How to Big Wall Climb: Introduction

Wednesday August 21, 2013

This is part of the How to Big Wall Climb SuperTopo book. The 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 leading high on the Shield
Chris McNamara leading high on the Shield
Credit: Corey Rich

I wrote this book because big wall climbing has been the most rewarding thing in my life and I want to see more people succeed at it. The first time you climb El Cap can be the hardest and scariest. It is also the most adventurous, exciting and memorable. Fifteen years later I still clearly remember my first trip up The Captain. It is still the single most memorable day of my life. I would give anything to relieve that experience again with the same level of heightened anticipation and adventure. But you only get one “first time.” So the next best thing for me is help other people succeed and and hear their stories. I love meeting people who dream of climbing El Cap and exude that energy of half fear and half eager anticipation. You hear it in their voices. They know big wall climbing will step up their mental and physical climbing game—and they are excited about it. I hope this book becomes a starting point for an incredible adventure. And don’t forget to email me your stories or post them on so we can all live through them.

What Is a Big Wall?
A big wall is a steep, multi-pitch ascent that takes most people more than a day to climb. Big walls are all about vertical exposure—climbing and sleeping with thousands of feet of air below you and thousands of feet of rock above you. There is nothing else like it. Big wall climbing is not about summit glory or pulling a single hard move or savoring the rush of adrenaline, although all three of those things will happen. The experience is much more complex and rich. You don’t flirt with gravity like you might while BASE jumping or doing a hard single-pitch climb. You live with gravity and exposure 24 hours a day.

Plus there are side benefits, plenty of them. All big wall climbs are in stunning mountain settings. Usually you share the experience with a good friend. There is lots of time to contemplate, even read, and generally experience the slow life.

On a more philosophical level, a wall like El Capitan is just so much bigger than we are. It is mysterious, massive, and unforgiving. While nothing is truly static, the surface of El cap is about as unmoving as anything can be. Because it changes to so little… it’s a mirror. Every fear, doubt, or joy comes right back at you. People who climb big walls realize that the fact that climbing them is so hard is the reason to do it. They make you dig deep both physically and mentally.

But Isn't Aid Climbing Not That Much Fun?
I have always loved aid climbing. But I am a little weird. Among most climbers who have never climbed a big wall, aid climbing seems like cheating or just not fun. I’ve heard, “Aid climbing is like hitting your head with a hammer. It only feels good when you stop.” For most people, aid climbing is a means to an end. Few people aid climb just for aid climbing’s sake. You don't go “aid cragging” or “aid bouldering” like you would go free climbing. You aid climb to get up big walls. Aid climbing is the tool for ascending the most wild, massive, and inspiring faces in the world. And once you are up there, aid climbing through the wildly overhanging last pitch of The Nose, you won't be judging how stylish it is to aid climb. You will be too busy relishing one of the coolest locations and experiences of your life.

Sixty Percent of Nose Climbers Bail
From El Cap Meadow, photographer Tom “Ansel” Evans of the El Cap Report has probably watched more El Capitan ascents and failures than anyone. He estimates that about 60 percent of the climbers who start up The Nose bail. Why? “Most climbers think The Nose is Washington Column but bigger. It's not. El Capitan is way bigger than most people think,“ says Evans. “They jump on The Nose of El Capitan without practice so when the first glitch arises—and one does on every wall—they just bail.” On a one-pitch climb or even on a 10-pitch climb like Washington Column, you can make basic mistakes and still get your way up the wall. When you jump on a 30-pitch route, those little mistakes and inefficiencies compound and you have to bail. Anyone can climb The Nose, but they need to master the aid climbing basics and train hard.

Two Key Points
Like anything worthwhile, big wall climbing requires hard work. However, unlike climbing 5.13 or bouldering V8, big wall climbing doesn’t take heroic strength. It just requires solid 5.9-5.10 multi-pitch skills and making thousands of easy moves efficiently. That is where this book comes in. It is the first How To Big Wall book specifically organized and clearly designed to address the process of building big wall skills, step by step.

I’ve climbed more than 100 big walls and have spent more than 400 days on El Capitan. During my time I’ve seen lots of people bail, myself included. In nearly all cases they missed the two main principles of this book:

• Keep it simple.
• Master the aid climbing basics.

I believe in reducing everything to the essentials, so that’s all I put here. I include the techniques that I have found helpful and omit the rest. I'll deal with a lot of climbing myths and reject them. For example, here's my advice on four points:
• Don’t duct tape water bottles.
• Don’t use four Aiders (two work best).
• Don’t use oval carabiners.
• Don’t bother with 3 to 1 hauling systems.

