How to Climb a Big Wall 

Inside most climbers is the ability to think big, dream bigger and aim even higher. Big Walls as big as it gets and are at the deep-end of the climbing pool; they are the class A drug for rock climbers, as once committed there is no turning back. Simply turning up at the based of one of these mega routes and trying to climb up in a traditional fashion just isn’t feasible for the majority of rock climbers. There is a new set of skills, and elaborate form of cunning and guile, and out and out cheating.

In this article we look at how to develop these Jedi rope and climbing skills, so you know just what it takes to climb a big wall.

Leading Skills

Unless your second name is Huber or Houlding you are unlikely to be able to free climb and entire big wall. However there will be lots of parts that you can. The ‘Pancake Flake’ on the Nose is meant to be one of the most amazing E1’s on the planet. So first don’t think you can’t free climb, as it is invariably quicker than pulling on gear. However there are two other forms of ascent that are fair game in the realm of big wall climbing when free climbing becomes too hard or impossible. The first is French free climbing, where you pull on gear and if your wise use a fifi hook, and the second is aiding on gear.

French-free is when you free climb as much as you can and then start resting on gear, with the aid of a fifi hook (A small hook that you can attach yourself to protection with). This allows you to place gear above your head and clip the rope in and then ‘dog’ up to it. To make your life easier make sure your fifi hook extends beyond the Figure of 8 you are tied into the rope with.

In big wall climbing you need to have a wifi hook. This not only helps for aid climbing but is a vital tool when free-freeing. Most wifi hook come on tape but they are often a little short so consider re-tying it with cord and maybe experiment with different lengths and see what works for you.

If the route has a sustained section that you simply can’t climb then consider moving over to aid climbing. This requires at its most basic two aiders (webbing ladder), two daisy chains. It is a slow but systematic process, which you need to get sort before you get on the big stone.

This process is pretty fixed.

  1. Place the gear.
  2. Clip a snapgate to the gear.
  3. Clip and aider/etrier into the gear and bounce test it.
  4. Walk up the Etrier and Fifi into the snap gate on the back bar side.
  5. Check out the next placement.
  6. Move up in the etrier and place the gear.
  7. Clip the piece of gear you are standing on as a runner
  8. Clip and aider/etrier into the new piece and bounce test it.
  9. Go to stage 4.
The classic set up for big wall aid climbing. Two daisy chains and two etriers and two wifi hooks

This process needs to be ingrained, it is a simple process but once done a few times becomes second nature, we would advise doing it on and indoor wall to start with. As it helps speed up the process and simplify it. After you have the basics you can then try and aid a crack climb outside. One of the key things to try early on is getting into the top step of the etrier, this way you can make a good distance between each placement. It takes some effort and bravery at first to get into the top step so many wait until you are far enough off the ground so a fall is safe. To get into the top step the wifi hook should slide up the back bar of the snapgate like you are undercutting the top of the carabiner.

When you go outside and especially for all big walls you are going to need a big rack, as a minimum you’ll need a double but preferably triple rack of camming devices, a double rack of wires, RP’s and Micro wires. As such you’ll probably need to think about getting a bandolier to hold you rack as there is not likely to be room on your harness, and whilst we are on the subject of harnesses, really consider getting a Big Wall harness, as they offer so much more comfort, important if you are going to live in it for 4 days.


Ben Bransby switching between free, french french and aiding on the Stove Leg Cracks of The Nose of El Cap.

Big Wall Belays

Having made it up a pitch your work as a leader is not done you need to make an excellent belay, one that comes to a very strong powerful point. You’ll need to fix the rope for the second to ascend, and whilst they are following you on jumar’s, you’ll have to drag the haul bag up the pitch.

Creating a powerpoint with a long (240cm) Sling.

Hauling Skills

At the very least you’ll need a wall hauler, nowadays the petzl protraction is king. However this means that you’ll be hauling on a 1 to 1 system given that you need 4 litres of water per person per day, that means for a 4 day wall for two people you’ll start hauling a 36 kilos of water alone plus the weight of all your food and other equipment.

To make your life easier consider taking two extra pulleys, as well as two jumars on your lead rack (one of the reasons its so hard to free climb a big wall is all the weight of the gear, not to mention the two full weight ropes you dragged up the pitch, one for leading the other for hauling). With these extra pieces of gear you can make pretty efficient 3 to 1 system.

