How To Big Wall Climb - Following 4: Traversing Terrain

Monday January 14, 2013

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Chris McNamara re-doing the Nothing Atolls pendulum on Pacific Ocean W...
Chris McNamara re-doing the Nothing Atolls pendulum on Pacific Ocean Wall using homemade 3/4 length gloves.
Credit: Jason "Singer" Smith

How To Big Wall Climb - Following 4: Traversing Terrain

This is part of my How To Big Wall Climb project. View the table of contents here.

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Cleaning traversing terrain is not fun. It can take a long time and is sometimes more dangerous than leading for three reasons:

 your Ascenders can get loaded weird and twist off the rope
 if you take an unexpected swing you are likely to impact your side (where your organs don’t have much protection )
 if you take a sudden fall onto your Ascenders, there is the real chance you can damage or even cut the rope

For these reasons it is very important to get your skills dialed when cleaning traversing terrain.

Skills to learn
 lowerouts at pedulums
 re-aiding horizontal traverse
 safely back up your Ascenders in case they pop off

Gear you need
Same as normal cleaning. Its very helpful to have an auto-lock belay device like a GriGri

When to practice
For just learning the basics of lower-out, you just need any anchor point.

For following a horizontal traverse, you can practice on a rafter that is at least 10 feet long and you can sling.

With the basics worked out, you will want a cliff that has a crack or bolt line that traverses at a 30-45 degree angle. Prefereably the cliff with be 30-50 feet at, you guessed it, 80 degrees (a little slabby).

Be carefull when choosing a place to follow pendulums. If you are low to the ground, and you mess up, there is a good chance you will hit the ground. Get the basics dialed before you actually practice following a pendulum on a cliff.

Cleaning Traverses
There are two techniques used for two types of traverses: diagonal traverses and horizontal traverses. IMPORTANT: Both techniques share one thing in common, its important to back yourself up with back-up knots or a GriGri. Almost all cases of people coming detached from their jumars happen on traverses because the rope can run through the Ascender at a weird angle that causes it to twist out.

A. Cleaning Diagonal Traverses: [need some images here but not sure how many] When the rope is running to the side at an angle of 30-70 degrees, it is tricky to clean pieces because after passing the Ascender over the piece and weighting it, you are pulled to the side. Sometimes you can just paste your feet against the wall, lean over for a moment and quickly remove the piece (sticky rubber approach shoes help a lot). However, if the terrain is too steep, sometimes you need to pass both jumars over the piece, go up another foot or two, then reach down and or swing back over.

B. Cleaning Horizontal Traverses: When you are cleaning a roof or horizontal crack, its best to re-aid the pitch for two reasons:
 safety – if you are cleaning a horizontal pitch on your Ascenders and a piece blows, you will take a hard swinging fall onto your Ascenders. Ascenders are not designed for this and can shred or even break the rope.
- speed – cleaning horizontally on Ascenders is very awkward and can get you in some clusters that take a while to get out of

When re-aiding, I use a GriGri to self belay. You can also tie back up knots but you will want to tie them very often to feel safe. Even then, a GriGri will still feel better because you can easily keep yourself on a tight belay.

The basic re-aiding technique goes like this
1) jumar up to the last piece before the traverse
2) put on the GriGri or tie a back up knot
3) standing only on the bottom jumar, unclip the Aider and daisy from the top Ascender and clip in directly to the piece.
4) remove the top Ascender and clip it to the side of your harness or let it hang
5) stand in the Aider attached to the piece
6) unclip the piece from the rope and clean it
7) remove the bottom Ascender from the rope and clip the Aider and daisy to the next piece.
8) you are now re-aiding until you reach the end of the traverse and can start jumaring again

On a pendulum, you are at your most exposed while following. If the pendulum point fails, you will take a dangerous swinging fall and possibly shockload the rope with your Ascenders (and cut it). For this reason its important that:

a) the leader makes sure the pendulum point is bomber, the webbing attached to the pendulum point is bomber, and that he backs up the pedulumn point if necessary.

b) you follow the steps below very carefully. (maybe insert Timmy O story hear)

There are two types of techniques for following pendulums:
1) For big pendulums (30+ feet long) like the King Swing on The Nose, you can either bring a second rope to rappel (a 100-foot piece of 7-8 mm cord usually works) or you can use the end of your rope if there is enough left over.

2) For short pendulums (30 feet or less) you use the technique described below. This is one of the more complicated rope techniques in wall climbing and is best shown in real life by an expert, but I will try to explain below:

1) jumar up to the pendulum point and stop about 6 inches short.
2) put on the GriGri or tie a back up knot then release all other back up knots
3) from your tie in point, take a bit of rope about 6 feet long.
4) thread it through the fixed sling at the pendulum point and bring it back to your harness where you clip it with a locking biner.
5) there are now for strands of rope: two going to the fixed sling and two coming back from the sling and clipped to your harness. Grab the strand that goes to the extra slack and winch yourself tight.
6) all your weight should now be on the pendulum point
7) unclip the biner that was pendulumed from
8) lower out
9) when at the end of the lower out, unclip the locking biner at your harness and let all the rope back out

Bonus: The third way to Clean a Pendulum
In rare cases, you can clean a pendulum by redoing the pendulm. To do this, the leader must have set up an anchor immediately after he did the pendulum. This almost never happens because usually the leader does a pendulum and then climbs up 10 or 20 feet before placing a piece (and thereby reducing the rope drag for him to finish the pitch).

But occassionally it works. A popular instance is if you are doing The Nose in a day. If the leader stops at Eagle Ledge after The King Swing and anchors the rope he just swung on. The follower can then rappel down the other side of the rope (on a single strand) and redo The King Swing. Once the follower completes the pendulum and is anchored on Eagle Ledge, he can untie from one end of the rope and pull it through the anchor on top of The Boot Flake. (On the King Swing this strategy does NOT make sense if you have have haul bags. Its only an option for Nose in A Day climber who both want to do the King Swing.)

Erik Sloan made a great movie on lowering out. The technique in his movie is a little different than what I describe above, but it equally effective if not better.

Watch the YouTube movie -


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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 has left friends and family pondering Chris’s sanity. He hasclimbed El Capitan more than 100 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 has 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 Rowell Legacy Committee. He has a rarely updated website,, and also runs a Lake Tahoe home rental business


Trad climber
Denver, CO
  Mar 31, 2011 - 03:13pm PT
Good stuff, Chris. Looking forward to the finish product! Wally

  Mar 31, 2011 - 05:10pm PT
Nice Chris, great draft. I can't wait to see the pictures too!

A couple of very minor comments on this version:
The reaiding technique sequence under following traverses says:
5) stand in the aider attached to the piece
6) unclip the piece from the rope and clean it

Obviously the "clean it" can't happen until you move to the next piece (step 7) unless you are practicing the exciting "pop the piece and swing" method.

Also the YouTube movie you link to "has been removed by the user".

rocket scientist

Trad climber
Logan, UT
  Apr 11, 2011 - 05:02pm PT
Any issues using a mini-traxion in place of a GriGri? Maybe with an occasional back-up knot?

Trad climber
The pitch of Bagalaar above you
  Apr 11, 2011 - 05:42pm PT
A toothless device is preferred if re-aiding.

The goal is to minimize rope damage if a fall should occur to the 2nd.