Aid Climbing Big Walls - How to Lead

Lead Climbing

Big Wall Bible

Lead Climbing

The lightest but most useful thing you can take up a big wall is knowledge. Welcome to a resource that will help you be successful in getting up big rocks. Big walling is a big topic so we broke it into bite-size "pitches" with a video to START each one. The aim is to have lots of videos, photos, and written content in each section, not just of our stuff but your stuff as well. See HowNOT2 contribute your beta below.


Our courses are A-Z content in blog format, glued together with an overarching blog we call a textbook. A blog format is easy to read, easy to update, and easy to translate. Be sure to begin at the TEXTBOOK and at the end of each episode we'll point you to the next.


Leading is a methodical and repetitive motion if done correctly. Get as high as you can on your aiders, place your gear, bounce test it, commit to it, get off your last piece, clip your rope to it, or back clean it, and repeat. Fear or exhaustion can make you do stuff out of order or take unnecessary steps. If you have 30 pitches of climbing and you can save 30 minutes of each pitch because you can aid faster, this is an entire day you can save which means less water and food to haul which also makes you faster.


Chicken Or Egg

Is trad climbing a prerequisite to aid climbing, or is aid climbing a pre-requisite to trad?


Some debate that you need to be a solid trad climber to know how to place gear before attempting to aid climb. Others debate that practicing aid climbing can help you understand what holds and what doesn't instead of hoping after placing gear as a newbie. Also, where does one get practice placing micro nuts, cams and hooks? Not trad climbing! Trad climbing first can help with overall systems of leapfrogging up a rock but don't be afraid to try out aid climbing just because you have not used cams and nuts much. It might even make you a better trad climber.


Most big walls do require some normal hands and feet climbing and those sections might be terrifying for you if you never learned to actually climb before attacking your first wall. Don't show up totally green to climbing just because you might be able to learn placing gear better in an aid environment.


PRO TIP: You can top rope aid climb if you are not confident in your placements. It's also a great way to get introduced to hooks. Do you really want your first hook 2,800 feet off the ground and take 2 hours to move from the bomber bolt right next to it and fully weight it??? Hypothetically speaking of course.


PAS-ology

How are you connected?


PAS or Personal Anchor System or Daisy is your tether. Adjustable daisies allow you to tension yourself tight as you stand up and some even allow you to extend them under tension (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED). If you climb your aiders and keep your PAS loose, and for some weird reason slip and fall hard on them, it can really hurt, pop your gear or even break them. Most of them are very static and even the "dynamic" ones are too short to absorb enough force.


The Alfifi changes the game since you can just connect yourself to the next piece with this and this alone. Let your rope do the catching if you fall. Your back and your gear are going to thank you for it. It is less to untangle, it's adjustable and you don't have to open a carabiner gate 1000x to get up El CAP. Keep in mind the Alfifi is strong in one direction, but you can bend that metal sideways if you clip a bolt hanger with a biner inside and it levers it weird when you stand up. Understand your gear before you use it! A risk with only using an Alfifi and no PAS while leading is your ladders are not clipped to anything. If you blow a piece they could fall.


You need something bomber at the anchor to attach yourself. Metolius easy daisies are the lightest option but can't be extended under tension. You have to pull the tab away from your body to release it, limiting the range you can do with one hand. The biggest problem is that it's not rated to be a personal anchor. You could literally break these if you fall 2 feet on them at the anchor. The Yates Adjustable Daisy is the easiest to tension and lower yourself, but the buckle is heavy. The Petzl Evolvs Adjusts are dynamic ropes and fully rated but can't be extended under tension. There is no perfect PAS but you want a solid one while you are at the anchor.


Ladder-ology

Some like 1, some like 4.


The less stuff to organize the faster you can go, but standing on one foot can suck. One ladder is simple to keep tidy and you can clip your Personal Anchor System (PAS) or Alfifi to the next piece, sit on it and move it up. You can have 2 ladders, one clipped to each of your PAS's and just go up one at a time, or you can keep both those ladders on one piece so you can have one for each foot, sit on your top piece and move them up together. 3 allows you to have 1 for each foot and 1 to get on and then leap frog them but that is a lot of clipping. 4 allows two for each foot on each PAS but its a lot to keep tidy.


Straight aiders with a spreader bar like YATES are the absolute best. It requires no thinking about which way it goes and it doesn't crush your poor feet.


Clip-ology

What goes on first and last?


Shifting carabiners will help you shit if you didn't do it earlier that morning. You get all the sensations of falling without going anywhere. That comes from placing two carabiners in the same spot that you change your weight from one to the other like sitting in a daisy to standing in an aider. The solution is to clip carabiners in a chain in the order you plan on removing them later, or share two things on one carabiner.