To make your life easier in hauling it often helps if you give yourself at least 3 to 4 metres of slack when you tie off the lead line as it will allow you to use your body weight and a bit of momentum going by jumping off the ledge attached to the haul line with a jumar, backed up with the 4 metres+ of slack.

Once the bag has arrive, you’ll need to transfer its weight onto a belay or a ledge. What is key here is you never tie it to something that can’t be easily released.  Imagine trying to lift a person up and unclip them without their help, it would be extremely difficult, and exactly what it is like to unclip a haulbag. As such as well as a cowtails for the haul bag you need to have a 20+ metre 7mm cord attach to it as a ‘lower out line’. When the bag has arrive at the ledge, you need to attach the bag to the belay with a tied off Italian hitch, as it is releasable under load, then slowly haul enough rope to release the wall hauler rope cam and lower a few inches, and then lock the wall hauler again. Doing lots of small lowers help, as if you get over ambitious you will jam the jumar up against wall hauler.

Practicing Hauling systems. To start with on a big wall you are going to need some add mechanical advantage in the form of pulleys. By the top of the way when the bag is lighter you might get away with one to one hauling.


Seconding Skills

So your mate has just spent the best part of an hour sending the pitch, you here ‘rope fixed’ and you are eager to jug up the rope. But you have some chores to do before you leave the belay. The first is to free the haul bag, and this is where the tied off Italian hitch comes in. As the leader hauls the bag up the first few metres, you can slowly lower the bag out, as the pitch is unlikely to go straight up, and simply kicking the haul bag off the ledge can lead to some fairly exciting sights of a haul bag flying across the wall, not good when it is a 50kg freeload.

Having freed the haul bag you’ll need to start jumaring, there are several ways to achieve this; two basic methods are shown below. However, they may need adjusting as different pitches maybe slabby, vertical or overhanging. You’ll usually find you’ll have this dial by the last pitch!

There are two major problems you’ll need to know how to overcome which is how to jumar past a runner where the rope is deviated from the vertical, and how to jumar past traverses or across roofs. There are easy ways, hard ways and scarey ways to do this, I have shown the easy ways below.

As well as jumping straight up you also need to know how to jump around deviation, roof and traverses.

Life in the Vertical

As well as the challenge of climbing the wall you’ll also need to be able to face the little challenges of life, like finding time to eat, a place to sleep and of course how to go to the loo. Of which pissing will be obvious as you’ll smell the stale piss of the last 100 people up the route every time you are within 5 metres of a belay. You will also find out how hard it is to shit into a bag.

Of course your body will become battered, so you’ll be held together by zinc oxide and duck tape, rattle with the amount of ibuprofen you are taking and long for the day that you can walk further than two steps away from you mate who will have seen you do stuff that would make your most peoples stomach turn.

Not as easy as it looks! Setting up a portaledge when hanging! One of the many new life skills you need for big wall climbing.

How to prepare

Well you are still keen, and need a training regime. First and foremost you need to go live as a vagrant for four days, not eat, drink or sleep enough, then wrestle a bear for an hour to get the general aches and pains, and after that win the lottery. As this about covers the general feeling and state your body will go through from starting up the wall to topping out.

Failing that come on a How to Big Wall course with Snowdonia Mountain Guides, or at the very least spend a few days practicing these skills I have mentioned. Having them dial will make you quicker and safer. You’ll also need to be in top physical shape for day after day of physical climbing so try some of these challenges 10 routes at Tremadog sized crag in a day, 20+ routes at Stanage sized crag in a day or a few long enchainment’s mountain routes. Make sure some of those routes have some form of crack climbing in then as, you’ll definitively need those skills.

Road to the Nose

Believe me when I say that everybody wants to climb the Nose, and their dog and their friends. However if you want to climb this or one of the other Yosemite walls of a similar vein then think about warming up on:

South face of Washington Column

First 10 pitches of Salathe Wall

Regular NW route of Half Dome

Big Walling Courses

The author and owner of Snowdonia Mountain Guides offers 2 day course that will teach you the basic skill you need to transition from trad climbing to big wall climbing.

This course covers the core skills you need to know to climb a big wall, including:

  • Leading Skills – Free Climbing vs French Free vs Aid Climbing in ascent
  • Following Skills – Jumaring Fixed Ropes, Jumaring past a deviations and Jumaring across a roof
  • Hauling Skills – 1 to 1, Counter-balance, Pulleys and mechanical advantage.
  • Big Wall Belays
  • Big Wall Ropework
  • Skills for Living in a vertical world

For more information visit: Snowdonia Mountain Guides 



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