Aid Climbing Ratings

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Every climb receives a grade which determines the length of time and commitment required to climb it, with big wall routes covering grades V to VII. With only three grades to describe the length of every big wall route, the system doesn’t work so well. Generally, Grade V’s require one or two nights on the wall and Grade VI’s require two to seven nights. It is recommended to start with a few Grade V’s before trying a Grade VI. Grade VII is reserved for extremely difficult aid-intensive routes on huge walls in remote environments, often with hostile weather and no possibility of a rescue.

Aid Climbing Grades - The Theory

The grades range from A1 to A5, and from C1 to C5. 'A' grades refer to anything that requires the use of a hammer (e.g: placing pitons or copperheads), whereas 'C' grades are used if the pitch can be climbed without using a hammer (i.e: ‘clean'). A1 is super safe. A5 is super dangerous.

big wall ratings

Aid Climbing Grades - The Reality

In reality, the grading system doesn’t really work. Aid ratings are based entirely on the danger involved. The rating does not tell you how physically challenging a pitch is, or how difficult it is to figure out the moves.

To add to the confusion, aid pitches get easier with more ascents. Piton scars widen and become more reliable cam or nut placements, copperheads become fixed, ‘chicken’ bolts and rivets get added and routefinding generally becomes more obvious.

Unfortunately, there is no way of accurately measuring how dangerous a pitch is – we can only guess. This works fairly well up to A3. But in the harder grades, it becomes a measure of fear. And fear is different for each climber and each situation.

sea of dreams el cap

Aid grades of A5 or harder impress the masses, but no climb can really be given the A5 rating without proof of certain death if you fall. Those tiny copperheads could hold, but you don't know until you fall off. And no aid climber is crazy enough to test this theory. Not even Ammon McNeely.

A grade of A5 cannot even be confirmed if someone falls off. This is because every climber protects pitches slightly differently. Some climbers place more gear, equalize pieces and add shock-absorbing slings. Other climbers back-clean, don't bring enough gear or miss out key placements in the pursuit of moving faster.

A3 gets upgraded to A4 due to fear. A5 gets downgraded to A4 due to lack of proof. Therefore, the grade of A4 becomes a vast spectrum of difficulty, which is only possible to describe when you've climbed enough of it. Here's my view:

el cap aid climbing

A grade of A4 could mean there is one well-travelled and straightforward section of fixed gear in solid rock which is really A2 if you spend time climbing it well (e.g: crux pitches of Lost in America, Zenyatta Mondatta, many El Cap trade routes). Or it could be a 30+ pitch nightmare of rotten rock and death blocks. On an average pitch, the unfortunate leader will suffer in a perpetual state of mind-boggling terror as they sketch from one horrendous placement to another.

It will often take over 30 minutes to construct a science-project placement which enables the leader to tremble one foot higher up the 3000-foot wall. Fear builds exponentially as they become further and further removed from anything secure and completely uncertain that they will ever reach a belay. After 8 hours in a new and unfamiliar state of panic, dehydration and delirium, the exhausted leader will be forced to mantle out of their aiders into a long free climbing section of unknown difficulty, protected below by a string of worthless ironmongery. This must be climbed while wearing a massive clustered aid rack.

Balanced at the top of these desperate runout free moves, the leader must stretch high to place a tiny copperhead and transition back to the final section of improbable aid moves to a belay which must be constructed from pitons and duck tape. Or at least that’s how I felt on The Central Tower.

Aid Climbing and Big Wall Gear

Big wall gear is expensive, but you don’t need to buy everything to start with. Many trad climbers already own most of the rack for a clean aid route, and sufficient bivi gear for a summer wall. If you’re not sure that big wall climbing is right for you, consider choosing your first route as one which does not require a portaledge.

By choosing a fairly fast route, you can get a smaller haulbag too. You will of course need to spend more money if you want to advance to harder, longer or more remote walls. If so, it is worth getting durable kit that will last many walls. An example kit list for a short clean aid wall is given below.

aid climbing el cap

3x sets of cams up to Camalot #3
1x cams size #4 and #5
1x set of small offset cams
1x set of regular nuts
2x sets of offset nuts
2x nut tools
2x cam hooks
2x skyhooks
10x regular quickdraws
10x extendable quickdraws
5x 120cm slings
20x spare snapgate carabiners
12x spare screwgate carabiners
2x cordelettes
1x hauling device

Personal Equipment for Each Climber
Pair of approach shoes
Pair of free climbing shoes
Pair of fingerless gloves
2x Aiders
2x Daisy chains
2x Jumars
Prusik cord
Sleeping pad
Sleeping bag
Bivi bag
Jacket and spare clothes

Group Equipment
1x full size haulbag
2x 60m dynamic ropes
2x rope bags
Knot protector
First aid kit
Sun protection
Small repair kit
Pocket knife
Poop tube
Hygiene products
A few stuff sacks

Big Wall Ropes

Almost every wall requires two ropes; a lead line and a tag/haul line. A length of 60 meters (for each rope) will be suitable for most walls. However, modern routes are often established with 70m ropes, so reaching the belay with a shorter cord may be impossible. The character of the route, the length of pitches and the abrasiveness of the rock dictate what ropes you should take.

Lead Rope
The lead rope is your most critical piece of gear. A burly 10-11mm diameter dynamic rope with a low impact force rating will stand up well to the abuses of aid intensive walls.

Free Climbing Ropes
For walls that you plan to mostly free climb, a lighter, 9.0-9.4mm rope will be much more practical but less durable. In this case, consider using a dynamic haul line so you have a spare rope in case your lead line gets trashed.

Dry Treatment
A rope with dry treatment will resist absorbing water. This increases its durability and maintains a low impact force when wet. The treatment also helps to stop dirt and sand getting into the rope's fibers, which means the rope will run across the rock and through carabiners with less friction than if it was untreated. It's worth the extra cost for a dry treated rope if you plan to climb wet/snowy walls.

Some modern ropes have a unicore design – the rope’s sheath is permanently bonded to its core. This eliminates sheath slippage, making it much safer for situations such as jumaring.

Haul Rope
The haul rope should be the same length or longer than your lead rope, and can be either static or dynamic. This rope is used for:
- Hauling your bags up the wall
- Passing gear to the leader mid-pitch
- Abseiling
- Jumaring (if climbing as a team of three

Static Haul Ropes
Because a static rope has almost no stretch, it is great for hauling and fixing pitches. A 8-9mm diameter static rope is a good lightweight choice for hauling light loads. A 9- 11mm rope is a better choice for hauling heavier loads and for climbing as a team of three. Fixing pitches with a static rope is much safer than using a dynamic if the rope is running over rough rock or sharp edges.

Dynamic Haul Ropes
A dynamic haul rope theoretically lowers the efficiency of a hauling system. However, once loaded, the extra stretch is barely noticeable. A single-rated dynamic haul rope also serves as a spare in case you destroy your lead line.

Tag Line
Tag lines range from 5.5mm (dyneema) to 8mm (perlon) in diameter and are used for hauling super light loads. A half rope could also be used. For fast walls, you may choose to use one of these instead of a haul rope. If climbing a slower wall with a thick haul rope, it is worth trailing a tag line to save weight on your harness. Tag lines (and half ropes) are much lighter than haul ropes, but are not strong or thick enough for jumaring or hauling heavy loads.

Rope Bags
Ropes can be stacked in slings at the belay, but stuffing them into rope bags is a better way to tame them when windy. You can buy expensive rope bags which have sewn clip-in loops, but Ikea bags work just as well.

Big Wall Rack

The rack requirement is different for each route. Most easier routes are climbed clean (without using gear which needs a hammer to place and remove). Generally, a triple set of cams to #3 Camalot and a double set of offset nuts will be a sufficient rack for many clean aid routes. For a hard nail-up, you may need 4-5 sets of cams, 50+ pitons, 100+ copperheads, a bolt kit and plenty of other obscure pieces of ironmongery. Even on clean aid routes, it is useful to have a hammer for removing stubborn nuts (hit your nut tool with your hammer).

In general, it is a good idea to have as great a variety of gear as possible, since one particular brand of cam may fit in a certain placement much better than any other.

Slings and Quickdraws
Slings and quickdraws extend gear to reduce rope drag, help insecure placements from dislodging themselves and direct the rope away from sharp edges or flakes. 60cm and 120cm dyneema slings are particularly useful for equalizing gear on lead. Take a mixture of at least 20 slings/draws on a wall.

Screamers (fall arresters) are energy absorbing quickdraws. A screamer activates (the stitching rips) when ~2kN force is applied. This reduces the impact force on your gear during a fall, meaning that it is more likely to hold.

