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Big wall : what are we talking about?

When we met in Yosemite in October 2014, Adam was climbing big walls with his friend Ed. I had accompanied them to the base of El Capitan a few days before their ascent of the Nose. Although I’d seen them getting ready, I had no idea of all the logistics behind such a venture. I might have been climbing since my childhood, but I would never have imagined getting myself on such an adventure.  In October 2018, after nearly 20000 kilometres by bike and two years on the road, we were back in Yosemite ready to measure ourselves against the granite giants of this legendary valley. Before telling you about our vertical adventures, we thought it would be good to write an article explaining what a big wall is and what climbing them entails. Like any discipline, climbing has a lexicon that can make understanding it difficult, so we tried to explain it in the simplest terms. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if there is anything you haven’t understood or want to know more about!

Yosemite Valley. Washington Column on the left, Half Dome on the right

What is a big wall?

A big wall is a cliff that takes several days to climb due to its height and/or difficulty. It must be noted that some climbers do manage to climb them ‘in a day’, but it is generally an exception to the rule. Perhaps the most famous and popular big wall in the world, El Capitan, dominates the Yosemite Valley with its near vertical granite walls soaring up for almost 1000m. Most of those who embark on the famous ‘Nose’ route, following the somewhat nasal feature of El Cap, spend three to five days on the wall. Interestingly the first ascent team lead by Warren Harding took 46 days over around 16 months, and featured thanksgiving dinner eaten on a ledge. On the other hand the speed record was established in 2018 by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell who reached the summit in a staggering 1h58m. If you want to know more about this performance, here is a very good article from the National Geographic.

Adam at the foot of El Capitan

In any case, spending several days on a wall means that you have to manage much more than just the climbing gear. You also need to carry equipment for sleeping and plenty of food and water. If you were to wear a backpack with all this equipment in you couldn’t climb, so learning to haul the bag is essential. The good thing is that the bag/s gets lighter as you get higher. The downside is that you can’t stop going to the toilet for three days and leaving it behind for the following party would be considered rude…

Preparing the climbing gear before a big wall

The level of difficulty can be very different from one pitch to another. Climbing sometimes reaches levels beyond our ability and it becomes impossible to “free” climb just with our hands and our feet. We must then use techniques called “aid climbing”. The idea is to place various metal gadgets in cracks to hang webbing ladders from, you then step up and place another piece. With a seemingly infinite number of placements and a vast array of gear it can be time consuming and progression can slow to a snails pace when the placements are tenuous or hard to find. The challenge remains physical, especially when the wall is overhanging or when following a corner crack that can be awkward. Aid climbing requires creativity, solid concentration, and a strong mind. Unlike free climbing, you can’t rely on the feeling in your fingers or feet on the rock to tell you if a position is tenable. You put your entire trust in the metal, the solidity of the rock and your know-how.  Sometimes hours can pass by in a flash when climbing difficult sections and the tension is ever present. Where 20 minutes of free climbing would suffice for a 50 metre pitch, some can spend more than five hours to cover the same distance aid climbing.

Noémie aid climbing the Kor Roof on Washington Column

Finally, to navigate this ocean of rock and to know what is ahead, we rely on a map of the wall called a topo. The topo roughly shows us how difficult a section would be, the length of rope needed, types of climbing, the location of the belays (the solid anchor points marking the end of one pitch and the beginning of another one) and the bivi possibilities. In general, every time we go for a long multi-pitch climb, we make a photocopy of the topo to take only the page that interests us. So we each carry a topo in our pocket and have no excuses for getting lost…

The Nose topo

What is the process behind climbing a big wall?

First step: The leader leaves the belay and starts climbing. He has all the gear he needs on his harness. During the time he climbs, he is connected to the second who belays him, in case of fall he will hold the rope. Once he reaches the end of the pitch, he secures himself to a new belay anchor and tells his companion he no longer needs to be belayed. We say he’s “safe”, even though Adam and I use the French word “vaché” in this case, which we find easier to not get confused with other signals when we’re shouting.

Second step: The next step is to haul the bag/s up to the new belay. After installing the haul rope into a ratchet-pulley system, the leader tells his companion that he’s ready to haul. The second can then release the bag, we say that he “frees the bag“.

Hauling the bags on Liberty Cap

Third step: The rope used by the lead climber has been fixed, attaching one end to the anchor. The follower now installs his ascenders (mechanical devices that allow you to climb a rope). He will then climb the fixed rope, whilst recovering the various pieces of gear placed by the leader. He’s also there to help in case the bag gets trapped or snagged.

Fourth step: The two climbers are now together at the belay. Depending on the system chosen by the team, the climbers can now either switch roles or keep going as is. Whichever a team choses they carry on like this until it is time to stop.

Fifth step: The sun is getting close to the horizon and fatigue is truly setting in. It’s time to set up camp. There are several possibilities. Some choose to only rely on the natural ledges to spend the night. Whilst lighter and therefore faster, this means that if the team has gone slower than expected, they may be forced to continue climbing in the dark until reaching an appropriate site. Others take a portaledge. It is a camp bed-like platform that can be hung almost anywhere on a cliff, allowing you to sleep practically anywhere. Once the camp is set up and the equipment is tidied and organised for the following day, it’s time to eat, drink, answer the call of nature and most importantly, sleep.

Portaledge bivi on Liberty Cap

You understood everything? Great, now we’ll be able to tell you what happened on the three big walls that we undertook during our two months in Yosemite: the south faces of Liberty Cap, Washington Column and Mount Watkins.

If after reading the article you want to know more, there are a fair few climbing-adventure films that are very well made with breath taking imagery.  Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Valley Uprising, a documentary that explores the climbing history of Yosemite Valley from the 50’s to modern day.  You can see it for a small fee on youtube or on Netflix.
  • Dodo’s Delight – a rag-tag team of Belgians sail to Baffin Island captained by a septuagenarian Brit.  They speak a mix of French and English (subtitles).  The nightly jam sessions are very entertaining.
  • Autana – a film about strong British climber Leo Houlding who puts together a crack team to head deep into the jungle, via a shamanic ritual, to climb a sacred mountain.
  • Free Solo, winning the best documentary oscar recently this National Geographic film follows the preparation behind Alex Honnold’s ground breaking free solo of El Capitan.
  • And many others….

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