What Is Big Wall Climbing?
A big wall is essentially a vertical expanse of rock too big to climb in a single day. Big walls aren't that common – the most famous, and accessible, is El Capitan in Yosemite, although there are many more in remote locations such as Baffin Island and Patagonia.
When big wall climbing, you'll spend multiple days up on the rock, sleeping on a portaledge and hauling all your kit. Of course, some big walls can be climbed in a day by speed climbers – El Capitan is often climbed in way under 24 hours. But unless you're a very good free climber, you'll need to aid climb to get up the wall. This is much slower than free climbing, turning it into a multi-day affair.
What Is Aid Climbing?
Aid climbing doesn't have to be done on a big wall, but usually is! It's the process of using gear to support your weight as you climb, rather than just your hands and feet on the rock. It allows you to climb rock that would just be too hard to free climb, as well as presenting its own unique set of skills and problems that can be just as fun as rock climbing.
The gear you're used to on trad routes – nuts and cams – is used for aid climbing too. Specialist aid gear such as pitons, beaks and copperheads are also often used on big walls – these need a hammer to place.
Aid climbing is a useful skill to have even if you have no intention of climbing a big wall. Many alpine routes have sections that, in poor weather, may be impossible without using aid. Just a few aid moves may be all that is needed to reach a summit or a safer descent. Knowledge of aid techniques can also provide a way to safely move up or down a crag in an emergency.
Can I Climb a Big Wall?
Absolutely! The idea of climbing a wall for the first time can be really intimidating, even for experienced trad or alpine climbers. You will need to learn new skills – how to aid climb, jumar and haul – but these are well within the reach of most experienced trad climbers.
You definitely don't have to be a good free climber to climb El Cap – the most popular routes are accessible to those climbing at around 5.6 – 5.9 (Severe – HVS).
The Big Wall Climbing System
On a standard multipitch trad route, the leader belays the second up each pitch. On a big wall this is different – the second ascends the pitch whilst the leader hauls the bag up.
To begin with, the leader ties in and sets off, on belay as normal. They can either aid climb, free climb or do a combination of the two, dependent on the route. To aid climb, they simply place a piece of gear then clip their aider and daisy to the piece and use it to stand up as high as possible, before placing another piece and repeating the process. The gear is then clipped to the rope for protection. The leader also needs to drag the haul line with them, normally clipped to the back of their harness.
At the end of the pitch, the leader sets up the belay and hauling system. The second releases the haulbag from the lower belay and the leader begins pulling it up. The leader also ties off their lead line to the belay. This fixes it in place so that the second can then jumar up it. This rope doesn't move until the second reaches the top belay – the second ascends the rope, rather than being belayed up the rock.
The leader continues to haul the bag up whilst the second jumars up the fixed lead line, removing all the gear as they go. Once both climbers and the haul bag are at the top belay, the system can be repeated again.