Screamers are most useful when attached to the first few pieces of gear in a pitch when fall factors are the highest and also on fairly marginal gear higher in the pitch. A screamer can only be activated once, but it can be used as a full-strength extender after activation. Scream Aids work in a similar way except they activate at ~1.5kN and break completely at 7kN. They are only really useful on extremely marginal gear.

yates screamers aid climbing

You’ll need two cordelettes on a wall – one for each belay. A 7 meter length of 8mm cord is great for equalizing 3 bolts. Simply tie it in a loop with a double fisherman’s bend. You can then coil it up (like you would with a long sling) to rack it on your harness. A shorter length of cord is more convenient for 2 bolt anchors.

Long slings can be used too, but cordelettes are more durable and much easier to untie after loading. You could also get a pre-made cordelette such as the Trango Equalizer or the Metolius Equalizer.

big wall cordelette

Knots in slings can be difficult to unfasten after being heavily loaded.

To loosen up stubborn knots, tap them against the wall with your hammer.

unfasten tight knot

Hauling Pulleys
A pulley with a locking, toothed catch (such as the Petzl Pro Traxion) is essential for hauling heavy loads up the wall.

For hauling lighter loads, a smaller device (such as the Petzl Micro Traxion) will be fine.

For super heavy loads, you'll need a locking pulley plus two other pulleys to create a 2:1 or 3:1 mechanical advantage hauling system.

petzl hauling device

Some climbers use a swivel on their haul bag to avoid the haul line getting kinked as the bag is lowered out on a traverse. It's not essential, but can be useful.

You'll need lots! There are no special aid specific carabiners, but you'll need more than you would take for your standard multi-pitch trad outing. Aim for at least 12 spare screwgates and 20 spare snapgates in addition to the carabiners already on your gear.

big wall swivel

big wall aid climbing

Personal Big Wall Equipment

Helmets are essential on big walls. Leader falls can happen with no warning, rocks can fall and gear can be dropped. Wear one. The most important factor when buying a helmet is getting one that fits your head snugly – it shouldn't move when you tip your head. A sloppy fit reduces the helmet’s ability to protect your head.

Your helmet should adjust to accommodate a hat, and a ponytail if you have long hair. Also, make sure the headlamp attachments are compatible with your headlamp.

climbing helmet

Belay Device
Any type of belay device can be used for big wall climbing, though using an assisted-braking belay device (such as the Petzl GriGri) is the most useful. It requires much less effort to hold a climber while they hang on the rope (e.g: during pendulums or tension traverses), it can be used as a backup when cleaning pitches and is useful for hauling.

GriGri's are not auto-locking; you still have to hold the brake rope at all times, just like you would with a normal belay device. This is especially true with thinner ropes, very light climbers or if there is ropedrag on the route. To go hands-free at the belay, simply tie an overhand knot as shown.

petzl grigri

GriGri's are designed to work with the following rope diameters. Make sure you're using the correct rope for your device.

petzl grigri rope size

Any climbing harness will suffice, but getting a big wall specific one makes life a lot more comfortable. A typical big wall harness has:

big wall climbing harness

Some also feature a handy hammer holster. If your harness doesn't have a haul loop on the back, you can make one by tying webbing around the whole waist belt. It's worth going to your local shop and trying some on, rather than ordering online. Clip some heavy stuff to the gear loops and hang in the harness to simulate what it’ll be like on the wall. Good shops will have a facility for you to do this.

Waist Belt
The waist belt needs to go small enough to be tight over a t-shirt, with enough adjustment to safely doubleback the buckle when you’re wearing multiple layers.

Leg Loops
Some climbing harnesses have adjustable leg loops too. This is useful if you plan to climb in cold environments where you'll need to wear thicker pants, or if the fixed size options just don't quite fit. The leg loops should fit closely around your thighs without hindering movement.

The Rise
The rise is the distance between the waist belt and leg loops. Think of it as the measurement between your belly button and crotch. Women's harnesses tend to have a bigger rise, to fit women's body shapes better. If the rise is too short, you won't be able to get the waist belt all the way up to the smallest part of your waist.

Chest Harness
Many aid climbers also use a bandolier or chest harness to rack gear on.

Aid climbing gear is heavy – having that weight distributed between your shoulders and hips is much more comfortable. It also helps spread the gear out, making it easier to find.

big wall chest harness

Aiders, or etriers, are multi-stepped fabric ladders, sewn as either a ladder or in alternating triangles. They attach to the gear you place (together with your daisy chain) so that you can stand your weight on it. You'll need two of them.

If getting the ladder type, look for some that have a solid plastic reinforcement on the top step, as this makes top stepping much easier. Alpine aiders are the same design but made with thinner webbing. They are light and pack up small, making them great for occasional use. Alpine aiders are uncomfortable on the arches of your feet if you stand in them for long periods of time.

aid climbing ladders etriers

Daisy Chains
Your two daisy chains (lanyards) connect you directly to the gear which you place. Attach the daisies to your harness by girth hitching them through your harness tie-in points or belay loop. There are two main types available: Loop-style and adjustable. Which type you use mostly depends on the style of climbing you’ll be doing and personal preference. Adjustables save a lot of energy on complex aid pitches, especially overhangs.

The traditional loop-style daisies are generally better on easier, slabbier terrain when it’s not necessary to adjust your daisy so often. Combining either of these styles with an Allfrifi hook can speed things up too. Having a third daisy/aider is super useful for equalizing yourself between sketchy pieces when creeping up a hard aid pitch.

daisy chains aid climbing

Loop-Style Daisies
This traditional daisy is a full-strength nylon or dyneema sling with lots of sewn loops in it, designed to be used with a fifi hook or carabiner to adjust the length.

loop style daisy chain

The stitching between loops is very low strength, however. If you connect to a piece of gear by clipping a carabiner through two consecutive loops, the stitching could break, causing you to become completely detached.

how to use climbing daisy chains

Loop-style daisies should be shortened as shown so the daisy is still connected end-to-end and therefore remains full strength.

how to use daisy chains climbing

You could also use a personal anchor system (PAS) as a daisy.

pas climbing tether

Fifi Hook
A fifi hook is a metal hook that is girth hitched to your harness. It allows you to hook into a daisy loop, or directly into a piece of gear so you can weight it at the length you choose.

fifi hook

You can also use a snap gate carabiner instead of a fifi hook – it's a bit fiddlier but more secure. If using a carabiner, a keylock style gate (without a nose) is better, as it will snag less.

fifi hook aid climbing gear

Adjustable Daisies
Adjustable daisies use a buckle system for easy length adjustment. They are not full strength and should never be used as your primary anchor attachment. They are much quicker to adjust than the loop style and significantly less strenuous on overhanging terrain.

A few types are available with Yates producing an excellent design. Be warned that if you have the buckle facing into the rock, it can self-adjust when weighted. Other disadvantages are that the webbing gets twisted easily and wears out fast. Yates daisies are only 5kN to start with and soon become less. Consider replacing the webbing after each wall.

adjustable daisy chain

Metolius Easy Daisies should be avoided. They are very weak (1.5kN) and are nearly impossible to tension or release under load, making them useless on a big wall.

metolius adjustable daisy

Allfrifi Hooks
The Allfrifi is basically a fifi hook welded directly onto the buckle of an adjustable daisy. They are not essential for aid climbing, but can speed up the process a little and allow you to attach slightly closer to a piece of gear – useful when aiding on steep ground.

If you choose to use an allfrifi, you’ll still need two regular daisies since the allfrifi does not have a clip in point for an aider.

allfrifi hook aid climbing

Jumars, or ascenders, are used to ascend the rope when it's fixed in place. They're like a mechanical version of a prusik (friction hitch). You use them when cleaning pitches, jumaring up fixed lines and in some hauling setups.

For most walls, a pair with large comfortable handles is best. They are made in a left and right hand model, with the cam designed to be operated by your thumb. You'll need a pair – having two left jumars is like having two left shoes.

petzl jumars

Fingerless leather gloves with a clipin point help to prevent your hands getting destroyed on the wall. You can buy specially designed wall gloves or make your own out of hardware-store gardening gloves.

Often you will be overheating and sweating on lead, only to be shivering when belaying the next pitch. Temperatures drop significantly during storms or periods of high wind and it is often much colder high up on the wall than it is on the valley floor. Once you get cold and wet, decisions tend to be made poorly and disasters begin to happen. Prevent problems by bringing enough clothes to stay warm. Cotton has poor insulating properties, especially when wet. Merino wool and synthetic base layers and pants are a much better choice for walls. These materials insulate well when wet, are lighter, dry faster and stretch to accommodate movement when climbing. If you expect cold temperatures, bring a pair of gloves so you can belay with warm hands and then switch them out to climb. A thin hat that fits under your helmet is a very lightweight way of keeping you warm too.

