How To Climb a Big Wall – Leading

aid climbing in yosemite

To lead an aid climb, you first need to attach your daisies and aiders to your harness. Do this by girth-hitching one end of each daisy through the hard points of your harness (the same points that your belay loop goes through). Then clip the other end to your aiders with a carabiner.

Big wall aid climb daisy chains and aiders
Big wall aid climbing aiders attached to carabiner

Put your aiders on the 'gate' side of the carabiner, so the daisy is free to move up and down the back bar.

It's better to use a 'keyhole' style carabiner for your aiders/daisies, as it will be less likely to get stuck on slings and nut wires than a 'nose' style carabiner. You can use either a snapgate or screwgate.

Carabiners with a nose or keyhole style carabiner
How to attach a haul rope to back of climbing harness

Next, attach the haul rope to the haul loop on the back of your harness and fill your gear loops with enough rack to get going (this is much easier to carry if you use a chest gear sling).

Once you're on belay, clip one of your daisies to the highest point of the belay. Weight it, then remove your attachment point to the belay itself. Also clip your rope into the top piece of the belay (with a separate quickdraw) so you won't take a factor two fall onto your belayer if you fall on the next move.

The basic system to lead an aid climb is this:
Step 1 – Place gear and clip your free daisy/aider to it.
Step 2 – Test that gear with your body weight.
Step 3 – Transfer your weight on to it.
Step 4 – Clip the rope into your last piece of gear and remove your other daisy/aider from it.
Step 5 – Get as high as you can on your current piece, then repeat!

Here are the steps in more detail:

Leading an Aid Climb > Step 1 - Place Gear

Place a piece of gear and clip your free daisy/aider to it (the one you're not standing on). Before testing the next piece of gear, you'll need to adjust your daisies so that you won't shock load your previous piece if it fails. How you do this will depend on your set-up (looped or adjustable daisies) and how high above your last piece you are.

Using looped daisies, move your fifi hook or carabiner to an appropriate place on your lower daisy so that you can hang on the full length of your upper one. Fifi hooks can often fall out when testing your next piece, so for added security use a snapgate carabiner.

Adjustable daisies can be easier to handle, as the top daisy can simply be pulled tight and the lower one loosened slightly to get the correct weight adjustment.

If your waist is above the last piece of gear then it's difficult to avoid shock loading it. Take your bottom daisy in as tight as you can to reduce the distance you would fall on to it. Hold onto your lower daisy and make sure you leave one foot in your bottom aider to absorb the force if your top piece fails.

How to lead an aid pitch on a big wall

Leading an Aid Climb > Step 2 - Test Gear

Unless you've just clipped a bolt or an obviously bomber piece of gear, you'll want to test it before fully committing your weight to it. How you test it depends on what the gear is.

First, ease your weight onto the upper piece, until the majority of your body weight is on it.

Nuts, slings and pitons can be bounce tested. Do this by 'bouncing' your weight on your top daisy, with a slightly increased force each time. This puts more force on the piece than just your bodyweight will, so if it survives the bounce test it's unlikely to pull out when you're weighting it. If it fails, you'll swing gently onto your lower piece, which should still hold you because you bounce tested it – right?

Bounce testing aid gear on a big wall

More easily damaged or low-strength gear, such as cams, micro nuts and copperheads, should only be very gently bounced.

Small cams, rivets, camhooks and skyhooks shouldn't be bounce tested, as they would be damaged over time. To test, weight them and press your body into the wall to generate a little more force than bodyweight without the harsh impact of a bounce. Move side-to-side and outwards from the wall a little, too. This simulates the direction you might pull the piece when you're higher up on it.

Remember that if you test fixed pitons, copperheads or other junk and they fail, you'll have to replace them. Make sure you've got the skills and equipment to do that.

Try not to look directly at the piece you are testing – if it fails, it'll hit you in the face! Look away, and wear a helmet.

Leading an Aid Climb > Step 3 - Commit

Once you're happy that your upper piece will at least hold your weight, it's time to commit. Shift all your weight on to the top piece, shortening your daisy so you can sit in your harness.

Leading an Aid Climb > Step 4 - Reset

Reach back down and clip your lead rope into your lower piece before removing your daisy/aider from it. Obviously you can't clip it if it's a skyhook or camhook – just pull those up with your daisy/aider and then re-rack them. If you're using adjustable daisies, fully extend it out at this point, then clip the whole thing to a gear loop, ready for the next placement.

