How To Big Wall Climb Book - Leading on Steeper Terrain


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Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 13, 2009 - 12:50pm PT

This is part of my How To Big Walls book project.

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

Click here to see what is currently on my El Capitan rack


Aid climbing on vertical and overhanging terrain is much harder than on low angle terrain for two reasons:

1) its hard to keep the weight on your feet which means your arms do more work, you cant balance as easily, and reaching high is more of an ordeal

2) the fifi hook and daisy chain, while sometimes necessary, create tangles, inefficient movement, and more dealing.

It is with this in mind that I made sure the first lesson in Chapter 3 was on low angle terrain and did not involve daisy chains or a Fifi Hook. If you have not dialed in the skills in chapter 3, please stop and go back. Daisy chains are like prescription drugs: in certain key situations they can help you out. But when misused, they leave you in a confused mess. The truly old school, like Tom Frost, still climb today without them.

In the first leading chapter I didn’t mention daisy chains because its important to first learn how to climb without them. Daisy chains have their pros and cons:

Pros: useful for bounce testing
- come in handy in awkward corners and overhanging terrain
- help keep from dropping aiders

Cons: - they get twisted easily and cause more clutter
- they encourage bad habit of resting before you walk as high as possible in the aider
- they generally slow everything down

On a route like The Nose the cons outweight the pros and I lead with only one daisy chain or no daisy chains. On a more aid-intensive route like Zodiac, the pros outweigh the cons and I use two daisy chains.

Skills to learn:
• Aid like you free climb
• Float up the aiders with as few movements as possible
• Try not to use fifi hook. But if you do, only rest on biner (don’t rest on daisy)
• Always move until your waist is at the piece and efficiently maximize your reach
• Aider management

Essential gear you need to start
• 2 aiders (ladder aiders are best to learn on), 4-6 free biners, quickdraws (1 per bolt or placement), helmet, stopwatch, rope New gear you have earned: daisy chains, fifi hook
Optional gear: gloves, fixed rope self-belay device, knee pads

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

The Basic Aid Climbing Sequence – With fifi hooks and Daisy Chains
Do the same sequence as you did in Chapter 3 except that now introduce the fifi hook and daisy chains.

Fifi hook
The first step is to get the right length for the Fifi Hook which after girth hitching to your harness (not the belay loop) is about four inches. You want to be able to barely hook the fifi on the biner connected to your aider when standing in the third step of a standard etrier or the fourth step of the standard aid ladder. When you move up a step, your waist should be a little above the piece and the fifi is short enough that it comes tight and helps pull you into the wall. you want to adjust it so you get this fit – photos, one standing in 4th step ladder and one standing in third

Here is a video that shows getting the Fifi Length right

Attaching the daisy chains
Girth hitch the daisy chains to the harness on either side of the belay loop and fifi hook. Its helpful to have two different colors of daisies.

You then clip the end of the daisy chain directly to a biner to the aider

Aid like you free climb
Free climbing is much faster than aid climbing. When on a wall, you should free climb when you can. When you do need to aid climb, you should free climb as much as possible in the aiders.

Imagine the aiders as big footholds. Use the top of the aider, face holds and crack with your hands to get as high as possible for the next placement. Use the fifi hook only when absolutely necessary for balance. Later, you’ll see more examples of this in action. Wearing tight-fitting approach shoes or loose-fitting climbing shoes makes it easy to have one foot and an aider and one foot on a foothold to reach higher CLIFF IMAGE - image of one foot in aider one foot out]. In Chapter 3 we focused on aid climbing us aiders for balance when moving up. Now, feel free to use the face holds or crack for balance with your hands and feet.

Simplicity – as few movements as possible
When you free climb, simple movement comes easily. You don’t use every single foothold or handhold to make upward progress, you only use the ones that help you. Aid climbing is a little different. There are so many things to clip, ways to move up the aider, and sequences to deal with gear. The daisy chain and fifi hook are a big part of this extra clutter and are therfor items of last resort. So before we start to use them, I want to drive home how important it is to try and not use them. Its always important to keep things as simple as possible. Here is an example of two ways to move up a piece:

 lots of movements: You step down into the bottom step of the next aider then fifi into the daisy chain. You organize some gear. You walk up a couple steps and fifi into the daisy. You look around at the crack and try to decide if there is a good placement in your reach. You decide to walk a little higher in the aider and fifi in. Now you realize the placement is a little out of your reach. So you take one step higher and finally reach up and get the next piece.

 as few movements as possible: from the piece you are on, step up as high as comfortable on the next aider. Without using the fifi and without looking at the crack, you walk as high as you comfortably can in the aider. You then reach high, sink a cam, and keep on going...

At first you may be in the “lots of movement” category. But if you make an effort and want to move efficiently, you will eventually fly up the aiders using as few movements as possible

The Basic Aid Climbing Sequence with fifi and daisy chains

2. Clip aider directly to piece.

3. Without stopping, walk all the way until your waist is at the piece (or higher if you can).

4. If you need to do it for balance, fifi directly into the biner attached to your aider.

5. If possible, step a step higher, the fifi should be tentioned and below your waist which pulls you into the wall.

6. Place the next piece and attach the aider in such a way that the daisy does not get too twisted.

7. step into th next aider and if you can, without using the fifi, reach over and unclip the aider for the last piece. Clip that aider to the side of your harness in the same place you always do (probably your belay loop)

8. clip the rope to the last piece (unless using a fixed rope self-belay)

9. Walk up the aider until your waist is at the next piece

Top Stepping
Since reach is so important, I top step whenever it is convenient. I top-step 50% of the time if I can get a good handhold or jam (like most pitches on The Nose) but only 5% of the time on vertical or over-hanging terrain where there is not much to hang onto and it takes more effort.