Make sure to bring a good fleece, a waterproof jacket and a puffy synthetic belay jacket – even in Yosemite it gets cold high on the wall when you’ve been belaying for hours. For colder walls, you’ll obviously need even more layers including a super warm belay jacket. Down jackets are a poor choice in wet climates, but make excellent belay jackets in dry climates below freezing. Most down jackets will repel a small amount of moisture, but the feathers will clump together in a rain storm and you’ll freeze. They also tend to rip very easily on rock, so take it off for leading and cleaning.

Your shoes need to be comfortable enough to stand in aiders all day and durable enough to withstand constant rubbing around the front and sides. A stiff-soled, sticky rubber approach shoe is good for aid intensive walls that have sections of easy free climbing. For pure aid, a stiff-soled high-cut boot may be more comfortable on those long leads. You’ll obviously need your free climbing shoes too for leading free pitches. On free climbing walls, be ready to switch out to more comfortable shoes when needed – it’s painful to clean or lead aid pitches in free shoes. It also wears them out fast.

To make your boots last as long as possible, apply a thick coat of Shoe Goo or a similar strong glue-type product to the seams most likely to blow out (mainly around the toe). Tie in loops are great for clipping in your shoes at night – if you drop your wall shoes, the rest of your climb will be extremely painful.

Knee Pads
Your knees are often in contact with the wall when aid climbing and hauling. A pair of slip on knee pads can make things a bit more comfortable, but can get in the way when free climbing and snagged in your aiders when aiding. If you want knee pads, get the lightest and most low profile ones you can find.

Sleeping Bag
Bring a good synthetic sleeping bag which is rated to a colder temperature than you are likely to encounter. Not even the best portaledge fly will keep everything dry in an epic storm. Condensation builds up on the inside of the fly and your bivi bag. Your clothes and sleeping bag will get damp, reducing their warmth. Synthetic bags retain a decent amount of warmth if they get soaked in a storm, whereas down-filled bags are completely useless. The feathers will clump together in a wet pile at your feet, offering zero warmth for the rest of the wall. Take a synthetic bag instead. Sew decent clip-in loops on your sleeping bag rather than just clipping the cord on the zip.

Bivi Bag
Rain always seems to find a way into a portaledge fly somewhere. Usually it sneaks in through the seams, combines with condensation and soaks down into the edges of the nylon bed. A waterproof and breathable bivi bag will give you greater protection during those intense storms. You should definitely take a bivi bag if you don’t have a portaledge fly.

Foam Pad
A foam pad isn’t essential on warm walls, but it makes a huge difference in colder climates. To make a clip-in point, tie a loop of cord through a tape reinforced hole. An inflatable pad packs down smaller but is likely to pop when stuffed in a haul bag next to a rack of beaks. Take a repair kit if going inflatable.

big wall climbing

Group Big Wall Equipment

Haul Bag
For multi-day aid routes, you'll need to haul. Haulbags are generally made of thick vinyl fabric and are durable enough to be dragged up rough slabs all day. Different sizes are available, up to around 160 litres.

For day routes, a small haulbag will suffice. For two climbers on a shorter wall (two or three days) a medium or full-size bag is good. For long walls (a week or more) you’ll need a full-size haulbag for each climber. Many haulbags feature full strength clip in points underneath, so you can carry a durable stuff sack, portaledge or haul bucket without it taking up space in the haulbag.

haul bag

You’ll burn 3,000-6000 calories per day on a wall – twice as much as a day spent sat in the office. The best wall food:
- Has a high calorie per weight ratio
- Is in a durable container
- Doesn’t rely on a stove to be edible
- Is convenient to eat
- Is nutritious and tastes great

What food you bring largely depends on your style of ascent and what you normally like to eat. You can save time and weight with ready-made, plastic-wrapped food. Or go luxury with a cooked breakfast and fresh coffee every morning, and a warm meal with a selection of aged cheeses and fine wine in the evenings.

Organise your food into day-bags so you can keep track of your supplies. Cans weigh more than plastic wrapped food, but are much more durable. A mix of both is generally preferred with the less durable food being consumed first. If you choose to bring a stove, try not to bring food that requires cooking. You can eat cold canned food if your stove breaks, but chomping on bits of dried pasta or uncooked rice is miserable. Similarly for caffeine addicts, instant coffee can easily be hydrated in cold water, but tea bags or fresh coffee just doesn’t work.

Freeze dried food is lighter but requires water, thus negating any weight saving benefits. Once hydrated, the food itself weighs the same as food in a can. It is only the packaging which makes it lighter. However, if you are collecting water (i.e: melting snow) during the wall, freeze dried meals will save you a lot of weight.

It’s nice to chill out in the mornings with a coffee and eat warm food in the evenings, if you’re not in a rush. A propane stove with a screw-type canister (e.g: Jetboil Flash) is simple and reliable. For faster walls, you may choose to forego this luxury. A good quality stove is essential for winter walls where you’ll use it to melt snow. Propane canisters don’t work so well in very cold climates or high altitude, so a multi-fuel type (e.g: MSR XGK) running on white gas may be better. If you bring a stove, it’s recommended to buy/make a reliable hanging kit to reduce the chances of burning a huge hole in your portaledge.

Water is the heaviest item you will take on a wall. It can be tempting to skimp on hydration to save weight, but by doing so you risk putting yourself in a serious situation. Dehydration causes fatigue and poor decision making, which leads onto other problems. You can survive for days without food, but not without water. In cold temperatures, 1.5-2 litres per person per day can be plenty. In hot and sunny climates (e.g: El Capitan in summer), you may need 5-6 litres a day to stay hydrated. Keep track of how much is used each day so you know to ration water if you’re running low (or have a shower if there’s too much!).

Store your water in durable plastic bottles and compress them after use to save space in the haulbag. 1 and 2-litre plastic soda bottles work well for the main storage. A weak plastic bottle or one with a poor quality lid will likely explode in your haulbag, saturating your spare clothes and sleeping bag. It’s also useful to have a durable 0.5 litre bottle (Nalgene bottles are good) for passing up to the leader for a midpitch swig or carrying on the back of your harness during long leads.

jetboil hanging stove

You can create water bottle clip-in points in a variety of ways using duck tape and cord. A simple way using 3mm cord is to tie an overhand loop in one end as a clip-in point, and a self-tightening barrel knot in the other.

This cinches itself tight around the bottle’s neck. Make a few of these and swap them over to new bottles as you use up your water supply.

big wall water bottles

First Aid Kit
As a minimum, you should bring:
- Pain relief tablets
- Anti-diarrhoea tablets
- Anti-septic cream
- Oral rehydration salts
- A small selection of bandages
- Adhesive tape
- Sterile pads for cleaning wounds
- Tweezers

Stuff Sacks
Stuff sacks are excellent for combining many small items together, such as food and clothes. Get some with durable clip-in loops – Metolius make good ones.

Hygiene Products
To keep your personal hygiene at a socially acceptable level, you should bring:
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer
- Moist paper towels (for having a ‘shower’ in the evenings)
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Hand moisturiser (Climb On or similar is great for skin repair)
- Sun protection – sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm
- Any other hygiene or medical products that you would normally use in daily life (contact lens fluid, etc..)

Headlamps are essential on the wall. Finishing a pitch, or trying to descend in the dark can be incredibly difficult and dangerous. They’re also pretty useful to have in the evenings or if you need to get up in the night. Tape your spare batteries together in the correct orientation, so you can just plug the whole block in at once. This also means you won’t have random batteries floating around your bag and no idea if they are full or empty.

A topo is a handy illustration of the route which tells you where each pitch goes, how difficult it is, pitch lengths and sizes of gear needed. Print out a few pocket-sized copies, laminate them and keep one in your pocket for the duration of the wall. Take descriptions from adjoining routes too, as this will help you navigate. You can take photos of the topo on your phone as a back up. Don’t rely purely on your phone though – it’s better to save your battery for emergencies.

Having a phone is useful but can detract from the wall experience if you use it every day to post photos on Instagram. Consider taking an emergency communication device, such as a Garmin inReach, if you are climbing in a remote area.

Other Essential Small Items
- Small sewing/repair kit
- A roll of duck tape (this fixes everything on a wall)
- Athletic tape (finger tape)
- Pocket knife (make sure it has a folding blade which is impossible to accidentally open when attached to your harness)
- Lighter
- Spoon
- Can opener (if applicable)

Belay Seat
Aid leads can take hours, and belays are often on featureless rock. Having somewhere to sit is a saviour. You can buy a belay seat or easily make your own out of a piece of plywood and some cord.

Knot Protector
When a haulbag is dragged up blocky ground, over roofs or any other nonuniform feature, the knot will rub against the rock and damage your rope.

Adding a knot protector significantly helps to increase your haul rope’s lifespan. Simply cut a small plastic bottle in half and smooth the edges with duck tape.

