How To Big Wall Climb: Reading and Movie List

Wednesday August 21, 2013
This is part of my How To Big Wall Climb project. View the table of contents here

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Get Psyched Reading and Movie List
Credit: Chris McNamara

Big walls are a big undertaking. If you are not genuinely psyched to wall climb then you will suffer. If you just want to say you have climbed El Capitan but are not thrilled about the idea of being on the wall for days on a time, don’t bother. Wall climbing involves a ton of work. If you are just half-hearted about the endeavor, then all that work feels like suffering. If you are truly psyched, then all the work just feels like part of the adventure.

In addition, if you are not really amped to be on the wall, you will get scared. Probably really scared. You’re more likely to bail when the first challenge arises. On my first El Cap ascent I was scared. But I was so pumped on the adventure that the fear just added a little spice to the experience. Compare that to an ascent seven years later when my heart was not into climbing El Cap at that moment. Despite having 60-plus El Cap ascents, I was actually more scared than my first time on the wall because I didn’t really want to be up there. A year later, I had my psyche back and suddenly El Cap was a quarter as scary and four times as fun. It's all in the head.

So before you get too much into this book or spend too much money on wall climbing gear, go to Yosemite or Zion or your closest big wall area. Spend a day walking the entire base of El Cap or your local big wall. Bring a book or watch a movie from the list below. Go to the back of El Cap Meadow with a pair of binocs and watch climbers up on the wall. If you can’t get to a big wall area, read even more from the list below.

If you are genuinely psyched, keep charging on path of learning to climb a wall. If you are not yet truly psyched, move forward, but maybe put off the purchase of that portaledge.

Here is a recommend list of books and movies to help get you psyched.

Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber —Steve Roper's definitive book on Yosemite climbing history from the beginning to 1970. If you can only read one Yosemite history book, read this one.

The Vertical World of Yosemite —A MUST read. A collection compiled by Galen Rowell of the many of the most significant first ascent accounts. Great photos that will make you really appreciate modern big wall gear. If you can only read two books, read this and Camp 4.

Ordeal by Piton: Writings from the Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing —Another great collection of Yosemite first ascent accounts and essays edited by Steve Roper. The most complete collection of Yosemite Golden Age essays.

Yosemite Big Walls – SuperTopos —I can’t resist plugging my own book. In addition to the topos you will need to climb El Cap or Half Dome, this book has a lot of history not found in any other book as well as some sweet photos.

Defying Gravity: High Adventure on Yosemite's Walls —This book is less personal and authoritative than Camp 4 but covers a broader period of time and has more photos.

El Capitan: Historic Feats and Radical Routes —Dan Duane picks a handful of Yosemite personalities and explores what made them tick.

Yosemite Climber —This is must read classic±—if you can find it. Awesome photos of Yosemite back in the day (70s).

Glen Denny: Yosemite in the Sixties —Just published in 2007, this book has 144 pages of beautiful black and white photos and some essays.

Downward Bound: A Mad Guide to Rock Climbing —Warren Harding’s great book of adventure and farce. First ascent accounts of The Nose, Dawn Wall, and a hilarious listing and scoring of all the major Golden Age players.

Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs: Rock Climbing on the Edge of Reality —John Long’s entertaining and absorbing collection of climbing stories that include big wall tales.

And of course, The El Cap Report by Tom ”Ansel" Evans” —A daily photo report of who is climbing what on The Big Stone with hilarious commentary and great telephoto shots from El Cap Meadow. I can’t believe this service is free. Buy Tom a beer next time you see him.

Vertical Frontier DVD by Kristi Denton Cohen —Great video overview of Yosemite. Interviews with most of the major players and great historical footage.

Free Climbing the Nose —Lynn Hill’s video of making the first free ascent and first one-day free ascent of The Nose. She makes it look pretty easy to free the great roof on camera… It's not!

Dosage Volume IV - DVD by Big UP Productions —This movie has a 15-minute segment where Tommy Caldwell make the first free ascent of two El Cap routes in a day. I get to belay him for his second lap of the day.

El Capitan —The ultra classic documentary of a 1975 ascent of The Captain. Amazing King Swing airplane footage. Really hard to find.

Star Trek V - The Final Frontier —Captain Kirk makes the first free solo attempt of the The Nose… and falls! Just a five-minute clip in the opening sequence but worth putting on your Netflix Queue.

Masters of Stone V —Features Dean Potter making a mostly free solo speed ascent of The Nose.

To The Limit (DVD) - The Huber Brothers documentary on trying the break The Nose speed record on El Capitan.

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

  Article Views: 24,315
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on Earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has 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.


Gym climber
sawatch choss
  Apr 8, 2009 - 12:47pm PT
Chris- the psyche beta is excellent. If you don't want to be up there, it's just a bunch of scary unpaid labor.

