How to Big Wall Climb - Following 2: Vertical and Overhanging Terrain

Tuesday April 7, 2015

This is part of the How to Big Wall Climb SuperTopo book. Videos like the ones above illustrate key points of the book and are meant to be watched while reading the book. Buy the book here or just read this free sample of the text below with photos.

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Chris McNamara jugging up the first pitch of South Seas, El Capitan.
Chris McNamara jugging up the first pitch of South Seas, El Capitan.
Credit: Corey Rich

Anchor a free-hanging rope 20 to 30 feet up. The rope length is at least 200 feet.

Basic Following On Vertical and overhanging terrain

Brief intro
Ascending overhanging terrain is much more psychically demanding than low angle terrain. On low angle terrain you weight your legs. On overhanging terrain you must use your arms. The trick is to use you arms as little as possible.

Skills to learn
 Don’t rest on your top arm.
 Use your arms as little as possible.
 Get over lips.

Gear You Need
 2 Ascenders
 2 daisy chains
 2 Aiders
 3 locking biners
 gear for anchor
 belay device
 fifi hook
 Optional gear: Gloves, fixed-rope self belay device

Where to Practice
A vertical or overhanging wall at the climbing gym works well. Alternately, a 30 to 50-foot steep cliff works. I learned on a 20-foot-long horizontal tree branch in my back yard that worked okay.

Unknown climber from Bend, OR, jugging 350 feet of fixed line -- to P3...
Unknown climber from Bend, OR, jugging 350 feet of fixed line -- to P3 -- on South Seas to PO. This is his first wall. He's going Texas–style, on Petzl Ascenders.
Credit: Robert Newsom

Ascending a Vertical or Overhanging Wall
There are many techniques for jugging a free hanging rope or a steep wall. I have tried a bunch of them and they are all equally exhausting so I go with the simplest setup:

First, re-examine your daisy length; make sure it is not too long. You don’t want any weight on your top arm when you hang on the top Ascender. Experiment with a few different lengths to make sure you have it right.

1. Remove the top Aider from the top Ascender.
2. While on the ground, pull all the slack and stretch out of the rope so you can hang on the top Ascender.
3. Put your foot in the third step of an aid ladder or the second step of a standard Aider (this is on the Aider attached to the bottom Ascender)
4. In one motion, push with the foot in the bottom Aider and slide the top Ascender up.
5. Rest on the top Ascender (make sure the daisy is not too long. You want a bend in the elbow).
6. Push up the bottom Ascender until the top of the bottom Ascender is an inch or two below the bottom of the top Ascender.
7. Repeat.

The nForce ascenders around pitch 18 on Wall of Early Morning Light, E...
The nForce ascenders around pitch 18 on Wall of Early Morning Light, El Capitan
Credit: Chris McNamara

Most pitches on a route like The Nose are not so overhanging that the whole time you are out in space. So I usually leave the top Aider on but DO NOT put my foot in it. Having a foot in the top Aider and the bottom Aider while jugging overhanging terrain is the fastest way to get tired on a big wall.

The most important thing is to rest entirely on the top daisy and not on your top arm at all. It helps to have the lightest weight locking biner possible on the top Ascender (I like the Trango SuperFly Screwlock ). If you want, ask a friend to show you the Frog technique or the Texas Kick but I have found these more exhausting than useful.

How to Jug Over a Lip
Jugging over a lip is tricky because the weight on the bottom Ascender pulls the rope tightly against the rock and makes it hard to pass the top Ascender. There are two techniques to deal with this. One is to take the top Ascender off the rope, pass it over the lip and clip it back on. If this is not possible, or you want to save time, there is a more subtle technique: in one fluent motion you pull away from the rock with both Ascenders and then pop the top Ascender up a couple inches. Often you can only move it up an inch at a time. After a few of these motions you should pull the lip.