Poop Tubes
With big wall destinations seeing a rise in popularity, it is no longer acceptable to drop a ‘mud falcon’ off the side of your portaledge. To be a civilized wall climber, you must use a poop tube. You can buy them or make your own out of hardware store supplies. To make your own, glue a PVC cap onto one end of a 6-inch diameter PVC pipe. Make sure the pipe is long enough to account for the length of time you’ll be on the wall. Use a second cap as a removable lid. Line the tube with a plastic bag. Collect your waste in durable plastic sealable bags (wag bags are good) and store your used bags inside the poop tube. Add a handful of kitty litter between each bag to keep it smelling fresh and fasten the lid tight. Take the whole thing down from the summit and dispose of it responsibly.

knot protector

VDiff big wall aid climbing book

A portaledge offers a luxurious island of comfort in an otherwise uninhabitable vertical world. A portaledge is comprised of a ripstop nylon bed which is stretched around a collapsible metal frame with six straps that join together to form a single clip-in point. They are available in a range of sizes, weights and levels of durability.

Single ledges are easier to set up than doubles, but are half the size, and so are really only useful for one person. You can fit two people on a single ledge in an emergency, but it’s a rubbish night’s sleep. Unless you’re planning to exclusively solo walls, it’s better to get a double ledge. Inflatable ledges are now available. They are lightweight, compact and excellent for fast alpine walls. Some routes have convenient natural ledges which are big enough to sleep on, but the majority will require a portaledge.


Portaledge Fly
A waterproof fly can be deployed from the clip-in point to cover the ledge like a tent. Having a fly is critical if there is any chance of rain or high winds. Basic designs cover the ledge and have a drawstring to cinch it tight underneath. These are simple to use and are comparatively cheap. Deluxe models fully enclose the portaledge and have one or two zip operated doors. These fully stormproof designs are excellent for cold walls in remote environments. Both types have a removable tent pole which pushes the fly out. This creates more living space and keeps the condensation-prone material away from your sleeping bag. In general, always expect a storm and practice setting up your portaledge and fly while hanging from a tree.

Portaledge Costs
Unfortunately, portaledges are very expensive. Before spending your life savings, consider what you will use it for most. If you plan to climb short routes in places with stable weather (e.g: Yosemite or Zion), a secondhand simple ledge will be a cheaper option. If you want to go for long adventures or explore remote walls, you’ll want a durable ledge with a fully enclosing storm-proof fly and a door.

Wall hammocks are cheaper and lighter than portaledges, but are much less comfortable and totally useless in a storm. Most designs can be suspended from a single point. Hammocks are best employed as an emergency bivi for single day walls so you have the option of spending the night on the wall without taking the extra weight and cluster of a portaledge.

Clip-in Loops
Everything you take on the wall will need some kind of clip-in point. Having a pile of stuff balanced on your knees while digging around in the haulbag is a guaranteed way of dropping something. However you do this, make sure the clip-in points are reliable.

Big wall gear is heavy. If possible, use the lightest gear you can, as long as it doesn’t compromise on safety. Carabiners and gear slings are good places to trim weight. Lead ropes and harnesses are not.

Used Gear
Pieces of equipment which your life depends on (e.g: ropes, harness, carabiners), should be bought new. You can save money on other gear (e.g: portaledge, shoes, stuff sacks), by getting it used or by making it yourself (e.g: poop tubes, wall gloves). The best place to get used wall gear is from people who have bought brand-new everything, then bailed off their first wall, claiming that ‘big wall climbing is shit’. These folks usually sell high-quality gear for cheap.

Looking After Your Gear
It’s important to inspect your climbing gear frequently and replace anything which shows significant signs of wear. Frayed or faded slings, or any metal gear which has been dropped off the wall should be replaced. Nylon gear (ropes, slings and harnesses) degrades over time and should be replaced every five years, even if you’ve barely used it. UV radiation from direct sunlight will speed this time up. Exposure to battery acid or acid fumes will significantly reduce the strength of nylon. Keep your rope out of the dirt. Grains of rock and sand can cut tiny fibres inside it. Wash your rope occasionally in lukewarm water and allow it to dry in the shade. Store your climbing gear in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. If any gear gets wet, let it dry completely before you store it away.

How To Climb a Big Wall – Leading

Check out the full big wall video course, or download the e-book.

Step 1 – On Belay
Before you leave the belay (or ground), you’ll need to get set up for the lead. Both climbers tie into the rope and the leader is put on belay, just the same as for any other climb.

The figure-8 is widely recognised as being the safest knot to tie in with. An assisted-braking belay device (e.g: a GriGri) is highly recommended for belaying.

grigri belaying

Step 2 – Attach Daisies and Aiders to Harness
Girth hitch one end of each daisy through your harness tie-in points, or your belay loop. Going through your tie-in points means you can get closer to each aid placement, but it cinches your waist belt and leg loops together.

Going through the belay loop puts you further away but can be more comfortable. Try it both ways to see which suits you.

daisy chains climbing

Clip the other end of your daisies to your aiders with a carabiner.

Put your aiders on the 'gate' side of the carabiner, so the daisy is free to move up the back bar when top-stepping. If your daisy is on the gate side, it could get stuck in the gate or unclip (not good!) when you top-step.

dasiy chains and aiders

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

Step 3 – Rack Up
Fill your gear loops with enough rack to get going. You don’t need the whole rack – some things can be passed up later.

keyhole carabiner

Step 4 – Attach Haul Rope
Clip the haul rope to the haul loop on the back of your harness. If you don't have a haul loop, you can make one by tying a short piece of webbing around the back of your waist belt.

Don't clip the haul rope to a gear loop – they're not strong enough.

climbing harness haul loop

Another method is to trail the haul rope with the hauling device pre-attached as shown.

After leading a pitch, the device can be attached to the anchor before removing the rope from your harness. This means that you can’t drop either the device or the rope while setting up the haul.

harness haul loop

Step 5 – Prepare For Blast Off
Clip the lead rope to a high point of the anchor (just like you would on a trad multi-pitch) so you won't take a factor two fall onto your belayer if you fall on the first move.

After a final safety check, remove your attachment point to the anchor itself and you are ready to go.

big wall belay

big wall aid climbing

The Basic Aid Climbing Lead System

The basic system of leading an aid pitch is:

1) Place a piece of gear
2) Test the gear
3) Transfer your weight on to it
4) Clip the rope into your previous piece of gear
5) Get as high as you can
6) Repeat

These steps are described in more detail below.

Step 1 - Place Gear

Place a piece of gear and attach yourself to it with your free aider (the one you're not standing in).

Clip as high on the piece as possible (e.g; in the plastic thumb-loop of a cam, rather than the sling). This gives you more height, meaning less moves to the top.

how to climb a big wall

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.

how to big wall climb

Step 2 - Test Gear

How you test gear depends on what it is and what the consequences of it failing are. A visual test may be all that is needed – if it looks bomber, just get straight on it. If you’re not sure, give it a ‘bounce test'. The point of bounce testing is to generate a little more force than your bodyweight alone. This determines whether or not the piece will continue to hold your weight while you are gently moving up your aiders and making the following move. It does not determine if the piece can withstand the higher force of a leader fall.

How you test depends on what the gear is. Burly gear (such as nuts, slings and pitons) can be bounced aggressively whereas more easily damaged or low-strength gear, (such as cams or micro nuts) should only be very gently bounced.

If you choose to test the piece, you should adjust your daisies so that you won't shock load your previous piece if it fails. Your position here is important. If the pieces fails, your goal is to transfer your weight as gently as possible onto your lower piece.

how to haul on a big wall

Adjust your daisies correctly, hold onto your lower daisy and leave one foot in your lower aider so you are ready to absorb the force if your top piece fails.

First, ease your weight onto the piece until it holds the majority of your body weight. Then bounce your weight on it by stamping in your top etrier with a slightly increased force each time (you could also bounce by sitting your weight onto your top daisy, but this is generally not as good). Essentially, you are shock-loading the gear. If it fails, you'll swing gently onto the lower piece, which should be strong enough to hold because you bounce tested it – right? Try not to look directly at the piece you are testing – if it fails, it'll hit you in the face!

Cam hooks or skyhooks shouldn't be bounce tested, as they would be damaged over time. To test these, weight the piece, press your body away from the wall and move side-to-side. This generates a little more force than bodyweight without the harsh impact of a bounce and simulates the direction you might pull the piece when you're higher up on it.

Bounce testing is the secret to hard aid climbing. With proper technique (which takes many climbs to develop), you will be able to move up whole pitches of marginal gear relatively securely. This still doesn’t mean that anything would hold a fall, but it does mean you are much less likely to fall.

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.