However, following this up with a long list of recommended wall porn that glamorizes the whole thing directly contradicts that simple message. Reading the many years' worth of glory tales is how people end up thinking they want to have climbed El Cap when they actually don't want to be climbing El Cap.

Trad climber
Sacramento, CA
  Apr 8, 2009 - 01:03pm PT
Can't wait for the book! I probably won't be able to get on a big wall any time soon (damn med school) but I will one day for sure. Hopefully this get psyched list will help fill the gap from now til then!
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Apr 8, 2009 - 01:06pm PT
If that's the case, Rhodo, then the snail will whisper into their ear soon enough (but I'm sure the companies are glad they bought the gear,..)

Pees on beard to seek mates.
  Apr 8, 2009 - 01:56pm PT
"To The Limit" is available in the US--I got it through netflix. I think an even better film to get the big wall/yosemite psyche on is "The Center of the Universe" also featuring Huber-baum. However, I'm not sure how to come by this one unless you already know somebody with a copy.

Mammoth Lakes, CA
  Apr 8, 2009 - 02:44pm PT
When looking for "To the Limit/Am Limit", don't get confused by this title, although it is equally entertaining AND will no doubt improve your big wall psyche.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Apr 8, 2009 - 02:51pm PT
Ho man! That photo is too much!
What's she gonna do when she quits hanging on the bolt watching the storm roll in?

Pees on beard to seek mates.
  Apr 8, 2009 - 02:54pm PT
Oh my! Judging from the trailer, this has got to be the worst film ever about climbing. See for yourself:

Mudcat Spire
  Apr 8, 2009 - 03:04pm PT
If by worst you mean best!


10/10 on the unintentional comedy scale.

Edit: Look at the blond dude in the flannel shirt with the sleeves torn off! lol Sweep the leg, Johnny!

Gym climber
sawatch choss
  Apr 8, 2009 - 03:08pm PT

Trad climber
Hartselle, Alabama
  Apr 8, 2009 - 06:34pm PT
Cool, can't waite.Thanks Chris!


  Apr 8, 2009 - 06:45pm PT
DRC's "MacGyver" out of queue...check. (Sorry, honey.) "Take it to the Limit" in queue...check.

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
  Apr 8, 2009 - 07:07pm PT
Blood, Sweat and Bagels got me pretty psyched

Trad climber
  Apr 8, 2009 - 09:52pm PT
How could you forget Lynn Hill's Climbing Free? Isn't it time someone wrote a book about female big wall climbers or the women of Camp 4 or the women who were climbing when the Stonemasters were? I'd do for free!

Trad climber
  Apr 9, 2009 - 10:13am PT
the season is upon us

Trad climber
The state of confusion
  Apr 9, 2009 - 12:09pm PT

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Apr 10, 2009 - 12:34am PT
what about psychovertical? Just finished reading that, and it got me really psyched to climb a wall, even though I am a long way from climbing the reticent... It is an import right now, but I thought it was definitely worth a read.

Trad climber
Carson City, NV
  Apr 10, 2009 - 06:01pm PT
oh the horror that this got back to page, 3? 4? I've been rooting around back here for a few hours and lost track.
This needs to be on the front page for the shoulder season psyche!

Great list, already read about a third of them.

Got to check out the movies now and the ones I can add to netflix!

Ice climber
Kiruna, Sweden
  Mar 18, 2010 - 04:27am PT
The first chapter of John Long and John Middendorf's How to Climb: Big Walls is great - Long's account of psyching up to climb The Nose for the first time with Ron Fawcett at about age 19.

Trad climber
London UK
  Jul 3, 2011 - 01:00pm PT
Nice list! I'd add 'Blood, Sweat & Bagels' - a film by the guys that did Hard Grit. Basically 2 top notch uk trad climbers trying to free a route on El Cap. It's beautifully shot and they never lose their humour - even though nothing really goes according to plan. Made me want to big wall!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Jul 3, 2011 - 01:54pm PT
Ordeal By Piton is long out of print but I will soon have some more copies of this classic for sale at:


Social climber
  Jul 3, 2011 - 02:07pm PT
Cool topic, thanks Chris.

How about Yosemite Climber, by Meyers. This got me psyched on the Valley.

Also, the link for the excellent and eye-opening Fred Padula/Glenn Denny El Capitan movie just goes to a generic gear retailer. Is this movie available anywhere?

  Jul 3, 2011 - 04:16pm PT
i honestly think that the Supertopo Bigwall Book is the book that is most likely to get you're psyched when you are likely to enjoy wall climbing in reality, and not get you psyched if you won't like it, which is why i would put it on that list too. I would take most others away, because they will inspire non-climbers too. that means that them inspiring you is not really a hint about whether or not you're going to like walls.

Trad climber
San Luis Obispo, CA
  Dec 3, 2012 - 08:28pm PT


this book is very informitive too. it tells about everything

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El Capitan - The Nose 5.14a or 5.9 C2 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
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Washington Column - South Face C1 5.8 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
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