Master Check List
Session 7
Where; set up a free hanging rope at a cliff, climbing gym or tree.
[ ] Jug once timing yourself to get a benchmark time
[ ] Jug ten times. Focus on smooth but consistent movement.
[ ] On the tenth repetition, time yourself and try get 50 to 75 percent faster than on your first benchmark time.
[ ] Adjust the length of daisy chain and go five times. Time the fifth one and compare it to the time before. Go with the daisy length that is most comfortable and gives the best time.
[ ] Adjust the height of your feet in the Aiders and go five times. Time the fifth lap and compare it to the time before. Go with the Aider height that is most comfortable and gives the best time.
[ ] Once you figure out the best place for your feet, do another ten laps. Time yourself on the last lap and try to get 25 percent faster than your tenth time.
[ ] Get a good arm pump.
[ ] Recover for two days.
[ ] Anchor a free-hanging rope 20 to 30 feet up. Have the rope length be at least 200 feet. Build your jugging muscles so they won't lock up with cramps on Day 3 of the big wall.

This is part of my How To Big Wall Climb project. View the Table of Contents

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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 more than 5000 dangerous anchor bolts. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and serves on the boards 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.

The Wolf

Trad climber
Martinez, CA
  Nov 11, 2009 - 01:49am PT
How about a chapter on roped soloing?

Big Wall climber
San Luis Obispo CA
  Nov 11, 2009 - 04:00am PT
In addition to the fifi hook, having at least one rock hook is nice. You can use the hook to grapple yourself from swinging around. This is perhaps more useful on following a traverse, but on overhangs can also be used.

Hobart, Australia
  Nov 11, 2009 - 04:56am PT
Looking good, Chris.

London, UK
  Nov 11, 2009 - 06:13am PT
"Ascending overhanging terrain is much more psychically demanding ..." Do you mean physically demanding? Or physically and psychically!

A fifi hook is mentioned in your basic gear list but I can't find it in the text. You might need to explain to the dumber reader (me) what it's for.

I don't understand the last point on your check-list: "anchor a free-hanging rope 20-30 feet up and the rope length is at least 200 feet."

You could also mention an important advantage of the bounce-round-the-lip technique: it scratches your ascenders nice and quick for that essential Big-Wall Veteran look.

Mountain climber
  Nov 11, 2009 - 06:58am PT
more useless spew

Ice climber
Green River, WY
  Jul 9, 2012 - 02:40pm PT

I've been following your aid climbing learning program and am getting ready to move onto the steeper angle stuff. What is the best way to rig the daisy chain? In the low angle stuff, I've been using a pair of daisy chains girthed to my harness (just to keep from dropping the ladders) that are directly clipped into the carabiner at the top of each ladder that hangs from the pro - daisy chain end loop and ladder hang from the same carabiner. On reading that you sometimes test placements using the daisy chain alone, it sounds like each daisy chain has its own carabiner on the end that is clipped into the one on the top of the ladder? Is this the correct way to set it up? What are the best carabiner types/shapes to use for each of these applications, and why? Besides bounce testing with a daisy chain, is there any reason to unclip the daisy from your ladder?
John Mac

Trad climber
Breckenridge, CO
  Jul 9, 2012 - 02:49pm PT
It's nice to be able to unclip so you can sort out tangles...


Trad climber
Valles Marineris
  Jul 9, 2012 - 04:40pm PT
What would BURT BRONSON do? I'd suspect he'd use his teeth and his hands to ascend a free hanging line. Why spend money on expensive gadgets like ascenders when you could redeploy those monies on beer and women?
Don Paul

Social climber
Washington DC
  Jul 9, 2012 - 05:30pm PT
The first picture reminds me of when I was on the 8th pitch of zodiac, about halfway through the pitch when I realized I forgot to bring the haul line. My partner lowered me, then I swung back and forth like a pendulum, whipping my aiders around to get moving, like when a child is starting to get going on a swing set. When i got close enough, my partner grabbed the aider and pulled me in, and clipped the haul line on me, and I jumared back up. Kind of a dumbass mistake but ended up one of the most fun pitches on the route.
Related Guidebooks
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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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The Nose—the best rock climb in the world!
Washington Column - South Face C1 5.8 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
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The South Face of Washington Column.