Big Wall Episode #1 - Logistics
Big Wall Bible
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.
The number one thing that can cause you to bail and fail on a big wall is poor planning, getting late starts from difficult Yosemite logistics, bad weather, or bad partners. This is definitely NOT why you are looking at this course but it is 100% the MOST IMPORTANT rudder that will steer your ship.
Season and Weather
Picking your partner
Topos and Routes
Big Wall Permits
Where to sleep and park
Weather Or Not To Climb
Yosemite's best conditions are in the Fall (Early September thru early December) but in the Spring (March thru May) you might get good weather, it's just that the rain can be more unpredictable, especially if planning 2 weeks out. Zion has similar weather but keep in mind you CANNOT climb that sandstone if it recently rained. It will damage the rock because it is so fragile.
Apparently, you risk going extinct if you don't like having sex when people are watching. Peregrine Falcons live high on the cliffs to be left alone until these hairless monkeys showed up out of nowhere. Apparently, they are sensitive during nesting season and make babies better when we aren't yelling off belay next to their nests. They win the raddest bird award because they are the fastest animals on earth. They are bouncing back from not existing in Yosemite and Zion to having about a dozen-ish nesting pairs. Climbers have helped the park monitor and protect this species and we need you to do the same. RESPECT PEREGRINE CLOSURES. This typically starts in March and can vary when it ends, but typically it's mid-July. About 20% of Yosemite is off limits and 80% of Zion's climbing routes are closed, though a few areas remain open, most notably the Temple of Sinawava in the upper canyon.
Let us interpret the forecast for you. A 10% chance of rain means 100% chance small droplets are coming. A 90% chance means you will be canyoning on your wall. Choose your timing wisely. If weather is sporadic and you have time, you can plan on fixing a few pitches and humping loads to the base so when a 2-3 day patch of good weather happens, you can have momentum and stoke. After sitting out 5 days of rain in the Yosemite Lodge's cafeteria, you'll have big wall blue balls and it makes getting on El Cap that much better.
Take heat seriously. If your wall is in the sun long enough on a hot day, you can't drink water faster than you lose it. 100F in the valley can feel like 200F on the wall. You can fix pitches and hump loads at night or super super early but don't be on the wall when it's hot.
REAL FORECAST EXAMPLE FROM 9/6/2022 - 9/9/2022:
209-372-0200 press 1, press 2
Walkie Talkie - National Weather Station Mode
Finding and choosing a climbing partner.
Are you monogamous in your belaytionships or do you like hooking up El Capitan with just anyone? The saying "who you do something with is more important than what you do" is also true for big walls. You can have a grand ol' time even if you don't get to the top with the right person and a terrible time while sending it. However, you don't want to just pick your favorite person. They have to be super safe enough. Otherwise you could get a STD... Severely Timely Descent (that's the best we could come up with).
Where to find a partner
Camp 4 Bulletin Board (Yosemite)
El Cap Meadow Bridge (Yosemite)
Near and around big walls or where big wallers camp.
Things to look for in a partner
A resume: if they've done two multi-pitches and you've done 2 walls, don't jump on anything too serious with them. You want someone who matches or compliments your resume. Sharing stories of rad epics can usually tell you what someone is capable of, or help you learn how many pathological liars are out there.
Low sugar competency: can they do everything safely when they are bonking? Are they bipolar when they haven't eaten? Can they put a rope in a grigri correctly or even do a complex anchor building with no sleep for 36 hours? Unless you are really good at logistics and live in a unicorn wonderland, you and this potential partner will get very very tired climbing a wall and you want to make sure they can still function.
Don't trust anyone fully you just met. At the bare minimum, hike up an 80lb load at 4 am and fix two pitches before getting your permit later that morning to find out if you want to do the rest of the climb with them. Some people can sound pretty good and have all the gear, but then you watch them put a rope in a grigri and you start getting more red flags than a bull in a pen. Ideally, you go climb a few easy days with them and find out if you are down to go risk your life and a precious week off work with who met.
Don't Pick The Nose
Topos and Maps
For the love of the Captain, please don't pick The Nose as your first route. If you think you are that amazing, go smash out a climb on Washington Column in a day FIRST, and then the next day go for the Nose. The first 6 pitches wander 1000ft sideways making hauling and following more complex. This slows the newbs down substantially and gets in everyone's way.
