6 per team of two)
  • ascenders (2 per person)
  • fifi hook
  • helmet
  • comfy, well-padded harness with detachable leg loops
  • approach shoes or over-sized, high-top crack-climbing shoes
  • fingerless gloves
  • nut tool
  • hammer (optional on many “easy” walls, but can be useful for cleaning or for emergencies)

Learn more about a full gear setup at

The Setup 

At the base of the wall, gear up for leading or following in a similar way. Girth-hitch your two daisy chains into your belay loop. Daisies are all-purpose tethers that you’ll attach to the gear when aid climbing, to your ascenders when jugging, and to the anchor when you’re at the belay. Clip a keylock biner (not a locker) to the end of each daisy. Also girth-hitch the short sling on a fifi hook to your belay loop; you’ll use this to hang temporarily on gear, instead of constantly clipping and unclipping a carabiner.

If you’re leading, clip your aiders to the end of your daisy chains. If you’re seconding, attach daisies and aiders to your ascenders. When you’re not using your aiders, you can clip them up short and carry them on a back gear loop.

The Moves 

  • Place a piece of gear and clip one of your daisy chains to it, along with a set of aiders.
  • Aggressively bounce-test the piece. (See figure 1 and sidebar on next page.)
  • If the piece holds, step into the rungs of the aiders, fifi in to a convenient loop on your daisy, and rest on the fifi.
  • Before moving up the ladder, reach down and clip your rope into the previous piece (not into the piece you just placed), and then remove your daisy chain and aiders from it.
  • Move as high as you can in your aiders, and fifi so you can stand comfortably, leaning back in your harness, and use both hands to reach as high as possible and engineer your next piece.

Leading Tips 

Rock Climbing Photo: Paul Hewitt (leading) and Roy Smith make it look e...

Paul Hewitt (leading) and Roy Smith make it look easy on the Nose of El Cap.
by Kevin Steele/Wonderful Machine
Clip high. Clip your aiders as high on the piece as you can get (e.g., into the rubber loop on the end of a cam stem, rather than its sling) to gain extra inches of height. This lets you space out your placements, and fewer placements generally means faster progress. That said, an occasional short move to reach the next quick-and-easy placement might be more efficient than futzing with a trickier long move.

Biner first. Place a “working” biner or quickdraw onto bolts, pitons, and other fixed gear, then clip your daisy/aider combo to that biner. This will simplify clipping the rope into the piece after you’ve moved off it.

Rivets. These come in many varieties, but are essentially body weight–only bolts that don’t have hangers, used to pass blank sections of rock. To aid-climb past them, you’ll slip a rivet hanger, either wire or the keyhole variety (RP hangers or Dubloons), over the stud. In a pinch, you can use a wired nut by sliding down the aluminum wedge to expose a wire loop. Don’t bounce-test rivets, because if you pull one, you may not be able to get past the hole. Just clip and go.

Copperheads. Depending on the wall, you may come across fixed copperheads, which are malleable nuts hammered into tiny seams. Copperheading is an art in itself, and on trade routes you should not have to place your own. Unless you are prepared to replace the head if it blows, don’t bounce-test—just clip and go.

Tension traverses and pendulums. These are common techniques on big walls, used to move from one crack system to another. To do a tension traverse, ask your partner to slowly lower you from a piece of pro while you lean against the rope; use your feet and hands to friction and pull yourself across the wall. A pendulum is the dynamic version of a tension traverse. Have your partner lower you to a certain point, then lock off the belay. Now run back and forth across the wall until you’re able to swing past the blank section. The tricky part is judging how far to lower; when in doubt, start out high.

Rock Climbing Photo: A climber bounce-testing while leading an aid pitc...

A climber bounce-testing while leading an aid pitch. Note the aider and daisy setup. If her top piece passes the test, she'll move up into the higher set of aiders and clip the low ones to her harness gear loop. It's possible that the bounce-test will rip out the piece. If so, she'll catch herself on the lower aiders and try another placement.
by Mike Clelland
Free climbing. Many pitches on a big wall will have sections where you need to move from aid to free, which can be awkward and unnerving. Look ahead, select a few pieces of protection, and clip these to the front of your gear sling. Clip your highest aid piece for protection, then step out of your aiders onto footholds. (If there are no good footholds, attach a shoulder-length sling to the piece and step into that.) Remember, you need to take your aiders with you, so unclip them from the piece and either dangle them or clip them short to your gear loops. It may help to fifi directly to your top piece while you prep. Get psyched, unweight the fifi, and start free climbing.

The concept of bounce-testing is simple: You try to rip out the piece you just placed by shock-loading it with your bodyweight, before you fully commit to it. If you can’t rip it out, you move onto it with confidence.

Bounce-Testing Remember not to bounce-test bolts, rivets, or any other fixed mank that you’re not prepared to replace. Also, it’s not necessary to fully test bomber pieces. If a piece of pro is obviously solid, just clip and go. Otherwise, you're just making it harder for your second to clean the gear, especially when you bounce-test small nuts.

Aider testing Clip one aider/daisy combo to the piece you want to test. Maneuver so the aider step you’re going to jump on is even with your current position or slightly below. If you’re too high, and the new piece fails, you’ll shock-load your previous piece.

Grab a high aider rung or a carabiner on the new placement, step into the aider with one foot, and jump up and down on it, with your other foot and hand still positioned on your previous piece. Don’t be wimpy with your test, because if the piece is questionable you’d rather it pull during the test than when you move high up an aider clipped to it. Undo your fifi hook so it doesn’t take any weight during the test, and be ready to shift back onto the other foot and lock off with your arm on the old piece if the new piece blows.

Daisy testing This style of bounce-test applies a little more force, and may make it easier to keep your balance if a piece blows. Clip your daisy into your new piece, but keep both feet in the aiders on the lower piece. Clip a carabiner from your belay loop into the highest daisy loop you can reach. Stand up tall and then drop down hard onto the daisy, while holding onto the lower piece. Repeat until you’re satisfied the piece is good.

Avoid the temptation to look at the piece you’re testing. If it blows, you’ll be eating it. Look down (and wear a helmet).

Testing is difficult on traverses, particularly when the pieces are widely spaced. Try asking your partner to give you tension with the rope, then use the aider method.

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