Step 4 - Reset

Reach down and clip your lead rope into your lower piece before removing your aider from it. If you're using adjustable daisies, fully extend it out at this point, then clip it to a gear loop, ready for the next placement.

aid climbing setup

Step 5 - Get High

Getting as high on your top piece as you can means 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 easily. Hold onto rock features for balance if possible. As you move up, your daisy will slide up the back bar of its carabiner. Adjust your daisy tight 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. Move up your aiders and cinch your daisy tight to create downwards tension. By pushing down with your legs and pulling upwards with your daisy, you will create a strange feeling of opposition which provides balance.

Once you are as high up as you can get, it's time to find another placement and repeat step one.

how to go aid climbing

How To Aid Climb - Leading Overhangs and Traverses

The system for leading a roof or a traverse is very similar to the standard method. Just place a piece, reach as far sideways as you can, and place your next piece. It may be difficult to bounce test from this position – try stamping in your aider instead of weighting your daisy. Remember that the follower will have to clip from piece to piece to clean the pitch, so try not to back-clean (remove) them.

How To Aid Climb - Leading Pendulums and Tension Traverses

king swing nose

A pendulum is a great technique for moving sideways across a blank section. Essentially, you rope-swing across the blank section to features where you can begin climbing again. An alternative to swinging is to semi free climb across with some of your weight on the rope. This is known as a tension traverse.

Step 1 – Clip Gear
Place a piece of gear which can hold a downwards and a sideways pull (you may want to equalize a couple together). This gear should be bomber, and you probably won’t be able to retrieve it later. This is normally a bolt or rivet on popular routes. Clip your rope into the gear and ask your belayer to take you tight on the rope.

Step 2 – Lower
Get your belayer to lower you. If you plan to pendulum, you can start swinging as you are being lowered. Do this 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!

Step 3 – Swing
Keep your momentum and swing a little higher each time. Often, you'll need to grab a hold, hook an edge or clip a fixed piece at the pinnacle of your swing, so be ready for this.

Step 4 – Continue Up
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. Depending on the size of pendulum, difficulty of climbing and consequences of a fall, it may be better to back-clean gear until level with the pendulum point to further reduce rope drag.

how to do a swing aid climbing

Pendulums with Two Lead Ropes
For big pendulums in the middle of a pitch, it is wise to use two lead ropes. Use one rope for clipping gear up to the pendulum point, and the other rope for gear after the pendulum.

It is recommended that the belayer uses two GriGri’s for belaying.

aid climbing pendulum

Switching Between Aid and Free Climbing

Sometimes it is necessary to switch from aid to free climbing in the middle of a pitch. To make this transition easier:

- Clip your aiders, daisies and other long tanglies away on the back of your harness so you won't trip over them in the middle of a free move.

- Attach a sling to your top piece. This will be your final foot step before you free climb.

- Ask your belayer to pass up your free climbing shoes if needed. You could also pass down your wall shoes and any other unnecessary heavy gear to your belayer.


On some pitches it may be easier to french-free. This means mostly free climbing while holding onto the occasional piece of gear to avoid difficult moves and therefore speed the climb up.

You can clip gear directly into your belay loop, or attach slings to some pieces to use as foot loops. Get your belayer to take you tight whenever you need a rest. There are no rules really – just do whatever you can to cheat your way up quickly. French-free avoids the clunkiness of a full aid setup and is great on pitches that you can mostly free.

Routing the Rope

As with trad climbing, you should route your rope away from sharp edges, flakes and loose rock. Make skillful use of quickdraws and long slings to allow the rope to avoid these hazards and run in a straight line.

Remember that the rope will be taut when your partner is cleaning the pitch, which means it will cut faster on sharp edges.

Sometimes you may need to add a re-belay for pitches that end above a roof or on a ledge. Attach a sling down from the anchor so the rock abrades the sling, not the rope. Add a rope protector or duck-tape the edge too, if needed.

climbing rope on sharp rock

Back Cleaning

Sometimes, you'll need to use a piece of gear which you've already placed. Obviously, it's better to leave it there as protection, but this won't always be possible. If you remove your previous piece be aware that this can mean a big fall if your current piece fails.

A safer way is to place two or three good pieces in a row, then lower down to retrieve earlier pieces of gear. Make sure your top ones are bomber before committing to this. Once you've retrieved some gear, you can either aid back up the pieces to your high point (on top rope) or ascend the rope.

If ascending the rope, it is easier to attach your jumars to the rope which is running through the gear (rather than the rope coming straight from your harness). Retrieving gear from a traverse or overhang is more difficult. You will need to clip across your gear in reverse (known as back-aiding) to get to it, and then re-aid back up to your high point.

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/tag rope and then you simply pull it up.

A common method is to only take enough gear to lead the first half of a pitch, then get resupplied when your rack is running low. This keeps some weight off your harness and is also useful for passing water, jackets or food on those long leads. Remember to pass the rope back once you’ve finished (if you just drop the rope, it’ll probably get stuck on faraway flakes).

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

A quick solution which provides a short amount of extra rope is to clip the end of the haul rope to the loop of spare lead rope. If you regularly need to pass gear late in the pitch, a much better setup is to use a tag and haul rope.

how to lead aid climbs

totem cams two lobes aid climbing

Passing Gear to the Belayer

A quick way to pass gear from leader to belayer is to simply clip it to the haul rope and let it slide down.

The belayer will need to wiggle the rope to slow the item’s descent so it doesn’t slam into their face at full speed.

how to aid climb

Regaining Your High Point After Falling

If you fall and are left dangling in space, you could jumar back up to your high point to continue the lead. But how secure is the piece that held you? If it blows while you are jumaring up, you’ll fall farther, but with the spiky toothed cams of your 5kN-rated jumars cutting into the rope – not good.

A better alternative is to ascend with a klemheist prusik and a GriGri as shown below. This way, if the piece above blows, you will fall on the GriGri and prusik instead.

how to prusik a rope

Racking Gear

It’s better to rack gear the same as you would for trad climbing so you are already familiar with where things are, though it can be nice to spread things out on a chest harness too. It’s good to keep hooks, beaks and heads separate from nylon so they don’t stick to your slings.

Cheater Sticks

Cheater sticks allow you to bypass a difficult/impossible section by clipping a distant piece of fixed gear. Simply clip a carabiner to a long sling and tape it to some kind of stick/ avalanche probe/ portaledge fly pole as shown. Tie offset overhand knots in the sling so you can easily aid up it.

Cheater sticks are useful when abseiling down a steep wall but present problems when used on lead. First, having a cheater stick relatively handy makes it very tempting to clip past moves that you could do but are too scared to try. This prevents you from progressing at harder aid. It’s a bit like pulling on quickdraws when sport climbing, or standing on the bolt hangers. If you get into the habit of reaching for the cheat stick when things get scary, what will you do next time when there’s nothing to clip?

It’s also very difficult to test a far away piece of gear, which means you might end up falling anyway, even farther than you would have and with a giant stick in the equation.

aid climbing cheat stick

Aid Climbing Gear – Skyhooks

Check out the full big wall video course, or download the e-book.

Skyhooks come in many different sizes, with each brand being shaped slightly differently. However, for most aid routes, you'll only need the three common types:
- Bat/talon (small)
- Cliffhanger (medium)
- Grappling (large)

Having two of each is recommended so that you can make consecutive moves with the same sized hook.

aid climbing hooks

Giant Aid Climbing Hooks

On harder routes, it is worth supplementing your hook rack with some giant hooks (such as the Pika Meat Hook) and pointed hooks of various sizes to fit in drilled holes.

sky hooks aid climb

Pointed Skyhooks

To make your hook pointed, simply file the end to a blunt point at around 60 degrees.


Slinging Skyhooks

Tie your hooks with a loop of cord or webbing which is stronger than the hook itself. 9/16" (14mm) webbing tied with a water knot or 6mm cord tied with a double fisherman’s bend are good choices.

Make the loop small so you get the optimum reach out of it.

sky hook

An alternative method is to tie an overhand knot in a short length of thick webbing and feed it through the hole in the back of the skyhook.

Make sure the knot is big enough so that it won't slip through the hole.

climbing sky hook

aid climbing hook

Skyhooks - The Placement

Hooks work best on flakes or incut edges of solid rock. Feel the edge of rock with your fingertips to find the sweet spot – the slightest depression makes a difference.

On popular routes, look for scratch marks on the rock to see where others have hooked before.

skyhooks aid climbing

Sometimes, a very light tap with your hammer sets the hook into position nicely.

If you hit a hook too hard, it will probably bend, break the rock or spring out suddenly.

sky hooks aid climbing

The Over-Reacher

If a flake is just out of reach, you could use the ‘over-reacher’:

1) Extend your daisy chain with a quickdraw.

2) Clip the hook to it.

3) Tape the hook to your hammer.

4) Slide the hook up the wall.