How to lead climb an aid pitch

Leading an Aid Climb > Step 5 - Get High

You want to get as high on your top piece as you can, as this will mean less moves to the top.

On slabby terrain, use the steps of your aider to walk upwards. With practise you should be able to stand in the top step. Your daisy will slide up the back bar of its carabiner. Adjust your daisy shorter to give you some downwards tension for balance. This also means that if you lose balance you won't fall the full length of the daisy.

Vertical or overhanging terrain is more strenuous. Pull yourself into the rock using the grab loop of your aider while walking up the steps. Adjust your daisy as tight as it will go. This is easy with the adjustable type, but with the loop style you must hang on with one arm while you fiddle your fifi or carabiner into a daisy loop. You can, however, get slightly higher on the piece by hooking your fifi directly into the gear. It's almost impossible to top-step on steep terrain.

Once you are as high up as you can get, it's time to place a piece of gear and repeat step one.

Aid climbing fifi hook

Leading an Aid Climb > Tips

- Clip as high on the piece as possible (eg; in the plastic thumb-loop of a cam, rather than the sling). This gives you more height, meaning quicker overall progress.

- When clipping gear which only has a big enough hole for one carabiner (such as a rivet hanger or a piton), you can clip a quickdraw to it first and then clip your aider onto that. This way you will be able to clip it as protection before removing your aider, therefore never being detached from the piece. It will, however, mean that you're a carabiner-length lower, so it may be harder to reach the next piece.

- When switching from aid to free climbing in the middle of a pitch, attach a sling to your top piece. This will be your final foot step before you free climb. Make sure to clip your aiders and daisies away on the back of your harness so you won't trip over them.

Aid climbing piton

Passing Gear to the Leader

You don't need to take your entire aid rack on every pitch!

If you need something from the belay, your belayer can clip it to a loop in the haul rope and then you simply pull it up. This is also useful for passing water, jackets or beer on those long, scary leads.

How to pass gear to the leader on a big wall
Climbing and drinking beer

However, once you are over half of the rope length up a pitch (eg; you are over 30 meters up the pitch with a 60 meter haul rope), the belayer will need to attach an extra 'tag line' or spare rope to the end of the haul rope so they can get it back again.

Leading Pendulums and Tension Traverses

A pendulum is a great technique for moving sideways across a blank section of an aid climb. You use the rope to swing across the blank rock, to another point at the side where you can begin to climb again. You'll have to lose height to do this.

To begin a pendulum, clip your lead rope into your current piece of gear and get your belayer to take you tight on the rope. Once tight, unclip your aiders and get your belayer to lower you. As you are being lowered, you can start swinging by running sideways across the wall. Communicate with your belayer so you don't get lowered too far – make sure you know where you're trying to swing to!

Keep your momentum and swing a little higher each time. Often, you'll need to grab a jug, hook an edge or clip a fixed piece at the pinnacle of your swing, so be ready for this. Once you've stuck the pendulum, continue climbing as normal, making sure to extend the next few pieces of gear after this to reduce rope drag.

A tension traverse is similar and involves semi free climbing across with some of your weight on the rope, instead of fully weighting the rope and swinging.

How to pendulum and tension traverse on an aid climb

Back-Cleaning an Aid Climb

Sometimes, you'll need to use a piece of gear you've already placed. Obviously, it's better to leave it there as protection, but this won't always be possible. You can take out your previous piece instead of leaving it as gear, but be aware that this can mean a big fall if your current piece fails. On a straight up pitch, you can also place two or three good pieces in a row, then get your belayer to lower you on the rope to retrieve earlier pieces of gear. Make sure your top ones are good before committing to this! Once you've got some gear back, you'll have to either re-climb to your high point (on top rope) or jumar up the rope whilst your belayer holds it tight. Obviously, this won't work on a traversing or overhanging pitch.

Leading Overhangs and Traverses

The system for leading on a horizontal roof or a traverse is very similar. Just place a piece, reach as far sideways as you can, and place your next piece. It's hard to transfer your weight to your new piece to test it, so try stamping in your aider instead of weighting your daisy. Remember that your second will have to clip from piece to piece to clean the pitch, so don't back clean them!

How to lead an overhang or traverse aid climbing

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