10 Tips To Make Big Wall Climbing More Fun

Tuesday June 6, 2017
This year marks the 20th year that I've been climbing big walls. In my more advanced age, there are 10 tips to making the climbing experience more comfortable and fun. All this info is in the How To Big Wall Climb book. But I thought I would distill it down. If an intermediate big wall climber stopped me in El Cap Meadow, looking for advice, this is what I would pass on.

 Always carry the best small climbing cams available. Allocate as much of your big wall budget here as possible. Favorite cams right now are the micro Black Diamond Camalot X4 's. And still love Aliens.

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 Wear tight-fitting approach shoes as much as possible instead of free climbing shoes. If I do wear free climbing shoes, I go a ½ size to a full size too big. I’ve climbed The Nose a few times in approach shoes leading every pitch. You have to aid more, but its so comfy. Currently I am wearing the La Sportiva Ganda a full size below my street shoe.

 Only climb with the biners that weigh less than 30 grams (about an ounce). Your rack weight evaporates. Current favorites are the CAMP Photon Wire Straight and CAMP Nano 22.

 Don’t climb in a team of three. Hauling sucks and it just always takes more time and effort. The exception is if the team three includes your two best friends in the world. Then it’s ok.

 Climb El Cap in a day if you can. It’s so so so much more fun than all the logistics involved with climbing it in 2 -7 days.
Sean Leary starts up the first pitch of the nose
Sean Leary starts up the first pitch of the nose
Credit: Chris McNamara

 When not leading, wear full fingered gloves with high dexterity. No need to subject your hands to abuse with cleaning. Current favorite is the Black Diamond Transition Glove.

 Use climbing tape for your hands when leading. I resisted for 18 years. My hands are so much happier now. Or, I use crack gloves. I used to think these were wimpy. Maybe they are, but they sure make climbing more comfortable and fun.

 If you are at a belay for more than 30 minutes. Set up the portaledge. This only works if you have a light portaledge that can be quickly set up by one person like the Runout Customs Double Portaledge. With enough practice, set up is under five minutes. Instead of being annoyed with the leader for taking so long, you’ll wish the lead would never end.
Chris McNamara on the most comfortable belay chair in the world.
Chris McNamara on the most comfortable belay chair in the world.
Credit: Jason Singer Smith

 If you need a 3 to 1, you have too much stuff.

 Large beaks like the Black Diamond Pecker and Moses Tomahawk get you through 90% of pin placements (that a micro cam, cam hook or offset climbing nut can’t get you through. Often they can be hand placed. Leave the big rack of arrows, knifeblades and angles behind.

Above all else: simplify, simplify, simplify. Lead when possible with no daisies or just one. Leave the hammer and heavy iron at the belay and see how high you can get without it.

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Chris McNamara
About the Author
Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on Earth had been spent on the face of El Capitan – an accomplishment that left friends and family pondering Chris’s sanity. He has climbed El Capitan more than 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?”

Outside Magazine called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He is the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 5000 dangerous anchor bolts. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and serves on the board of the ASCA and the Rowell Legacy Committee. He has a rarely updated adventure journal, maintains, and also runs a Lake Tahoe home rental business.


Trad climber
  Feb 26, 2014 - 10:26am PT
Someday I do hope to get on a big wall or three. Nice tips - will share on FB.

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Feb 26, 2014 - 11:04am PT
Chris, it is too bad you didn't go through with writing Big Wall Climbing For Fun and Profit with Bernie Madoff.

And, yes, I am disillusioned to learn that you tape.
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Author's Reply  Feb 26, 2014 - 11:06am PT
Ill be refining this article and others. If you have suggestions for the next How to Big Wall Climb book, please post here
Karl Baba

Trad climber
Yosemite, Ca
  Feb 26, 2014 - 04:38pm PT
Great Advice!

Gym climber
sawatch choss
  Feb 26, 2014 - 08:16pm PT
Hell yeah!

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
  Feb 26, 2014 - 09:27pm PT
nice article!

A friends backyard with the neighbors wifi
  Mar 5, 2014 - 02:54pm PT
These are good tips.

Especially the 'in a day' tip. hahahaha ;)

Trad climber
  Mar 6, 2014 - 10:17am PT
Please clarify two things for me.
What do you mean by 3 to 1?
And, what's the story about not using a Daisy, as well as the rope?
Thank you.

Trad climber
Salt Lake City, UT
  Mar 6, 2014 - 01:19pm PT
Definitely agree on the tape and gloves comments. I resisted both for many years, but use both now, and years of painful, cracked fingertips seems to be behind me. Wish I had wised up decades ago. Wrapping first two fingertips on both hands does the trick.

Trad climber
  Mar 7, 2014 - 04:13pm PT
Chris, great tips for the wealthy, superfit climber with a plethora of awesome climbing partners. Most of us are wishing we either:
1) had the money to buy any better gear, then our old school, rigid Friends we traded for a bottle of Jack Daniels at camp 4 in the early 90s and our makeshift portaledge constructed from beach lounge chair, discarded tent fly and some webbing
2) had a single partner that did not require a truckload of Lithium to climb anything requiring more commitment then Nutcracker
3) had the fitness to jumar the Nose in a week

Trad climber
The Illuminati -- S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Division
  Jun 10, 2015 - 11:43pm PT
Planning to buy some gloves.

Boulder climber
  Jul 8, 2015 - 08:38am PT
Nice one cheers !