5) Once the hook bites, give it a very gentle bounce test and creep upwards.

skyhooks for aid climbing

Leaving Hooks as Protection

The average skyhook has a breaking strength of around 2-3kN; the same as a tiny micro nut. This is enough to hold your bodyweight or an extremely short fall.

To make your hooks more likely to hold a fall, you can equalize them with other marginal pieces (using a sliding-X), or add a fall arrester (such as the Yates Scream-Aid), or both.

skyhook belay
aid climbing hook

When you climb above your hook, it is fairly likely to get flicked by movements in the rope and tumble off the rock. This can be reduced by:

- Weighting the hook down with something heavy, like an enormous hex.

use aid climbing hooks

- Using standard office stationary such as duck-tape or blu-tac.

yosemite aid climbing skyhooks

- Using an upwards-pulling piece of gear to hold the hook in place.

It may seem like a lot of trouble for a marginal piece of protection, but if it's the only thing stopping you from hitting a ledge, it'll be worth the effort, at least psychologically.

how to use skyhooks climbing

Racking Skyhooks

Rack one of each type on the same carabiner. On harder routes, it can be useful to keep a commonly used hook (usually a pointed grappling) on each aider to save time.

If you are storing a lot of hooks with the main rack, keep them in a stuff sack (Fish Beef Bags are good) to stop them tangling into everything.

how to use skyhooks

Aid Climbing Gear – Cam Hooks

Check out the full big wall video course, or download the e-book.

Available in four common sizes, cam hooks greatly reduce the need to hammer a piton. They fit into small cracks from the size of a thin lost arrow to a #1 Camalot, and work by simply camming against the sides of a crack under bodyweight.

Like cams, they do not require a constriction to work. Cam hooks can be placed in vertical, diagonal or horizontal cracks, or inverted in roofs.

cam hooks aid climbing

Slinging Cam Hooks
Cam hooks normally come with a sewn sling pre-attached. If yours doesn’t, you can tie a loop of 6mm cord through it with a double fisherman’s bend.

types of cam hook

Cam Hooks - The Placement

Step 1 – Clip
Clip the cam hook to your aider.

cam hook climbing

Step 2 – Place
Place it deep in the crack.

cam hooks for aid climbing

A textbook placement is in a slot-like widening (e.g: a pin scar) of a parallel sided crack. A flared placement is less secure.

aid climbing cam hooks

Step 3 – Weight
Carefully weight it. The leverage of a cam hook exerts a high force on the sides of the crack, which locks it in place.

Step 4 – Test
Test the cam hook’s stability by applying a little extra force than bodyweight in any conceivable direction of pull. Do not bounce test it – this will most likely break the rock or cause your cam hook to fold flat.

how to use cam hooks climbing

Step 5 – Move Up
Once you’re happy, commit to it and continue up slowly and gently. Be careful if bounce-testing the next piece – this will momentarily unweight the cam hook and may cause it to fall out.

how to use cam hooks

VDiff big wall aid climbing book

Cam Hooking Roof Cracks

Cam hooks can be placed in roof cracks as shown.

clean aid climbing

They will flex a lot in this position, so be very gentle.

how to use cam hooks aid climbing

Cam Hook Tips

- Cam hooks are not appropriate for soft rock (such as Zion sandstone), as they tend to blow out the edges of the crack. Use ballnuts or offset nuts instead.

- Sometimes, a very gentle hammer tap can make a cam hook much more secure. Be careful though – if you hit it too hard, it’ll cause damage to the rock and be difficult to clean.

- You can leave them behind as gear, but they are not very strong (especially when inverted) and are often unstable. Like skyhooks, they are designed to only hold bodyweight. Even in a short fall, they will most likely bend, break and fall out.

- Do not use the smallest size for inverted placements as it is very weak.

- Cam hooks are useful on expanding flakes, since they absorb the flex of the flake. The largest size puts less force on the rock than the others and is designed for fragile flakes.

Racking Cam Hooks

Rack them together on a carabiner, or with your skyhooks if you seldom use them. If using them regularly, keep a medium sized cam hook on each aider to save time.

Aid Climbing Gear – Pitons

Check out the full big wall video course, or download the e-book.

The dart art of smashing pitons into rock with a hammer has been frowned upon by climbers since the 1970’s when less destructive protection (cams and nuts) was developed. Advancements in modern aid climbing gear have completely removed the need for hammering on most easier routes. Many old aid lines can now be aided (or free climbed) with clean gear by using the piton scars created from hundreds of early ascents. Even moderate aid routes (A2-A3) are often climbed clean or with only a few hammered placements.

However, if your chosen route relies on fixed pitons or copperheads to go ‘clean’, you should be prepared to replace them if they are missing or useless. If you plan to climb harder aid or modern routes with few ascents, you’ll need to know all the tricks of the trade. Remember – there is a big difference between gently tapping a piton into a crack, and smashing it in so hard that the whole feature turns to dust or the piton is stuck there forever. Practise placing and removing them on a worthless non-climbable boulder before you weld them into an established aid route.

aid climbing fisher towers

Types of Piton

Pitons are available in many shapes and sizes. Common types are shown here. You may find many other obscure shapes and sizes of piton. They all work in the same basic way.

Pitons are typically made of hardened steel, meaning they can stand up to the abuse of repeated placements.

Pitons are also available in softer steel and other malleable metals. These are designed to deform into cracks for a more secure placement, however they are harder to clean and don’t last for as many placements as the harder steel versions.

File down any burrs on your pitons as these can damage your rope or slings.

types of piton

Spectres are basically a cross between a fat beak and an ice axe.

Originally designed for hammering into icy cracks or frozen turf on winter routes, these pitons can be useful on hard aid too.

spectre piton

Sawed Angles
These are angle pitons which have been sawed in half so they can fit into shallow but wide pods and scars.

To make your own, saw a regular angle in half (approximately) with a hacksaw. Then make the edges smooth with a metal file.

sawed angle piton

Big Wall Hammers

You will need a hammer to place and remove pitons. A good wall hammer has a:

- Square head for hammering in corners
- Hole in the head which is big enough to clip a carabiner
- Rounded point (opposite side from the square head) for precise placements and copperheading
- Head weight of at least 500 grams
- Good weight distribution between the handle and head
- Wooden handle, or a fibreglass handle wrapped in rubber, to reduce vibrations on the hand
- Good grip at the bottom of the handle (finger tape works well on wooden handles)
- Sling to wear it over the shoulder
- Clip-in point in the sling

big wall hammer

Wearing a Hammer
Put the hammer’s sling over your shoulder and then wear your chest harness over the top. If using it frequently (for almost every placement), just let it hang down, making sure it stays clear of the lead rope.

aid climbing hammer

When not using it, clip it away to your harness (head-side up). If your harness doesn’t have a holster, use a Petzl Caritool carabiner to store it away. This allows easy clipping and unclipping with one hand.

how to use a big wall hammer

Big Wall Funkness Device

As a nut tool is used to remove clean gear, a funkness device is used to remove pitons. This is a length of thick wire with a swaged loop at either end. It’s better to use a screwgate for the end which attaches to your hammer because this carabiner has a tendency to unclip itself.

Use old carabiners for your funkness – they will get battered so don’t use them for anything else.

funkness device

VDiff big wall aid climbing book

Pitons - Rurps

The rurp (Realised Ultimate Reality Piton) was originally designed to be hammered into hairline cracks. Since beaks were invented, the rurp has become fairly redundant. However, rurps do have an advantage over beaks in horizontals or roof cracks.

rurp piton

The Placement
The ideal rurp placement is an incut horizontal crack which is too shallow for a knifeblade.

Place the thin end of the rurp into the slot. It should go in about half way by hand.

use rurp pitons

Then tap it so the thick end wedges into the slot.

If it bottoms out (hits the back of the placement without being fully driven) you’ll probably be better trying a circlehead instead. If it can easily be hammered up to the cable, you may need to stack another rurp with it or try a stubby arrow instead.

how to place rurps

Lift the cable out of the way and give it a gentle tap back and forth to unseat it. You can now gently funk it out with your funkness device.

If the rurp is buried up to the cable, you’ll have to funk it fairly hard. Be careful though – this can damage the cable.

how to place rurp pitons

Pitons - Blades, Arrows and Angles

Knifeblades, lost arrows and angles are the original types of piton. They are less useful nowadays since the introduction of larger sized beaks and offset cams. However, they are often way stronger and more secure than anything else that will fit in a weird placement, particularly in horizontal slots.

The Placement
Slide the piton approx 2/3 of it’s useable length into the crack, then hammer it in to the eye. In most cases, you’ll need to hit them fairly hard to make the placement good. Essentially, the piton acts as a wedge and relies on outward pressure from the sides of the crack to remain in place.

how to use pitons for aid climbing

The piton should make a higher-pitched ring with each firm hammer blow. When you hear the same pitched ring twice in a row, the piton has reached it’s optimum depth. Hammering more will probably make it difficult to remove.

