Preface of my How to Big Wall Climb Book


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Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Original Post - Oct 18, 2008 - 04:44pm PT

This is draft of the preface for my upcoming How To Big Wall climb book. At this point i am not looking for corrections on grammar and punctuation (but i might as for that later). At this point i am posting just to share and get encouragement to finish this 7+ year project.

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A big wall is a steep multi-pitch climb 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 where the scenery is like no other. Usually you share the experience with a good friend. And unless you’re aiming for a speed record, there is lots of time to contemplate, even read, and generally experience the slow life.

I wrote this book because big wall climbing has been the most rewarding activity of my life and I want to see more people succeed at it. Like anything worthwhile, big wall climbing requires hard work. That said, it’s not that difficult to get to the top of Yosemite’s El Capitan, the top prize of the world’s rock climbers. To scale El Cap you only have to free climb 5.9 and know very basic aid climbing skills. Unlike climbing 5.13 or bouldering V8, big wall climbing doesn’t take heroic strength. It just requires making thousands of easy moves efficiently.
That is where this book comes in. It’s 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 could write a book that tells you every way to haul a bag, stack a piton or tape a water bottle. But while a lot of these tips and tricks are fun to play around with, they have little to do with big wall success. You could learn 10 ways to jug a free-hanging rope, but it is how well you master one way that decides if you get to the top of El cap or not. I believe in reducing everything to the essentials, so that’s all you will find here. I include the techniques that I have found helpful and omit the rest. Here’s a taste of the sort of climbing myths I want you to deal with:

• Don’t duct tape water bottles.
• Don’t use four aiders (two are fine).
• 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 do it. 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 around heavy loads of crap. If every moment an aspiring wall climber spent figuring how to set up a 3/1 system 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.

You’ve got to want it
If you are not genuinely psyched to wall climb, then you will suffer. If you just want to say you have climbed Half Dome but are not thrilled about the idea of being on the wall for days on a time, don’t bother

Big walls are a big undertaking. If you are not really psyched, you’ll probably bail when the first challenge arises. 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 Steve Ropers “Camp 4,” a guidebook, and maybe another book or two from my Get Psyched Reading List in the appendix. Go to the back of El Cap Meadow with a pair of binocs and watch climbers up on the wall.

If you are genuinely psyched, keep reading. If not, maybe put off the purchase of that portaledge.

OK, so you are psyched. That’s the first step. But unfortunately, that’s not enough. People who are psyched but don’t have the basic systems dialed will either not get to the top of El Cap or suffer more than they need to while getting there.

Wall climbing is easy…. sorta
Technically speaking, big wall climbing is easy. On most popular walls you don’t have to free climb harder than 5.9 or aid climb harder than C2. 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 different skills and logistics.
2. These skills must be put together efficiently and everything must stay organized

Don’t be a vertical baggage handler
Personally, I don’t just want 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. [could be a funny illustration by Damo here]. 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 bivy 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’ll 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 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” at

• 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 in bivvy slings.

• 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 that will be covered in the book:
• Using two aiders instead of four.
• Spending your time at belays keeping things organized and “visualizing” what will happen once the leader is ready to haul.
• When leading, always moving to the top step or second step.
• Cleaning 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 bivies 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 fundamentals dialed. If you really 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: The Nose, El Capitan
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 really 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 bivy 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 one will come up with a good excuse to bail. Climb all day and barely make it to Camp 4 by nightfall – an uncomfortable bivy site.

Day 3 - The Great Roof takes forever and antsy parties stack up behind you. . You really 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 bivy 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, event the easy free climbing, which makes you move even slower. The turd bucket is getting dangerously close to overflowing. You have to bivy 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 summated. However, because of the hauling, bad bivies, belay clusters, you can honestly say that climbing what is probably the best route in the world was 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. Dreamy. 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, toping 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.

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 lower-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 and 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

60% of Nose climber bail
From El Cap Meadow, photographer Tom “Ansel” Evans has probably watched more El Capitan ascents and failures than anyone. He estimates that about 60% of climbers who start up The Nose bail. Why? “Most climbers think The Nose is Washington Column but bigger. Its not. El Capitan is way bigger than most people think,“ says Evans. “They jump on The Nose 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, you guessed it, Master the aid climbing basics.

How to use this book
This book is intended to be “active reading.” Ideally you will open up the first chapter on Aid Basics and go out and practice, practice, practice. 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 slowly master each section, one chapter at a time, you are on the path to cruising up El Cap.

OK, maybe you can skim through the entire book once. That’s allowed. But I really 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, I will say that 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
Throughout the book you will see many photos of gear. 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. On this page you can see the gear I am currently using.

Dirtbag options
You may not have the cash to drop on aid gear I mention or maybe you just want to sample aid climbing before committing to the sport. If so, I offer some cheap ways in Chapter XX to make gear that doesn’t work as well but will be good enough.

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 and convince you to do things as simply as possible, I will try to 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.
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
Topic 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
San Francisco, CA
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.

Ice 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,...)

Tacoma, Toyota
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: what's not to love?
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.

Sebastopol, 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

Trad climber
Joshua Tree Ca
Dec 24, 2008 - 01:27pm PT

Doesn't get ANY better...
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.)

Mountain climber
Poor Valley
Oct 21, 2009 - 12:14am PT
Combined with your YouTube vids you're the big wall instructional man!
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