How to Big Wall Climbing - Following 3: Cleaning Gear

Wednesday August 21, 2013

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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Click here to see what is currently on my El Capitan rack.
Chris McNamara jugging high on Zenyatta Mondatta, El Capitan. Long sli...
Chris McNamara jugging high on Zenyatta Mondatta, El Capitan. Long slings protect the rope from the sharp edge.
Credit: Jason "Singer" Smith

Following—Cleaning Gear
With your jugging skills dialed, it is time to move to a real-world cleaning environment. There are two key things to keep in mind when cleaning gear:

 Keep yourself safe and backed up.
 Keep the gear and rope organized.

The most important thing is to keep yourself safe. When you are cleaning gear, your upper Ascender is often coming on and off the rope, which means you need to have a good backup system.

Skills to learn
 Rope management (keep the rope from getting stuck).
 Efficient gear racking.
 Staying backed up and safe.

Gear You Need
 2 Ascenders
 2 daisy chains
 2 Aiders
 3 locking carabiners
 climbing helmet
 climbing rope
 gear for anchor
 belay device
 fifi hook
 climbing gloves

 Optional gear:
 fixed-rope self-belay device

Where to practice
Idealy you still start on an 80-degree cliff that is 30 to 50 feet tall. But any of the cliffs you have used so far will do. The important thing is that the crack or bolt ladder you will be cleaning is straight up and down. You don’t want to learn on a traversing pitch.

How to Rack Gear
Start by putting a shoulder-length sling over each shoulder. As you clean, you will put gear (cams, stoppers, etc.) on the right sling and biners and quick draws on the left sling. When you finish cleaning the pitch you can quickly take off the slings and hand them to the leader of the next pitch for quick re-racking. Note that the cleaner does not wear a double gear sling.

It is debatable how organized you should be when racking the gear while cleaning. There are three options:

1) Little organization. Just clip all the gear to the right side and all the biners to the left side.

2) Lots of organization. After cleaning a piece, clip it to the gear sling like you would when racking to lead. This means stoppers up front, followed by cams, smallest to largest, and grouping free biners in groups of five or seven and quickdraws in groups of two.

3) In between Options 1 and 2 and what I recommend. Make a little effort to put cams in order of size and do some basic organization. Maybe stop every five pieces and make sure things are not getting too clustered. You are organized enough to avoid a big cluster but also making sure to keep a good rhythm going on the Ascenders, which sometimes means just clipping on a piece out of order.

Video: How to Rack Gear When Cleaning

Cleaning Gear
There are two main ways to clean gear: removing the top Ascender and keeping the top Ascender on.

1) Removing the top Ascender means sliding the top Ascender up to one inch below the biner (attached to the piece you are cleaning) and sliding the bottom Ascender one inch below the top Ascender. You then take the top Ascender off, pass it over the biner, re-attach it to the rope and then slide it up as high as you can. If the terrain is overhanging, you then rest on the daisy chain. If the terrain is less-than-vertical, you don’t hang on the daisy chain and just keep you weight on your feet in the Aiders.

2) Keeping the top Ascender on means sliding the top Ascender up to one inch below the biner (attached to the piece you are cleaning) and sliding the bottom Ascender one inch below the bottom Ascender. You then clean the piece.

In less-than-vertical terrain it is faster to not remove the Ascender. However, if it is a tricky piece to clean, it is best to pass the top Ascender because you will then be in a better position to clean the piece. On vertical or overhanging terrain, it is almost always best to pass the top Ascender.

TIP: On a stopper-intensive route (like Zion’s Desert Shield), it is a good idea to have a mini-hammer (not a full-sized wall hammer) and a long, thin lost arrow or nut tool. Gently tap the bottom of the stopper with the lost arrow. This will prevent the stopper cables from getting too damaged. If you just rip up stoppers to clean them, the cables will bend and weaken.

Key Points
 The reason you always stop an inch below the biner (attached to the piece you are cleaning) is that you don’t want to jam the Ascender up against the biner to the point you can’t remove it. By giving yourself an inch, you insure you can quickly pass the piece.

 Remember to stay on your feet as much as possible. The one exception to this is when sometimes it is easier to rest on your daisy when cleaning gear. But usually it is easier and better to stay on your feet.

Backup Knots
When you remove an Ascender to clean a piece, at that moment you are only attached to the rope by one point (the bottom jumar). If that piece failed you would fall all the way to the end of the rope (it has happened and killed people). You prevent this by tieing a figure-eight every 15 to 25 feet and clip it to a locking biner attached to your harness belay loop. That way, if you become disconnected from the Ascenders, you only fall the distance to you your last backup knot. Another benefit to tieing backup knots is that you avoid the risk of getting the rope stuck way below you and then having to rap down and free it.

On my first ascent of The Nose I decided to save time and not tie a backup loop. I had almost reached the belay after cleaning a steep 200-foot pitch in the Stovelegs when I stopped moving. The rope had snagged 100 feet below me. The only way to clear the snag was to rappel 100 feet, then jumar back up. My attempted shortcut had put me at risk of a 200-foot fall and I ended up burning a lot of time. This was a one-day ascent and later in the climb I got massive cramps around Camp V, no doubt encouraged by the “300-foot pitch” I had jumared earlier in the day.

Using a GriGri: It is possible to use a GriGri or similar auto-lock belay device instead of back up knots but I don’t recommend it because:
 Except on steep terrain, the rope won’t automatically feed through the belay device. You will have to manually feed the rope through, which takes more time and effort than tying backup knots.
 With the GriGri you still have the problem of the rope getting stuck far below you. With backup knots the rope can only get stuck 15 to 25 feet below you.

Read the rest of this chapter in the How to Big Wall Climb SuperTopo book

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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’ 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
Long Beach, CA
  Dec 12, 2011 - 10:19am PT
When tying backup knots, do you untie the previous ones after you tie a new one, or simply keep a nest of backup knots tied to your harness? It sounds burdensome to have so many knots tied to your harness, yet as noted in the video, I assume that untying previous knots leaves more space for the rope to get caught down below.


  Feb 15, 2012 - 08:10pm PT
It's my understanding that backup knots have failed folks in the past, resulting in death, and that best practice was to tie an overhand on a bight and clip it to a locking 'biner. I've been using this methodfor a bit and while it isn't ideal, it also isn't too time consuming. Any thoughts on that?

Trad climber
rio de janeiro
  Feb 22, 2012 - 06:51pm PT
I have the same question as Waigreich - each one of the backup knots are kept on the biner in the loop?! isnt that going to leave it a mass?!
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
  Feb 22, 2012 - 06:58pm PT
I have a dedicated locking biner on my harness for backup knots and have become adept at sliding the previous one out after clipping the new one in.

The jugs go on another locker.

Trad climber
ontario canada
  Apr 29, 2012 - 08:38pm PT
I'm really surprised there's no mention of cleaning with one ascender and the grigri as well as back up knots every 20 feet or so.i attach the single ascender to a dedicated sling with a foot loop and to my harness-this leaves both daisies available for attaching to pieces as nessecary for steep cleaning or so i dont drop anything..most of the time i only use one foot in the sling but on steeper terrain i'll use two feet in it ala frog system.dedicated sling stays on harness with ascender,once leader fixs rope the grigri is allready on from belaying,throw on the ascender and off i go-no fussing with aiders or setting daisies to appropriate position for jugging-faster and safer.cheers
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