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So you want to climb a big wall?

December 15, 2023

So you want to climb a big wall?

10 random tips for preparing and sending your first big-wall.

Written by Daygin Prescott

Having just had our first pilgrimage to Yosemite, I wanted to share some insights with other aspiring ‘wallers’.

Last year I had the dream of climbing The Nose of El Capitan. It seemed incredibly far fetched but I knew with enough preparation, I should at least have a go someday! Prior to the trip over I rope-soloed Ozymandias on Mt Buffalo, practiced systems on The Stainless Anticlimb, Mt Beerwah and Big-Walled The Governor, Mount Barney. Myself and James, had pretty much exhausted all options for ‘getting ready’ before we headed over to the US.

The following is my personal views from the experiences I’ve had. In the valley we climbed The Nose on El Capitan, South Face of Washington Column in a day and attempted Lurking Fear in a day. James also rope-soloed the West Face of Leaning Tower, while I recovered from injury.

From when I first tied into a climbing rope, to standing on top of El Cap was 1 year 9 months. It was a steep learning curve, but proof that you can do anything as long as your psyched enough! (and sufficiently prepared). 

General Tips and Thoughts for Big Walling

  1. Physical Training + Fitness

A good solid base in multi-pitch trad climbing is essential for being able to get up a big wall efficiently and have a great time doing it. On the wall, you’ll often be moving from sunrise to sunset. Probably not trying super hard the entire time, but constantly moving and thinking for a few days back to back can be tiring!

  1. Technical Knowledge

Big wall and aid techniques are their own niche in climbing. There is so much content out in the world to learn from. I found the most value from How Not 2 on youtube and books such as Freedom of the Hills and Hooking Up. It is important to take as much information as you can from different sources, there are so many ways to do different things and it's valuable to have a big set of tools, so you can always pick one which is the safest and most efficient.

  1. Practicing Systems

With a good base of safe and efficient climbing, belaying and placing gear, I believe having efficient systems while big walling is the most important ‘skill’ to practice. Being organised and efficient at belays and bivvies comes down to having a good set of systems. While it is great to just get on the wall and figure it out, I was surprised by the number of parties on El Cap who didn’t have good systems, were constantly having to problem solve and untangle ropes.

Deciding where to fix the seconder and dock the haul bags, when to back clean, lowering-out, how to stack your ropes in different scenarios and which hauling system to use, should all be intuitive on the wall. There will obviously be times when you’ll need to figure something out that wasn’t planned, but for the most part, there should be a second nature to arriving at a belay and leaving the belay.

It is definitely hard to practice big walling without actually big walling. There are so many aspects to it that are hard to replicate on single or multi-pitch climbs. However, we actually spent quite a bit of time practicing transitions at the belay on the top rope wall in our climbing gym.

The first time we did it, it took us 40 mins to climb 10m with a belay at halfway and the top (2 transitions). The last time we did it was 17mins. Over 30 pitches on El cap, that's almost a full day of climbing in just belay transitions. This can easily be replicated at a quiet sport crag or multi pitch.

  1. Carrying your poo

Yep, what goes up must come down. People often forget that when you’re on a wall for 4 days, your body does the same things as when it is on the ground. Leave No Trace should already be something you practice whenever recreating outdoors. However, it is a little more intimate when you can’t dig a hole or use the porta-loo.

The system we used was mainly because we forgot to actually make up a poo-tube, but it was resourceful and I’d probably do it again. We used large zip-loc bags (left over from nuts, snacks etc.), a standard plastic shopping bag, Gallon water container and some duct tape.

Do your business in the shopping bag, using the conveniently placed handles, pop the toilet paper in there. Shopping bag then goes inside the zip-loc bag. Bear with me here… squeeze out excess air and seal it up! Then use an empty gallon jug (Water you brought up with you but have already finished), cut a slot in it, insert the poo and tape it up! With a small bit of cord around the bottle, we then hang it from the very bottom of our bags.