Top stepping is easy on low-angle terrain because you can easily balance either by leaning into the rock or using a hold or jam. On steeper terrain, you need to maintain tension from your waist to keep balance.

Here is the basic technique:
- start standing in your aiders with you waist level with the piece. Clip a quickdraw to your belay loop and then to the biner connected to your aider. If the fifi is hooked to something, unhook it. with one hand on the aider and one hand on the middle of the draw, walk up to the next step. The quickdraw should become tight and pull you into the wall.

- NOTE: It is good to have a few different lengths of quickdraws handy because you need to get the length of the quicdraw just right: too long and there wont be the necessary tension to pull you into the wall. Too short and you can’t reach as high as possible.

STUDIO PHOTO - 3-4 photos showing this sequence

When not to top-step: On steep terrain, it takes so much extra effort to get in the top steps it is sometimes not worth it. Also, on tricky aid, it is hard to bounce test after top stepping.

Checklist items
Sessions 5 and 6
[ ] find a 30-50 foot vertical cliff. Slightly overhanging is ok. A gym with a bolt ladder is ideal.
[ ] aid once timing yourself to get a benchmark time
[ ] aid like you free climb: aid 3 times trying to use as many face holds as possible (and grabbing the aider as little as possible)
[ ] introduce the fifi hook. Do 3 laps with the fifi at different lengths to figure out the right length.
[ ] introduce the daisy chains. Do three laps.
[ ] top stepping – do 3 laps where you top step every piece using holds or features on the wall for balance (when possible)
[ ] top stepping – do 3 laps where you top step every piece without using any holds or features on the wall for balance
Captain...or Skully

Social climber
Aug 13, 2009 - 01:17pm PT
Sounds like the ticket.....nice, Chris.

Sebastopol, CA
Aug 13, 2009 - 02:48pm PT
This is great, Chris! Thank you for posting. What a great wealth of information and wisdom.

Question: I was taught how to aid using two oval biners (instead of a daisy or fifi) to clip from my harness into the piece, or into the aider steps lower down while transferring. Can you comment on the pros and cons of this technique, which I presume is more old-school?

It seems easy, quick and unconfusing, with less potential for tangle. The main disadvantage seems to be that you're not always attached to both aiders. (Dropping one would really suck.)

Aug 13, 2009 - 02:58pm PT

What are your thoughts on adjustable daisies? Worth mentioning? From the activity on the current "Yates vs. Metolius" thread, they're clearly in wide use.
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 13, 2009 - 03:12pm PT
i have never liked using adjustable daisy chains. and it seems that most of them have one of the following issues:
 buckle starts slipping after a while
 buckle doesnt move real smoothly
 webbin breaks during a static fall

i actually prefer no daisy chains when possible. but if i am doing harder aid, and i am going to use daisy chains, i like to use regular old daisy chains (not adjustable). My favorite ones have reinforced ends like this one
because if you do a lot of walls, that point will wear out first

to be fair, i only have given adjustable daisies a brief test here and there. its just that none of my climbing partners have ever used them or recommend them and after my brief tests i just didnt like them much. I actually cant think of any fast wall climbers out there who use adjustable daisies...

as far as the fifi, sometimes, i have used just a biner connected to the belay loop, but it find its harder to attach to the top of the aider and hang. and its harder to undue. its subtle. but over the course of a wall it just becomes a pain in the ass. but a lot of old school climbers still do that method and it seems to work
Captain...or Skully

Social climber
Aug 13, 2009 - 04:03pm PT
What I do on daisys, Chris, is girth a short sling on the end.
When it gets worn, I toss & replace it. Easy money!
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Aug 13, 2009 - 05:51pm PT
on steeper terrain one need NOT always employ tension from the waist to step high when a handhold is unavailable.
With a good anchor that will take some outward vectored pull I can top step on a smooth 91 degree wall just teeing off.
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 13, 2009 - 05:54pm PT
I tried finding the video with teeing off but could not find it. Is there a place online? or a link to the retailer that sells that video with you and Jeff Lowe?
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Aug 13, 2009 - 07:37pm PT
Give Jeff a call, or email me.

Cardiff by the sea
Aug 13, 2009 - 11:50pm PT
For 20 years I ran a piece of 7mm with 2 loops tied at each end just longer than my reach with it cliped to my belay loop as a daisy chain (1 for each set of aiders.) I started out with 5mm but after snaping a couple with static falls very easily I up graded to 7mm. Then I would use a smaller piece of cord doubled up as a small daisy to clip off. I would fine adjust with a biner or two if needed, or extend the doubled up cord to top step.

I had never tried the adjustable daisies untill this year and I am living proof you can teach an old dog new tricks. First couple of pitches using them I cursed them but after breaking the code I now love them. I only have 3 routes using my new adjustable daisies so I know it is only a matter of time before they wear to the point of slipping. But I do feel like I can move smoothly with them.

Oh yea I did have a biner weight the lever on one of the adjustable ones and it released the tension, scaring the sh#t out of me. But hey it is wall climbing and it wouldn't be as much fun if we didn't get a little scared every now and then.

Trad climber
the crowd MUST BE MOCKED...Mocked I tell you.
Oct 28, 2012 - 07:10pm PT
Toker Villian, did you ever post any of your Teeing off footage online so folks would more widely use it?
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