My technique for hauling up huge loads of gear is this: don’t bring huge loads. Instead, climb light and efficiently so you don’t have to bring big loads. I keep the vertical baggage handling to a minimum. I spend time climbing lightly and quickly over the rock and spend minimum time moving luggage around. If every moment an aspiring wall climber spent figuring how to set up a 3 to 1 system was instead spent mastering moving in Aiders efficiently and learning to set up a simple belay, they would not need a 3 to 1 in the first place. And a lot more people would summit El Cap and enjoy the experience of getting there.

Wall Climbing Is Easy… Sorta
Technically speaking, big wall climbing is easy. Walking up a pair of Aiders is not physically or technically demanding. Jumaring is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. Hauling is not that complex. Each component of big wall climbing is surprisingly easy. The challenge comes in two parts:

1. Big walls require putting together a lot of unfamiliar skills and logistics.
2. These skills must be put together extremely efficiently and everything must stay organized.

These two challenges can be overcome by one simple principle: master the aid climbing basics. That is what this book is all about, a step-by-step guide to mastering the basics. You do that and all the other little aid climbing tricks will fall effortlessly into place.

Don’t Be a Vertical Baggage Handler
Personally, I don’t want just to get to the top of El Cap. I want to enjoy the climb and wall experience, spending as little time as possible dealing with haul bags and gear clusters. Maybe one day there will be a portable hot air balloon for wall climbers. All the gear, water, beer, and fish tacos you need will float just a few feet away from you and effortlessly follow you up the wall. Until that day, however, we must confront a brutal fact: we need a lot of water to stay alive and water is heavy. Conservatively, we need a gallon per person per day when wall climbing and a gallon of water weighs eight pounds. So on a five-day climb of El Cap:

8 lbs. x 2 people x 5 days = 80 lbs.

Add another two pounds per person per day for food, 20 pounds in bivvy supplies and your haul bag might tip 110 pounds at liftoff. Can you say Sufferfest?

Beyond Suffering
Even beyond the suffering issue of moving bags up a wall, there are other reasons to climb efficiently.

• Climbing efficiently keeps you safe from bad weather. You will be better able to “turn on the gas” and summit before an oncoming storm or at least make it to a more sheltered bivy spot. Most climbers who die on El Cap do so because they get caught in storms, often just a few pitches from the top. Weather forecasts won’t protect you because most weather forecasts in mountain areas are only good for a few days. Read John Dills “Staying Alive” (PDF)

• Climbing efficiently is more fun. You get to sleep on the ledge you want to, not the one forced on you by circumstance and vanishing sunlight. Or worse, having to spend the night standing in Aiders.

• Climbing efficiently is taking the right amount of water and food—not way too much or way too little.

Sneak Peak: Examples of Efficient Climbing Covered in the Book:
• Use two Aiders instead of four.
• Aid climb like you free climb.
• Spend your time at belays keeping things organized and “visualizing” what what to do once the leader is ready to haul.
• When leading, always move to the top step or second step.
• Clean with two slings that can be handed to the leader instead of handing each piece over one by one.

Efficient Climbing, Not Speed Climbing
Climbing The Nose in two bivvies instead of four does not mean becoming a frantic speed climber. You don’t have to rush every move, frantically scream at your partner to jumar faster, and take more chances when you’re leading. You just need to streamline your systems and have the aid basics dialed. If you read and practice the techniques in this book, you will cut out the hours lost to inefficiency that the typical big wall team endures and wonder why you ever climbed walls any other way.

Two Climbing Scenarios on The Nose
Just to drive home this critical point, let’s look at climbing The Nose route on El Cap under two different scenarios.

=First the Sufferfest Way, the surprisingly common way that it’s done:=

Prep Day. Climb slowly to The Sickle with a few parties nipping on your heels, trying to pass you. Spend all afternoon and into the night hauling heavy haul bags.

Day 1. Get bogged down in the Stovelegs due to heavy loads. You’re so tired from the hauling that you aid climb cracks that you had been dreaming about free climbing. Bummer. Make it to Dolt Tower after dark with little time to dial in a nice bivvy, let alone kick back and appreciate the amazing ledge and location.

Day 2. Wake up exhausted with worked hands from all the hauling. So far the climb hasn’t been much fun. You and your partner each hope the other comes up with a good excuse to bail as 60 percent of climbers usually have done by now. Climb all day and barely make it to Camp 4 by nightfall—an uncomfortable bivvy site.