I suggest watching this video for a bit more comprehensive options - How Not to Poop, on El Capitan 

  1. Haul Bags

We weren’t sure whether to get a single 145L or two 70L bags. We opted for the 2 x 70L and I’m glad we did! Obviously it allows you to distribute the weight for approaching/ descending. It is also easier to manage (and organise) two lighter bags, rather than one big heavy load. There are many different ways for connecting haul bags, tying them into the haul rope, organising gear etc. Just try a bunch and figure out what works best for you.

  1. Hauling

The biggest chore of big walling. Your bag is going to be heavy and it’s probably going to get stuck. Here’s some random thoughts on hauling:

  • If you can, just haul 1:1. We only hauled with a Pro-traxion and bodyweight with 2 bags and a portaledge.
  • Keep your rope organised. Take a break from hauling every 5-10m and stack your rope.
  • Use a swivel and knot protector
  • We had 8m of lower-out cord. This worked great. On really long traverses, we would tie the bag into the middle of the haul line and lower it out on the tail.
  • Haul bag stuck? Most of the time a good series of constant thrusting and pulling the haul line will get the bag swinging enough to pull over an edge.
  1. Tethering

You will drop stuff. And not only is that annoying, but there’s people below you who I am sure wouldn't appreciate a water bottle landing on their head. There’s definitely no need to tether EVERYTHING, but it is important to be able to have your gear secured in some way. A length of 3mm cord works well for adding loops to gear that doesn’t have any means of clipping to - bottles, sleeping pads, jackets, sunglasses etc.

  1. Food

Maximum calories, minimum weight. I tend to not use a stove unless I need to melt snow. But, the comfort/ luxury of a nice warm meal can certainly be worth it at the end of a long day. In the past I have definitely underestimated the importance of food. Both for refuelling your body and the emotional boost it gives you after a good meal or tasty snack. An idea of what we took up:

Breakfast - Plain quick oats, honey sachet. Just add water

Snacks - Sour Worms, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, salami sticks, nut bars, Clif bars

Lunch - Salami and cheese bagels

Dinner - Cous cous, curry spices, coconut oil, tuna.

Pretty basic, but we got our calories. However, after the wall I figured that big walling, as opposed to fast and light escapades, might be worth bringing some luxuries. Those few 100g per day extra might not really add up to much in the grand scheme of hauling 2 bags and a portaledge. I feel like the added sustenance and emotional support might be worth it.

  1. Aid Climbing

With so many different preferences from people on techniques and gear specific to aid climbing, it is hard to know what is the ‘best’. This is what I use:

Metolius 8 Step Ladders (with home-made spreader bar)

Standard Fifi hook

Petzl Evolv Adjust

Free climb as much as you can. If it is too hard then french free (pulling on gear, no ladders). If that is too hard then move to aiding. I would climb ‘daisy-less’ with just ladders if the aid was straight forward. For overhanging or awkward aiding I would use daisies.

Always get as high as you can, and place gear as high as you can. You save time, energy and gear.

You really shouldn’t be whipping when aiding below C3. Place good gear and bounce test it. 

  1. Be safe.

The longer you spend on the mountain, the more likely something is going to go wrong. Whether that is exposure to rockfall or complacency after doing the same thing 50 times.

Lock your biners, check your knots, check your partners, wear a helmet, don’t forget a headlamp and tie knots in the end of your ropes. Have a conversation with your partner about bailing (before you start climbing). Our first rule of our trip was that if someone wanted to bail for any reason at any point, then we bail. I decided to bail on Pitch 12 of Lurking Fear while attempting it in a day, purely because I just wasn’t having fun.

  1. Bonus one - The memories

As a photographer I am pretty much always shooting. But, I think with an experience such as spending a few days on a big wall, it is important to bring home memories. Whether that is a full length vlog, professional images, iPhone photos, drawings or journal entries. Whatever feels authentic to you and your experience.

Watch Daygin's Climbing on El Cap series

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