Getting into big wall climbing is daunting, especially setting off on your first multi-day big wall. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are some tips I wish I had known before setting off on my first wall. These are mostly geared towards Yosemite, but apply almost entirely to many other big wall objectives out there.
10 Tips for Succeeding on Your First Big Wall by Jacob Cook.
1. Choose a good partner
The best partner is not the one with the highest ability. It’s way more important to choose someone you like, who has a positive attitude and who you’re not going to fall out with when stuff gets stressful. Even if your partner is a silent one, make sure you know them well and that you get along before you set off on the wall with them.
2. Practice your rope systems
It’s important to practice your rope skills in a “real” setting before setting off up a big wall. A single pitch crag with bolted anchors is perfect, your kitchen less so. Practice hauling, lowering out the bag, jumarring on different angles of wall, cleaning gear under tension and lowering out yourself. Andy Kirkpatricks website is a great resource for lots of rope work related skills and tips, but there’s certain things that you can only learn by doing.
3. Practice setting up your portaledge;
before you’re at a hanging belay in the dark on your first night. This one I learned through experience…
4. Hone your “by any means” climbing
This means getting to the top of the pitch in the most efficient way, whether that means free climbing, pulling on cams, full on aid climbing, pendulums, tension traverses or a combination of all these techniques and more. Even if your goal is big wall free climbing, it’s still an essential skill to “just get the rope up there”.
5. Bring the right amount of water
Three litres per person per day is a good benchmark. This is for everything, drinking, cooking, coffee and toothbrushing. This is a rough guide for a spring or fall El Capitan ascent, obviously on different walls or in different seasons this can change. Often I find I drink more on the first day, don’t panic, higher up the temperature drops and the hauling gets easier, meaning you will need slightly less.
6. Organise your haul bag
I often like to bring two haulbags, even if all my stuff could fit in one big one. Each morning I put my food and water for that day, jackets, cameras and excess rack in one bag and everything else in the other. That way I’m not rummaging past my bivy kit, stove etc to get a drink of water. On this note, make sure you protect your knot on the bag, a 2L water bottle cut in half is perfect.
7. Look after your skin
Bring babywipes and hand balm. I bring fingerless leather gloves for ropework. Lots of climbers get nail bed separation in their fingernails, it’s really painful. Squeeze a little superglue into the nail bed then hold it shut for a minute, it’s a miracle cure.
8. Bring the right food
Before climbing the Nose for the first time I was told by a seasoned big wall climber that “all you need up there is Gatorade and pretzels.” I disagree. Bring more food than you think you need, the weight is negligible when compared to the energy it gives you. Here is an example of my food for a day on the wall:
- Breakfast – Oatmeal/granola and a fruit cup. Coffee.
- During the day – Trail mix, bars, cheese and peanut butter for during the day. I also like to put electrolyte powder in my water bottles to help with dehydration.
- Dinner – Instant Uncle Bens rice, a can of chilli, cheese and tortillas with a “builders” protein bar for desert. Decaf tea.
9. Maintain an unwavering, unrealistic positive attitude
There will be times when you deal with enormous tangles that take hours and become extremely frustrating, don’t worry it’s all part of the fun, you love this!
10. DON’T GO DOWN
Sometimes there are good reasons for going down, but often people bail when they don’t really need to. Unexpected things happen, pitches take longer than planned, the weather gets bad, none of these things are good reasons for bailing in themselves, only if you haven’t prepared for them, or panic. As long as you keep going up, you will eventually reach the top!
All images courtesy of Jacob Cook.