Day 3. The Great Roof takes forever and antsy parties stack up behind you. You wanted to free the Pancake Flake (awesome 5.10a), but when you make a hand jam your arm cramped up so you had to aid it. Now you have to let the party behind you pass and you deal with some gnarly belay clusters in the process. The passing team offers to fix a rope and you accept. You had wanted to climb every pitch but you are moving slowly and don’t want to climb into the night again. You make it to a crowded Camp 5 and have to take the lame bivvy sites and hope the team above you doesn’t pee on you.

Day 4. At this point the haul bag is getting lighter but all the heavy hauling down low has wrecked your hands and drained your strength. You have to aid everything, even the easy free climbing, which makes you move even slower. The turd bucket is getting dangerously close to overflowing. You have to bivvy on Camp 6 and another party catches up to you, creating another cluster.

Day 5. You have to ration your food and water, which just ads to your malaise. You finally top out. You are relieved and feel proud to have summited. However, because of the hauling, bad bivies, and belay clusters, climbing what is probably the best route in the world was not much fun.

=Now, the Efficient (non-Sufferfest) way to climb El Cap:=

Prep Day/ Start early and zip up the first four pitches in a half day. Return to the ground and have plenty of time to haul to Sickle or just do “the El Cap Lieback” in El Cap Meadow.

Day 1. Blast off and pass a party in the Stovelegs by climbing variations around them. With a light haul bag holding only three days of food and water, the hauling is easy and you have plenty of strength to free climb these classic pitches. Get to El Cap Tower with plenty of time to kick back and enjoy the view.

Day 2. Cruise through the King Swing and the Great Roof. With a light bag, easy hauling means you still have enough strength to free climb Pancake Flake. Oh, it's so good! And exposed! You have enough time to choose Camp 5 or Camp 6 (whichever has fewer people). At this point the bag weighs almost nothing.

Day 3. Pass that suffering party I described above. You give them a little water because even though they started with 80 pounds of water, they are almost out. Three pitches from the top you feel a potential afternoon thunderstorm developing. You step on the gas and blast through the final pitches, topping out before the rain starts. There is plenty of time to pack up, walk down, and still buy a 6-pack before the store closes.

Three Paths
So there you have it, there are essentially three paths:
 Get frustrated and bail low before Dolt Tower.
 Barely eke out an ascent and not enjoy the process as much as you could.
 Master the aid basics and climb The Nose confidently and have fun.

The Basic Equation of Efficient Climbing
A little time saved on an action, when multiplied by thousands of actions on a wall = giant time savings.

For example, on The Nose:
Leading a pitch 10 minutes faster multiplied by 31 pitches = 5+ hours.
Saving 5 minutes on a belay change-over multiplied by 31 pitches = 2.5+ hours.
Save 3 minutes while lowering out the bag and leaving the belay multiplied by 31 pitches = 1.5 hours

You haven’t done any fancy “speed climbing” and you have already shaved a day off the climb.

Now, imagine, after dialing the skills in this book you shave 20 minutes off leading each pitch. Belay changeovers that used to take 12 minutes take 2.

There are other things that can’t be quantified in time: hauling with less effort over 31 pitches = more energy for free climbing the classic pitches and more fun.

How to Use This Book—The Road to The Nose Master Checklist
This book is intended to be “active reading.” Print or photocopy the Master Checklist and take it with you on all your training. Every time you get to a major stage, celebrate!

Open up the first chapter on Aid Basics and go out and practice, practice, practice. Make sure you check off everything on the Master Checklist. Then you’ll move onto Chapter 2 and get that dialed and so on. If you have never aid climbed, you are lucky. You don’t have bad habits yet. If you don’t skip ahead, and instead master each section, one chapter at a time, you are on the path to cruising up El Cap.

Okay, maybe skim through the entire book once. That’s allowed. But I encourage you to read this book slowly, dialing in each section before skipping ahead. Don’t skip around to pick things here and there.

Some folks out there may say, “But I already know the basics, I want to know how to stack pitons or set up a complex hauling system.” While I can’t call BS without actually seeing you aid climb, the vast majority of aid climbers I see on El Cap could still use a lot of help with the aid basics. So even if you are moderately experienced at aid climbing, please don’t skip ahead.

