How To Big Wall Climb Book - Reading and movie list


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Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Original Post - Apr 8, 2009 - 12:41pm PT


This is a rough draft chapter from my upcoming How To Big Wall Climb Book. You can see all the other rough draft chapters here:

The links go to outdoor retailers, and if you then buy something from that online retailer after clicking on one of those links, we get a little piece of the sale. If you are thinking about buying some of the gear mentioned in this article, we’d appreciate it if you’d click on one of the links before you buy; it won’t cost you anything extra, and it does help support this website. Thanks for keeping us in mind. Our affiliates are Altrec EMS Moosejaw Mountain Gear Mammoth Gear Backcountry Patagonia REI

I am not sponsored by any climbing companies nor do i receive any special compensation by recommending one product over another.

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 like 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+ 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. Its 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.
He has a take

Yosemite Climber - This is must read classic – if you can find it. Awesome photo of Yosemite back in the day (70’s)

Glen Denny: Yosemite in the Sixties - Just published in 2007, this book has 144 pages of beautiful black and white photos and some essays. You can get a limited edition signed copy at [url=""]Mountain Gear

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 walls tales.

And of course, The ElCap 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… its 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.

Star Trek V - The Final Frontier - Captain Kirk makes the first free solo attempt of the The Nose… and falls! Just a 5 minute clip in the opening sequence but worth putting on your Netflix Q.

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.

Gym climber
Otto, NC
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,..)

3hrs to El Cap Meadow, 1.25hrs Pinns, 42min Castle
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.

Tacoma, Toyota
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.
[Click to View Linked Image]
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?

3hrs to El Cap Meadow, 1.25hrs Pinns, 42min Castle
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:

I drink your milkshake!
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
Otto, NC
Apr 8, 2009 - 03:08pm PT

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


San Francisco, CA
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
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!
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