Mountain Grades with Yosemite Examples
Grade 1 - Your grandma could join you
Grade 2 - Bring a snack
Manure Pile Buttress
Grade 3 - Bring a lunch and water
Grade 4 - Bring lunch and dinner because your coming down hungry and tired
Grade 5 - Unless you're something special, bring a sleeping bag
Normal people spend 1 night on the wall like Washington Column, Leaning Tower, or Half Dome, then it qualifies. More and more people do this in a day now.
Grade 6 - Plan on calling in sick on Monday
Most of El Capitan qualified until some guy decided to downgrade it to a boulder by just taking a chalk bag and shoes. Pretty much this includes Reticient to Lurking Fear as it takes multi days for most people to climb either the easiest or hardest routes on El Cap.
Grade 7 - See you in a month, hope you don't get hurt
There is no grade 7 in Yosemite. The reason is that you can see the pizza shop from the wall and your cell phone works to call search and rescue. You need a 10-day approach in Pakistan, Baffin Island, or Patagonia and spend 10-30 days on the wall before you get to claim this.
Grade 8 - People who think their grade 7 was too hard
There is no 8
A = Hammer Aid and C = Clean Aid so follow along and try not to get lost here.
A0 = Bolt Ladder! Bolts took hammers but they are bomber. There is no C0
C1 = Every piece you place can take a whipper. With new gear technology, there is no need to use a hammer when it's this easy so there is now no A1.
C2 = You might have to hook once or twice or place something that may not hold you. Again, not hard enough to justify a hammer if you've purchased any gear in the last 30 years so there is no A2.
C3 = You're hooking and clipping some gnar shit. To do something pretty damn hard without smashing in the tiny gear with a hammer can feel tougher than an A3
A3 = Thin stuff that probably won't hold a fall but will most likely hold you, at least the hammer makes you feel that way. You might whip a few times but whatever.
A4 = Longer sections of thin shitty placements. To properly qualify, you have to be over a ledge or something where you can break at least a leg if you blow a piece and unzip the route. C4 technically exists but a hammer usually shows up eventually so it's not officially getting counted here.
A5 = Nothing is good and neither is your anchor. Some debate that if a team hasn't died from everything ripping out then it's just a A4+.
A6 = You already died and think you are still climbing. There is no A6.
If they put a free climbing grade on there, that means that is the minimum you have to climb unless they use the word "or". So The Nose is Grade VI 5.8 C2 or 5.14a. In English, plan on spending 2-4 nights on the wall, you better be GOOD at 5.8s and plan on clipping some thin stuff in the great roof; OR just cruise at 5.14a all the way up before dinner. If they add a + or an F labeled next to the difficulty of the pitch, like C2F+, this means assuming all the hard spots already have fixed gear but half the wires are frayed and you'll be scared shitless while you aid it.
The Starter Pack
YOSEMITE: In Erik Sloan's "Yosemite Bigwalls Ultimate Guide", he broke down the routes by beginner shorter and beginner longer. Then intermediate, advanced and expert of short and long routes as well. It is quite common for people to start at the easiest of all walls, South Face of Washington's Column at Grade V 5.8 C1. Just make sure you see Episode 13 to avoid bailing. Haul to pitch 3, fix one or two pitches and camp at dinner ledge. Blast to the top in the morning and rap back down to the ledge. Don't haul to the top and hike off! Stoke tip: If you want to make it worth hiking you shit up there and still have enough water, do Skull Queen. Fix one pitch of it after dinner and knock it out the next day.
Another common one is West Face of Leaning Tower at Grade V 5.7 A2/C3. Its only challenge is that it is 110 degrees overhanging at the beginning. Don't let that rating scare you, any hard aid is fixed and the 5th pitch might require one hook if you have offset aliens and totems. See my BUYING GUIDE for the ultimate big wall gear. You have a plush ledge at pitch 4 and at the top so it's easy peasy. As you walk to the start of the route, look up at Roulette and see the endless A4 hooking first pitch that Sheridan did called "Pancake Potential" in this VIDEO .