About the Gear in This Book
This book has many gear photos. I am not sponsored. At the time of publication, this is the gear I like to use. While I like the products you see in the book, other gear might work better for you. The only way to know is to experiment for yourself. Here is my current El Capitan rack. In addition, we have written a number of reviews on popular big wall gear

Winding Up
By the way, this is the only section of the book where I am quite so long- winded. After this rant, where I try to convince you to do things as simply as possible, I’ll heed my own advice and write as simply as possible. I’m working at it—the first draft of this book was three times as long but I pared it down to just the essentials.

PS: I want to hear success stories! If this book helped you get to the summit of EL Cap, please email me: I would love to hear about it.

  Article Views: 10,431
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’s 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.

Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Oct 18, 2008 - 04:52pm PT
Hope you stress learning to walk before running.

It seems half the ankle biters in Zion are people that didn't want to try to do a single aid pitch before attempting a wall (and likely jamming up a popular route).
They fool themselves into believing that they are "adventurous" when in fact they are too lazy and inconsiderate to pay their dues and acquire the requisite skills to truly ENJOY wall climbing.
hungry man

Trad climber
  Oct 18, 2008 - 05:50pm PT
Go, Chris! Awesome "rant", your writing style is fun. I can't really think of anything constructive to say. I like the simplicity thing.

Social climber
  Oct 18, 2008 - 06:17pm PT
I like it! It feels like its written at about the right level for your intended audience and your enthusiasm really comes out in a genuine and motivating way. Id buy a copy of the book after thumbing through that intro!

There was only one question I was left with and it might just be with regards to your intended scope. Are you just covering "low land" big walls or are you going to talk about alpine big wall aid techniques at all? The extent wasn't clear.

Great take on it all- I can't wait to see it in print.
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Author's Reply  Oct 18, 2008 - 07:07pm PT
glad you are enjoying the book so far. I am not very experienced on alpine big walls. in fact, The cobra pillar on Mt. Barille is the only one that comes to mind right now... and that was a day climb. so not sure I am the guy to write that section.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
  Oct 18, 2008 - 07:55pm PT

I think all your ideas are hugely encouraging modern ones and should make a very positive read. And that we need your book!

I think this version of the preface verges on being a preface/chapter one though, and may steal some of your excitement and thunder from subsequent sections of your book. A preface only has to be a preface. Grabbing the reader at this point can take place best by a slimmer look at what you are going into detail later.

One example would be that baggage handling doesn’t have to be discussed quite so deeply at this point but soon enough in the body of the book. I find that there is too much nitt-gritty here on it and some repetition, even though everything you say is exactly correct. I suspect you will be saying it all again in chapter three or something, which probably will make you not want to write that chapter when you get to it or resume it.

I think in general a preface to a book on big wall climbing technique doesn’t have to be too lengthy at all unless you want to go into history. And that might actually warrant its own chapter. And I assume that you are working with a detailed outline for the whole book so little redundancy develops and the forcefulness of your great advice and awesome experience stays sharp and clear. The reader should generally never have to read the same points too many times over lest you lose him or her.

Since you state that you are having trouble getting this volume done, I am lead to believe that you should, as I say above, make sure you have developed a fairly massive outline that then simply just has to be filled in. Getting the outline done is actually the true work of a book such as this since it it not poetry or stream-of-consciousness authorship. Then you will get this book done, as it would then be way easier than trying to grok the entire book every time you work on it which to say the least is just really way too hard and perhaps “cart before the horse”, if you get my meaning. Meanwhile wall climbing is changing all the time too, yikes.

I think having some inserts or actual chapters by climbers like Conrad is a great idea, t*r, and having a female also contribute. This approach has worked really really well with some recent climbing books (Heidi Pesterfield: Traditional Lead Climbing). Your book could become quite a bit more than a slim how-to volume and take on more mass and maybe you would find the whole idea incredibly much more fun and important.

That’s briefly what I see here and send the very best to you, P.

Big Wall climber
Ashland, Or
  Oct 18, 2008 - 08:54pm PT
I agree your preface maybe has a little too much detail. I think alot of the more specific ideas should be split within the chapters. I'd guess the preface should be maybe 3 pages-ish. Good stuff there chris keep rollin!

Trad climber
  Oct 18, 2008 - 10:25pm PT
I hate aid climbing, but I do a lot of editing, and I have to work online tonight, so I'll offer some comments.

I think this looks really good. ST makes it look longer than it will be in book format, but I don't think you're giving away too much. The punchline (HOW to climb efficiently and easily) won't appear until the later chapters, so you have a great hook.

This draft is very readable. The devil will be in the design details-- bulletpoints or section titles, font, etc.