The ideal piton reaches its optimal depth just before the eye contacts the rock. If the piton goes in up to the eye easily, you’ll need to remove it and try a bigger size. If you hear a dull thud, the piton has probably bottomed out. In this case more hammering will not help. Try stacking another piton with it or remove it and try something else.

how to use pitons

Roof Cracks
You’ll need to go against clean climbing ethics to get an upwards driven piton of any kind to hold your weight.

Weld it in with your hammer as hard as you can. The harder you hit, the better it will be. Then apologize to the rock for your destructive behaviour.

Horizontal Cracks
In horizontals, the back of the piton is pushed up when the eye is weighted down. This helps to lock it in place.

Pitons can be excellent in incut cracks. In these placements, you may not even need to hammer them.

how to place pitons

Vertical Cracks
In vertical cracks, the piton torques into place when weighted (like a cam hook, but with less leverage). Make sure to clip the perpendicular eye on blades.

how to hammer a piton

Removing Pitons

To remove a piton, you will first need to unseat it and then pull it out the way which it went in. Depending on how driven the piton is, this can sometimes be done by hand, sometimes with a hammer and sometimes using a funkness device.

Step 1
Unseat the piton by tapping it side-to-side (in horizontals) or up and down (in vertical cracks) a few times. This loosens the pitons grip in the crack.

how to remove pitons

Step 2
Clip your funkness device to the piton and also to your hammer. Swing your hammer outwards to shock-load the piton out of the crack.

Lean to one side so you don’t hit yourself in the face with the piton. If this doesn’t work, repeat step 1 and try again.

how to use a funkness device

Piton Racking

Rack blades in groups of 3-5, facing the same way so they spoon each other. Arrows and angles can be racked as a group of 3, facing in alternate directions.

Use oval carabiners for racking pitons – other shapes cause pitons to sit awkwardly and be more fiddly to remove.

how to use pitons aid climbing

Piton Stacking

Stacking means having two or more pitons side by side in the same slot. Stacking is useful when a placement is too shallow for a large piton and too wide for a smaller one. Any piton can be stacked with another to make a more secure placement – be creative.

Step 1
Place the first piton.

knifeblade piton

Step 2
Tap a second immediately next to it. The idea is to wedge them in tightly together.

stacking pitons aid climbing

Step 3
Once you’ve created your iron artwork, loop a sling over it with a slip knot, pushing it as close to the rock as possible to reduce leverage.

aid climbing piton stacking

Step 4
Attach a keeper cord to the pitons so you won’t lose them if they fall out.

Make sure the keeper cord isn’t weighted.

how to stack pitons

Aid Climbing Gear – Beaks

Check out the full big wall video course, or download the e-book.

Beaks are an ingenious type of piton which offer protection in super thin cracks, where even micro nuts are too big to fit. They are available in three common sizes.

beak piton aid climbing

Beaks - The Placement

Beaks are most often placed with a hammer, but they can also be hand-placed.

If possible, always clip a quickdraw directly to the hole on the beak, rather than the cable. Eliminating the cable gives you a few extra inches of aiding height, and also results in a stronger piece of gear (the 3kN cable on Black Diamond Peckers is the weakest part).

To place beaks well, you must first understand the physics that cause them to lock into a placement - taper, hooking power and outward force. Each of these are described below.

how to aid climb with pitons

Beak Physics – Taper

Most beaks have a tapered tip, being smaller underneath than on top. This allows them to be placed similarly to a nut.

Look for tiny constrictions in the crack and slot the beak in just above. Then gently tap it a couple of times with your hammer to seat it in position.

If you hit it too hard, you’ll damage your beak tip or the rock which is holding it in place, or it will be really difficult to remove.

how to place beak pitons aid climbing

Beak Physics – Hooking Power

Similar to an ice tool, the tip of a beak is angled downwards. This allows the beak to ‘hook’ over constrictions far back in a crack.

how to place beaks

Beaks can also be used to hook over flakes or dead-heads (copperheads with broken cables) where a standard skyhook is too wide to fit.

how to place pitons

Beak Physics – Outward Force

If the crack has no constrictions or undulations, a beak will rely on the outward pressure from the sides of the crack to remain in place. Think of the beak as a wedge. You’ll need to hammer it in fairly hard for it to be good.

The beak’s tip should slide half of the way in the crack initially, and then go close to the eye when hammered. If it can be hammered all the way in, you’ll need a bigger size. Over time you’ll be able to judge this before you hammer it.

Unlike most other pitons, beaks do not torque into uniform vertical cracks. So unless there is a slight narrowing or constriction, you’ll probably be better off placing a knifeblade or arrow instead.

how to use moses tomahawks

VDiff big wall aid climbing book

Beaks – Diagonal, Horizontal and Roof Cracks

When a beak is weighted in a diagonal crack, the tip twists into the crack. This offers a little more security on slightly diagonal cracks.

However, on steep diagonals or horizontals, the beak tip is likely to bend or break, especially in the smaller sizes.

how to use black diamond peckers

To combat this, you can clip your aiders to the upper hole (via a loop of 5mm cord). This reduces the leverage on the beak’s tip, making it less likely to break.

Rurps or knifeblades are often a better choice in these situations, since they are stronger when weighted this way.

aid climbing peckers

If you place a beak (or any other piton) at the base of a roof or small overlap, it may become ‘geometrically fixed’.

To be removed, it must be tapped upwards, but this will be impossible if there is a roof in the way. Think about how you would remove the beak before you hammer it in.

how to use peckers climbing

Removing Beaks

To be removed, beaks will need to reverse the way they went in. This is usually done by tapping them upwards.

Hit them from the bottom (be careful not to hit the cable) or underneath the head. You may need to tap them back down and up a few times to unseat them.

how to use beaks

They can also be removed with a funkness device. Clip one end of your funkness device to the beak’s upper hole and the other end to your hammer. Give it a gentle tug upwards. You may need to tap it back into position and then tug it again a few times to loosen it.

You can also clip your funkness to the lower hole on the beak for a more outwards (rather than upwards) pull. You can clip the cable too but it tends to weaken it.

how to use beak pitons aid climbing

For stubborn beaks, you may have to hit the beak upwards until you can slide something between the stem and the rock. This creates a pivot point.

Hit the stem back into the rock to pivot the beak out.

using beak pitons for aid climbing

Racking Beaks

Rack beaks in groups of 3-6 per carabiner.

It’s better to clip the upper holes (if they have them) so the beak tips all point in the same direction – downwards and facing out from your harness. This reduces how much they get stuck on your pants and leg loops.

When storing beaks with the main rack, keep them in a stuff sack (Fish Beef Bags are good) to stop them tangling into everything.

using beaks aid climbing

Stacking Beaks

Clip both beaks, either weighting both of them, or just the one which reaches furthest back.

how to use beaks

For hard aid routes, it is worth taking some ground-down beaks (sawed-off halfway along the blade) for features like this. Don’t bother sawing your new beaks though – your old ones will snap at this point anyway if you use them enough.

Small spectres are sometimes useful in placements like this too, since they are the same thickness as a few stacked beaks.

sawed off beaks pitons

Aid Climbing Gear – Copperheads

Check out the full big wall video course, or download the e-book.

Heads are single-use malleable lumps of copper (copperheads) or aluminium (alumi-heads) that can be shaped with a hammer and chisel for a custom fit into a weird slot where nothing else will go.

Due to their super low strength (body weight only) and difficulty to place, they are only useful for aid climbing. Every aid climber should know how to place copperheads, even if it's just to replace the occasional one which has ripped out on a popular route.

copperheads aid climbing

Heads are commonly available in four sizes (#1 to #4) from matchstick thin to the thickness of your little finger.

They can be made in a variety of styles, including double-heads, circleheads or lead-heads.

types of copperhead

Copperheads - The Placement

Heads work best in small pods, flared constrictions, or shallow grooves where pitons or offset cams and nuts won't quite fit. Try to get a beak or a small brass nut to fit in first. If this doesn't work, bring out your 'heading kit'.

Attach your heading kit together with a piece of cord and clip it to your aiders so it cannot be dropped when in use.

copperhead kit

Step 1 – Clean Up
Use a wire brush to scrub away loose rock fragments. Then use a toothbrush to 'dust' the placement. For a head to stick, the placement must be clean and dry. A layer of water, dust or slime between the head and rock will prevent the head from sticking.

Step 2 – Measure Up
Measure your rack of heads against the slot and select the correct size. It'll need to be the same size as the slot and no bigger.

how to use copperheads

Step 3 – Shape It
Hold the head against a flat and clean section of rock away from the placement and hit it with the square end of your hammer to make it the same shape as the slot.