Now for something taller, Lurking Fear El Capitan is a Grade VI 5.6 C2+. It's 2000ft tall and you are bringing a portaledge. It's up the west side (left side) and takes an hour and half to hike up a heavy load. This is where you can decide to do two trips and on your first one, fix two pitches. I know you'll be near the top after pitch 17, but 10 out of 10, you should sleep in that cave bivy. If you are up there too early, just fix your two ropes to the top and come back down. Thanksgiving ledge is just dope! You won't remember in 5 years what you did the next day, but you remember every night on every wall.
If you made it in one piece on those routes, feel free to climb The Nose, or just avoid the crowds and go climb one of the other hundreds of options!
ZION: Prodigal Son, Moonlight Buttress and Organism is rumored to be the starter pack here but if someone who has spent a lot of time there wants to chime in, HMU email@example.com
Reading Between The Lines
You don't get credit for RE-establishing a route so you might as well take the map. At the beginning of every topo, it shows you how to interpret their chicken scratch so take the time to read the details. Just know "OK Bivy for 2" means you're probably sliding out of your sleeping bag all night or have most of your legs hanging off the cliff.
Jeremiah shows you how to read a topo by going over The Nose in "Big Walls The Ultimate Guide"
Don't just take photos with your phones. Make physical copies! Put them in sandwhich size zip lock bags and fold them tall ways so you don't have to open the bag until end of each day, but instead just flip it over to see that day's quota. Keep one with each person and several spare in the haul bag.
Take the descent as serious as the climb. DON'T FORGET THE EAST LEDGES DESCENT TOPO IF YOU CLIMB EL CAP. I'm sure you are stoked to get down but if you've never done east ledges before, don't do it in the dark. Your best bet is to wait till morning to get down. Leaning Tower's gully that you rappel has a lot of loose shit and is pretty tricky at night as well. Hiking off the top of Washington Column can suck with a pig (haul bag) so sometimes it works out better if you don't haul the final day and rap down. Half dome is an obvious trail back to the valley.
Big Wall Permits Suck
But we have to evolve with a growing sport
Do you know who probably hates the permit system more than you? The park! No one likes it but as the sport grows, something needs to be done to manage the impact. For Yosemite, it's pretty easy to fill out ONLINE and it's free, the problem is you have to pick it up during 8am-5pm and they are closed for lunch. Not a problem if you are there for two weeks, but weekend warriors are going to have some glitches. Oct 31st - April 29th is self registered which really helps the timing problem.
What's nice about the Yosemite permit, is it gets you access through the park gates during peak hours WITHOUT needing a reservation. Anyone can enter the park without a reservation slot before 6am or after 4pm during peak season, May 20th-September 30th.
Keep the permit with you, not in your car.
Leaving a note in your car is not required but can be helpful in case there was a problem with you or your car. You can park in El Cap Meadow or Curry or the backpacker parking lot as they all have bear boxes for you to keep your food that you don't take. Keep our bears safe and keep food out of your cars but also keep our bear boxes from being a shit show and date your food!
In Yosemite, this is still in its pilot program and new rules will emerge in 2023. We will update this when that happens. If you have helpful permit information, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Figuring out how to stay in Yosemite sucks, good luck! Just kidding... sort of. Camp 4 is on a lottery system and you might as well buy a lottery ticket with it because you need to be that lucky to win either one. Backpacker's campground is quite inconveniently located a very long ways from your car in case you plan on packing everything up before heading up your wall. If you know your plans 5 months ahead of time and know how to write scripts to machine gun your submissions right as they open their reservation portal online, this is an option for you. The lodge only costs one kidney per night. AirBnb in Yosemite West is 45 minutes outside the park. Sleeping in your van is going to get you kicked out of the park and mess up access for everyone. No, you can't sleep at the base of the walls except for Half Dome. If Yosemite wasn't strict with the rules, that place would look like a homeless camp in no time, but it is harder to get around on the ground there than on the cliffs. This book only covers easy stuff like big walling, not complicated stuff like operating within the park.
10% Supports HowNOT2
Get 90% of your big walling gear here. This leads you to a detailed buying guide.