It still needs a catch phrase. "Fast and light" is pretty obvious, given the PCT and alpine instructional books that flood the market, altho you might prefer one of yr own.

One brief point-- I'd add a pitch. Lots of yr. potential readers live in Texas or Iowa or worse. Since this is the bit that folks in the store (or online) will browse, I'd point out that you can learn efficient jugging, top-stepping and changeovers almost anywhere. You can make this basic point in a few sentences. (Party Two has practiced jugging and changeovers at home on the old maple tree/choss pile/hwy overpass, so they . . ..)

Actually two points: Give us something more colorful than "first party" and "second party."

Looks good-- almost makes me want to get into the conga line.

Andrew Barnes

Ice climber
Albany, NY
  Oct 18, 2008 - 10:26pm PT
I have to say that reading chapter one of John Long and John
Middendorf's book on Big Walls was inspirational. Sometimes
it is stories like that really stoke the fire.
One idea is to have a few "guest" contributions: entertaining
stories from other celebrated climbers. In Mark Twight's book
on Extreme Alpinism, he has stories of actual climbs at the end
of each chapter. Everyone likes a nice, juicy story (even if
partly fictitious), and there are plenty of stories floating on
the taco. One of the most entertaining was the all beer ascent
of leaning tower. Stuff like that livens the pace of a "How To"
Good luck, I'm sure the end product will be fantastic. (And I
would gladly fork out some cash for something so good).
Andrew Barnes
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Oct 18, 2008 - 10:38pm PT
"stories floating on the taco"

Boy, you said a mouthful (but better your mouth than mine,...)

Mammoth Lakes, CA
  Oct 18, 2008 - 11:09pm PT
Really good! But as said previously, saving a lot of the detailed stuff like how to climb the Nose in 3 days for the chapter that will cover that. Be less detailed. Do include some sort of story that emphasizes the point the preface is trying to make (fast and light). Maybe use "El Cap" less- It felt like you were only prefacing a How to Climb El Cap book (which it very well may be for most!)
good luck!

Trad climber
  Oct 18, 2008 - 11:12pm PT
There is a notable absence of either booze or sex.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Oct 18, 2008 - 11:14pm PT
and that's not all

Oakland, CA
  Oct 18, 2008 - 11:24pm PT
I would have benefited from reading that before my first wall, and you're not even getting into the goods yet. Liked the two scenarios bit.

Your book is going to be great. Keep plugging away!

Re. Piton Ron's point about encouraging people to practice and burnish skills before jumping on the classics: he already published a book called 'Road to the Nose'. I think he's covered on that point.

Edit to add: it seems like efficiency and speed are going to be threads that underlie most of you're writing. If that's the case, it'd be a mistake to try to confine any language about speed and efficiency to only one chapter. You are transferring knowledge that you have accumulated to people who don't yet have it - this seems to be the core aspect of that knowledge. I think it's smart to let that core spread throughout the text.
Patrick Sawyer

Originally California, now Ireland
  Oct 18, 2008 - 11:43pm PT
Good sound effort Chris. I agree with t*r, perhaps somebody like Conrad to write about alpine big walls.

Oakland, CA
  Oct 19, 2008 - 05:52pm PT
Chris, this is great!

I can see how the preface could be shorter (saving some of the material for later chapters), but I also think that it works for getting the reader hooked. It doesn't really matter that much whether this hook at the beginning is titled "Preface" or "Chapter 1", as long as it's the first thing people read when they pick up the volume.

One important aspect of a preface, though, is the author's personal experience that motivated them to write the book in the first place. You address this, but I think you could elaborate even more. Without being immodest, you might refer to the number of hours you've spent on big walls, and the psychological extremes you've no doubt experienced.

The two El Cap scenarios are fabulous. Hell yeah, I want to be the second party! At the end of that paragraph, I'm ready to take the book over to the cash register and have them ring me up.

I sure look forward to this -- keep writing! Seven years isn't that bad. It took me ten to finish mine (an engineering text; not exactly a page turner). Just like a long route...

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
  Dec 24, 2008 - 01:20pm PT
doctor J

Trad climber
Alexandria, VA
  Oct 20, 2009 - 11:10pm PT
A few editorial corrections below. The info is great.

You have to ration your food and water which just ads to your malaise. you finally top out. You are relieved and feel proud to have summitted. However, because of the hauling, bad bivies, belay clusters, you can't honestly say that climbing what is probably the best route in the world was much fun.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Oct 20, 2009 - 11:36pm PT
2 aiders are fine huh?

(didn't catch that before.)
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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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