If you connect your PAS and one aider to one carabiner it is easy to keep tidy, you only have to open one carabiner to get on the next piece, and you don't risk dropping the aider. The downside is your aider is now married to that PAS. If you want to connect your second aider to stand more comfortably, you now have trapped both PAS's. Moving sideways or up steep terrain can be nice to be able to separate them. But it's a PITA at the anchor when you want to be connected differently than where you want the ladders.


If you have everything on separate carabiners, then you can pull the entire puzzle apart and rearrange it to your liking for the ever-changing context. You just don't clip both the daisy and the aider to the same spot. Since you have 2 daisies, you can put one on the gear first and stay committed to that until the ladders you clip on next come off. You can only have two ladders and always stand in two if they are removable from each daisy, but this is extra clipping and try standing in your living room and clipping a carabiner 1000x and see that minimizing how often you clip carabiners matters. This method shines when you get to the anchor since you want your ladders clipped behind everything so you don't smash shit when you step in them, but you want your PAS free to keep you right where you want to be and to be able to pull them outwards when you lean back. Warning: keeping your ladders independent from a tether means the aiders are free soloing when you transition them from one place to another, DON'T DROP THEM.

Skot Richard's tips for preventing the alfifi from shifting

If you use an Alfifi, you can't hook it to the bolt hanger itself or where gear doesn't like to have an upward force (since you will be pulling up and out while you top step). So you clip your aider/daisy combo to the gear THEN clip the alfifi to the highest biner. You will need to remove this first and there is nowhere to clip anything to the Alfifi so you can't put it on first anyways. You definitely don't want to put a carabiner on top of the Alfifi and weight the biner or you will bend the hook. You don't want to put the alfifi in the hanger after other carabiners are in there and lift up or it lever it and bend it.


THE ORDER OF WHAT YOU CLIP MATTERS!


Order of Operations

Clip, test, fully weight, clean or leave, get high, repeat


Don't go up two steps and start looking around, get as high as you can before strategizing what you can reach. Don't make bounce testing a ceremony, just make it part of the process of getting on it. Don't bother clipping your rope to the piece you are already attached to (in most cases) because you are only falling if it comes out so what good is that going to do? Bad habits can slow you down. Let's go through each step in detail:


Get Connected - Clipping

A nut has one place to clip, a cam typically has an eye or the sling you can clip and a piton needs the carabiner spine against the wall which can be tricky to clip if you are reaching for the stars. You want to clip as high as you can if there are options, even just a carabiner length can make a difference in where you can place the next piece.


Ladder or Aider: depends on your style. If you need to sit on the gear to lift up your ladder(s) then it will be your PAS you connect. If you are on low angle C1 and trying to top step as high as possible, you would clip your ladder to it since you don't plan on ever weighting your PAS. Try both methods on low and steep angles to see what makes sense for you and the two different contexts.


Don't clip your rope to the gear you just got on. You are only falling if it comes out and typically you now just pulled more rope out of the system actually making your fall even farther. Wait until you are on the next piece. The exception to this is if you are preparing to transition to free climbing or need to be lowered for a pendulum.


Blowing Ain't Bad - Testing

Bounce testing isn't a ceremony. As soon as you clip an aider to the gear, jerk test it with your hand. As soon as you put your foot on it, drop your heel and lean into it a little while still staying balanced on the last piece. Bounce as you fully weight it while still being right on the last piece.

It's ok to fall if you don't hurt yourself in the process. Careful what you grab if it blows. Don't put your fingers in a place they will get pinched. For example, grabbing behind the carabiner or sling on the previous piece will smash your hand against the rock when your weight goes back onto that last piece. Don't look at the piece if you are bounce testing it, especially if you have a heavy buckle attached to it like the alfifi or Yates adjustable daisy.


Counter to what you might think, the sketchier the gear, the faster you want to unclip your PAS from your last piece and get your rope connected to it. YOU DON'T WANT TO FALL ON YOUR PAS. When you bounce test, you are typically only going to fall a few inches onto your last piece but once you fully commit to the next one, get your PAS off the last one. Your rope is a soft catch, your PAS is not.


The crux to momentum is when you are super top stepping your last piece but not trusting your next one. If it has a 50/50 of holding and you really want to bounce the crap out of it, you might have to connect a PAS/Alfifi and down step to be more hip level with your last one so you don't shock load it if you blow your next piece testing it. This is when a PAS longer than the full reach of your arm, or 6 step aiders are handy.


Dealing With Your Past - Back cleaning

You are constantly doing math. How many more pieces of that size do you have? Will you need it higher up? When was your last bomber placement? Are you about to do something sketchy? All this has to be considered to know if you are going to pull out the last piece or clip your rope to it.