Make sure to have the wire side of the head at the back of the placement. This means your body weight will pull down from the rear (and more secure part) of the placement. It also means that you can punch more metal into the placement, therefore having more head-to-rock surface contact.

how to place copperheads

Top View

how to place copperheads aid climbing

Step 4 – Place It
Place the head into the slot and set it in position with the pointed end of your hammer (use a chisel on tiny heads for a more precise aim).

how to use copperheads aid climbing

It should stick with just a couple of hammer taps. If it won't stay, dust the placement, re-shape the head and try again.

Be careful not to hit the rock with your hammer when you do this; it'll ruin the placement.

how to place heads aid climbing

Step 5 – Chisel It
Use your blunt chisel to cross-hatch the head into place. Start in the middle and work outwards. Make sure your chisel is blunt, otherwise you'll chop the head into pieces. You can also use a large punch (similar to a chisel, but with a rounded point) to do this.

how to use copper heads aid climbing

Imagine the head is a tiny climber facing outwards in a flared chimney. In order to stay wedged in place the tiny climber needs to press itself into the chimney using as much surface contact as possible.

Hit the head hard enough to push it into the placement, but not too hard that you chisel down to the wire. The aim is to push the head so it makes as much surface contact with the back of the placement as possible. Obviously you can't see this, but if you shaped the head correctly it'll conform to the placement fairly quickly. Make sure to chisel and punch to the very top and bottom edges, being careful not to ding the cable as you do so. If the head moves when you hit its top or bottom, take it out and try again.

To fine tune the head, use a small punch to smear as much copper as possible into every useable grain of rock. Start in the head's centre and work outwards. The aim of this is to add a little extra head-to-rock surface contact. Finally, clip your aiders to your copper artwork and give it a test.

how to place aid climbing copper heads

VDiff big wall aid climbing book

Removing Copperheads

It is possible to remove and re-use a head (depending on how much you chiselled it the first time), but it'll be weaker the second time around. Trying to remove a well-placed head usually results in damage to the rock or the head staying in place while the cable pulls out, thus making the task of removing the 'dead-head' difficult for the next climber. Therefore, it is common courtesy amongst aid climbers to leave good heads 'fixed' in the rock for the next climber to use. However, never trust a fixed head. Be prepared to replace them.

To remove a head (or a dead-head), position your small punch underneath the head and tap it with your hammer. Do the same on the top to lever it out, being very careful not to damage the rock.

copperheads aid climbing


An alternative with dead-heads is to use them as aid placements.

Gently tap a small beak or a pointed hook into the top of it. Just one or two soft taps will set it in place.

copper heads aid climbing

Copperhead Lengths

Heads are available in different lengths. Long-wired copperheads can be wedged deep into 'expando' slots, or be bent over an edge. Short-wired heads are better for most other situations, simply because they'll put you higher up the wall.


Circleheads are designed to fit in small horizontal flares or underneath roofs. In these places, a regular head will pull from one side, meaning that it'll probably be levered out.

A circlehead pulls evenly from both sides and therefore is more stable.

aid climbing circlehead

Copper or Aluminum Heads?

Copper is a stronger metal but aluminium is more malleable. This means that a copperhead will take longer to place and it'll be more difficult to get it to stick. But a well-placed copperhead will be a stronger piece of gear than an alumi-head of the same size.

Generally, if the placement is a good nut-like slot and the head doesn’t need much chiselling, use copper for a stronger piece of gear. If the placement is a flared pod, use aluminium so it is quicker to shape and more likely to stick.

Copperheads on Overhangs

Heads are more secure when placed in slots which are less than vertical. This is because of the direction of loading. An 'overhanging' head is more likely to be plucked out when weighted, just like a nut would.

#0 Copperheads

#0 heads are made of the same cable diameter as cam triggers. These will break under the force of a gentle bounce test. There’s really no point using #0 heads because you can always flatten a #1 head and use that instead.

Making Your Own Copperheads

If you plan to place hundreds of heads, it’s worth investing in a good quality bench-mount swager to make your own. Nicopress is a good brand. Cheaper Chinese-made brands tend to have compatibility issues with sleeves and cables.

For the strongest heads, use galvanised aircraft cable and zinc-plated copper sleeves for all points which are not pasted (i.e: not the mashable head part of the head).

Having your own swager also means you can fix cam trigger cables, re-swage beak and rurp cables and make your own wire rivet hangers and funkness devices. If you can borrow a tensile-testing machine, it is wise to measure the strength of your swages before you trust your life to them.

how to make copperheads aid climbing

Aid Climbing Gear – Rivets

Check out the full big wall video course, or download the e-book.

A rivet is basically a smaller, weaker version of a bolt. It’s common for first ascentionists to place rivets to bypass blank sections when establishing a new route.

You’ll find them in different shapes, diameters, lengths and strengths, some with hangers and some without. Some are almost flush to the rock and others protrude an alarming way out.

Due to their indeterminate depth and strength, they should not be relied upon as good gear.

types of rivets aid climbing

To climb rivets, you’ll need rivet hangers. Three main types are shown here. Each of these come in different thicknesses. Plate hangers are the strongest, most secure and give you the most reach. Thin wire and cinch hangers are much weaker, but will fit on almost any rivet.

If choosing a route which has a lot of rivets, you should bring a selection and choose the strongest and most secure hanger that will fit for each rivet.

rivet hangers

Plate Rivet Hangers

Ideally, you would use a plate hanger on every rivet. However, rivets do not always protrude enough from the wall for a plate hanger to fit, or have a large enough head to keep a plate hanger on. There are two common sizes which accommodate rivets with thicknesses from 1/4” to 3/8”.

Simply slide the hanger over the rivet and clip a carabiner to it. The hanger will now be locked onto the rivet.

A 3/8” hanger will not always lock on a 1/4” rivet. Make sure to choose the right size.

rivet hangers climbing

Wire Rivet Hangers

These are the most useful hangers, since they will fit on almost every rivet. They are weaker than plate hangers but twice as strong as the cinch style. Choose the thickest size that will fit for a stronger piece of gear.

Clip your aiders to the swaged side of the hanger and loop the other side over the rivet. Sliding the loose swage up and duck-taping it in place makes the hanger a more secure piece of gear.

how to use rivets aid climbing

Cinch Rivet Hangers

These hangers cinch around the rivet when weighted, making them much more secure on rivets that are:
- Missing a stud
- Pointing downwards
- In overhanging rock
- Protruding a lot from the wall (cinch them close to the wall to reduce leverage)

Clip your aider to one end-loop and slip the middle over the rivet. This cinches tight when weighted.

how to aid climb rivets

To release, clip your aider into the other end-loop.

how to climb rivets

VDiff big wall aid climbing book

Improvised Rivet Hangers

Some nuts can be used as improvised rivet hangers. However, they are less secure and will give you less reach.

Slide the nut down the wire as shown.

how to climb rivet ladders

Racking Rivet Hangers

Rack one or two of each type together on a carabiner, so you will always have something that will fit any rivet.

how to aid climb

Other Uses of Rivets

An imaginative use rivet hangers can enable you to use unclippable fixed gear.

how to aid climb rivets

Placing Rivets

Learn how to place rivets in this article.

how to place climbing bolts

The Alpine Butterfly Knot

This 'Alpine Butterfly' article is part of the book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.

VDiff trad climbing self rescue book

The alpine butterfly knot is used for:

- Equalizing a two-bolt belay.
- Isolating a damaged section of rope.
- Forming a fixed loop in the middle of a rope. This provides a clip-in point which can be loaded in 2 or 3 directions.

Alpine butterfly knot for climbing

How To Tie an Alpine Butterfly Knot

Step 1
Form a loop in the rope.

How to tie a butterfly knot for climbing

Step 2
Twist the loop so it becomes two loops. Then pull the top of the upper loop behind and underneath the line of the rope.

Tying a butterfly knot for climbing

Step 3
Push the now lower loop through the original first loop.

How to tie an alpine butterfly knot

Step 4
Pull it tight.

Tying alpine butterfly knot

You should end up with this:

Alpine butterfly knot front and back

An alternative way to tie the alpine butterfly is to wrap it around your hand three times as shown below. Pull the top wrap down over the other two, then back up behind them.

How to tie the butterfly knot over hand

VDiff climbing self rescue book

Using the Alpine Butterfly Knot

Equalizing a Two-Bolt Belay
Tie a large-looped alpine butterfly to one screwgate and a clovehitch to the other.

You can adjust the size of the loop once the alpine butterfly is tied. Then adjust the clovehitch to fine tune the equalization.

This is useful for fixing ropes, such as on a big wall.

Equalize belay with alpine butterfly knot

Isolating a Damaged Section
This is useful when using your rope as a fixed line or in a situation where the rope will not pass through any carabiners.

Obviously, you will not be able to lead climb with a knot in your rope!

Alpine butterfly knot tied over core shot damaged rope