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Your First Big Wall   

Tagged in: Aid and Big Walls, Multi-pitch, Trad Climbing
by Mark Synnott
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Embark on the greatest adventure of your life 

Solid on 5.9 gear routes? Ready for the greatest adventure of your life? Our step-by-step big wall guide will show you the way.

It all started for me back in high school, when I saw a photo of the most awe-inspiring piece of rock I’d ever laid eyes on—the Nameless Tower. I’ve spent years of my life dreaming about that Karakoram spire, and though I still haven’t climbed it, Nameless inspired me to head to Yosemite, more than 20 years ago, to climb my first big wall.

Rock Climbing Photo: The looming El Capitan. by Rich Wheater

The looming El Capitan.
by Rich Wheater
My friend Simon and I rode a Greyhound from Boston, and showed up in Camp 4 with our eyes on the south face of Washington Column. We’d read it was the perfect first wall. Unfortunately, we fell under the spell of some locals who called themselves the “wall pirates.” They claimed the Column was choss and steered us to the Direct North Buttress of Middle Cathedral, aka DNB. They left out the part about its nickname: Do Not Bother.

We spent two nights on the DNB, barely sketching our way up the pitches, hauling a duct-taped army duffel behind us. We never found the huge bivy lege the pirates had promised. Early on the second day, we figured we’d be off soon, so we dumped the rest of our water—the only time I’ve ever done that on a wall. By the time we got down on the third day, we hadn’t had a sip of water in 24 hours.

It was worth it, in the end, if for no other reason than to see the look on the pirates' faces when we pulled back into camp. The wall pirates and their kind are still lurking out there, so hopefully this article will help you off to a better start. But the most important thing is simply to make the first step, as Simon and I did, and commit to doing a wall. Do it this year. Just don’t start with the DNB.

Caution: Don’t embark on a wall climb until you have many long multi-pitch routes under your belt. There is obligatory free climbing on almost every wall—which usually feels quite difficult with the extra gear you’re carrying—so you should be comfortable leading at least 5.9 trad. Be thoroughly proficient with gear placement, anchor building, knots, rope management, and self-rescue. You’ll also need a lot of heart, without which you’ll probably throw in the towel after your hips are chafed raw from the first haul.

The Basics 

Rock Climbing Photo: Conrad Anker leads out on El Cap. by Jimmy Chin

Conrad Anker leads out on El Cap.
by Jimmy Chin
A "big wall climb" is just an overgrown rock route, but complicated by aid climbing and the need to haul a bag. You’ll need some special gear, as well as new techniques.

The basic procedure goes like this: The leader climbs up the first pitch, free and/or with aid, trailing a second rope (the haul line). When he reaches the anchor, he ties in and fixes (ties off) the lead rope, which the second will climb with ascenders.

Next, the leader sets up a haul system and lifts the bag off the anchor. The second then follows the pitch by ascending the lead rope, taking out the gear along the way. While the second follows, the leader hauls the bag.

When the second reaches the anchor, he moves off the rope onto the belay anchor, and the team organizes ropes and gear for the next pitch. They repeat this process until they reach the night’s bivy spot.

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Subtopics in Your First Big Wall:

    Rock Climbing Photo: The simple life: a portaledge camp on El Cap.  by ...
    Leading Your First Big Wall
    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 cl...
    Mark Synnott at Climbing Magazine
    Rock Climbing Photo: Figure 1: The second removes all the pro as he mov...
    Following Your First Big Wall
    In wall climbing, the second climber seldom gets put on belay. Instead, when the leader finishes a pitch, he ties the rope to a power point at the anchor, and the second “jugs” the fixed rope with ascenders and aiders. After the leader has tied off the rope, take him o...
    Mark Synnott at Climbing Magazine
    Rock Climbing Photo: A "docked" (anchored) haul bag showing t...
    Baggage Handling on Your First Big Wall
    The worst part of any long trip is dealing with luggage. Now imagine that instead of carrying your gear in a comfortable pack or on a rolling suitcase, you’re dragging it behind you at the end of a rope. Hauling will likely be the crux of your first wall. If you fail, it...
    Mark Synnott at Climbing Magazine
    Rock Climbing Photo: Peanut Ledge of El Cap's Zodiac by Martin Fickweil...
    Life on Your First Big Wall
    I know some wall climbers—specializing in speed ascents—who brag how they’ve never bivied on a wall. To me, this means missing out on the best part of big-wall climbing. There is nothing like watching the sunset while perched above the world like a kid in a treehouse. ...
    Mark Synnott at Climbing Magazine

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