If you are traversing, you have to clip all or none of the pieces. If you clip all then your follower will be able to clean and reach each previous placement. If you back-clean all of the gear, they can just lower off the last piece and avoid having to clean any of the traverse. Just remember if they have to lower off, that piece stays, so ideally that is either a bolt or fixed gear.


Clip the last piece to your rope AFTER you are on the next piece

If you clip your lead rope to the gear you have to decide if you clip directly to the gear or put a quickdraw or sling on it. If it's a traverse, the length of the extender is how far away the follower will be from that piece. It's best to clip direct. However, if you are going straight up after traversing, you will get a 90-degree bend in the rope creating enormous drag. Typically the best place for a quick draw is right off the anchor to allow a little flexibility but keeping the fall to a minimum. Higher up doesn't matter if you fall an extra 2 or 20 feet but if you place a nut or clip a piton and you only have one carabiner per sling, a quick draw can be nice.


If you have done a pendulum, and are lower than your last piece, you must back clean you just created the worst Z drag ever.


STOP: This is point you need to FULLY extend your PAS if you use two, tensioned it, and just took it off the last piece. Don't wait until you are top stepping precariously to get this ready to clip the next piece. Clip to to your chest harness, throw it over your shoulder or just let it dangle but for the love of rock, extend it so it's usable.


Get High - Top Stepping

You are rarely not going to top step, so don't diddle-doddle and only go up part of the aider and start site seeing. It doesn't hurt to have a spot you are aiming for but get as high as fast as you can.

These bolts are not far apart but it's not worth top stepping to by pass this bolt. The rare time you don't top step.

If you only progress 3-4 feet per placement and you can stand up 12" higher, that makes you 25%-30% faster. However, if it takes a lot longer to dial in a micro placement fully top stepping, is it worth it? Don't waste twice the energy trying to reach a crappy placement at full arms reach when at eye level is a perfect blue totem placement, or in this case a bomber bolt.


Now get some gear in and repeat these steps.

Step as high as you can and reach as high as you can

The Transition

Aid climbing to free climbing tricks


If you are feeling cozy in your aiders and have to transition to free climbing, it can feel awkward. Set yourself up for success and you'll be a climber again in no time. Free climbing part of a route can save an enormous amount of time, even if you know you can aid this next 30 feet and it isn't worth getting into free mode.


If you clip your PAS to the gear first, then clip your aider to your PAS, you kinda locked yourself down to that piece. If you clip your aider to the gear first and if you are near the end of the pitch, you can just stand in it and abandon it. Don't pinch the part you can clip the rope so you can do that before taking off. If it's like a nut or piton with limited places to clip, put the quickdraw/sling on first, then your rope, THEN get yourself on the system. Fully extend your PAS so you can use it quickly when you get back into aid. Plan for the transition and stay organized.


STORY TIME by Ryan Jenks: I was belaying Ryan Sheridan up the first pitch of Roulette on leaning tower and could not see him on the 2nd half of the pitch. He carefully moved up the endless hooks at the beginning and then finally the rope started to move faster and all I could hear him yelling is falling falling falling yet nothing happened. He started free climbing without having his PAS re-extended and ready to clip. He couldn't let go with one hand and couldn't extend it with the other for whatever reason. He was within reach of the next piece and just stood there helpless knowing he was going to fall. He yelled falling not because he fell, but because he knew he had to and I've been belaying for 3 hours so it's nice to let your belayer know it's time to wake up.


Getting Right With Jesus

For God's sake, add a Jesus draw


When you leave the anchor to start your lead and have no pro in yet, you will yank your belayer down if you fall. The belayer is below the anchor so if you clip a quick draw to the strongest point of your anchor in the direction you are headed, it will pull them up to that piece if you fall, instead of down and sideways. This is sometimes referred to as a Jesus draw so no one has to see Jesus if you blow the beginning moves of a pitch. Obviously, this doesn't matter when you are leaving the ground, just DFU (Don't eff up).


The Process

Leading theory


Pick your poison on how you want to go up the wall. But perfect your process and write down or say each step as you go up when you practice so you know what your system is. Once you get tired and scared, you are going to start doing unnecessary steps, not finishing each step as you go, getting tangled in your shit, and slowing way way down. Have a plan for easy bolt ladders vs hard aid and different angles since low angle is so so different than steep angle. This can all be done with... you guessed it... PRACTICE! Pick a place you can practice whether that's a really supportive climbing gym, a local crag or just a series of butterfly knots in a rope fixed high in a tree that you pretend are "bolts". Once you become an old dog that doesn't like new tricks, challenge yourself to do it in a completely different way, just so you understand why you like your method or have another tool to use if the context changes. What you like might be amazing for C1 low angle but complete shit for super sketchy roofs. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.




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