Big Wall Rock Climbing

Big Wall Climbing – Big Wall climbs can be found wherever there are large hunks or “walls” of stone that involve aid from equipment to ascend and require you to spend 2 or more nights on the wall.

Big wall climbs usually ascend very thin lines that require more grip than a pair of rock shoes to get up. These small cracks are so thin and surrounding rock so featureless that the only way to go up is to insert gear and step up on it. Most big wall routes incorporate some amount of free climbing, but for the most part the only way to ascend is to insert a piece of gear, clip an aider (or etrier), step up on it and repeat. Aid lines usually follow fairly continuous cracks.

The gear used for big wall climbs is the same as that used in traditional climbing. Cams, stoppers, hexes, slings, biners and the like are used on “clean” big wall climbs. All gear placed is removed as the team ascends to the top. Other big wall climbs require the use of pitons, a hammer to smash them in with, hooks and thin crack aid gear like Peckers, bashies (kind of like moldable stoppers) and RURP’s (Realized Ultimate Reality Piton), a thin, small knife bladed piece of steel that will fit in the tiniest of seams.

Big wall climbs require several ropes, one for the leader to climb on, a thin trail line tied behind the leader to haul up any extra gear in the middle of a lead and a thick static line to haul up the gear. Rope organization is critical on a big wall climb. A tangled or stuck rope can eat away precious time needed to move the climbers upward. Wall climbers can sleep on ledges that may be found on a climb, but when the route lacks any place flat, a Portaledge is required for a semi-decent night’s sleep. This portable hammock is big enough for a sleeping bag, a small amount of gear and it can be covered up like a tent in poor weather.

Everything needs to be clipped in to prevent it be dropped hundreds or even thousands of feet to the deck below. Your sleeping bags, pads, food, water, clothing, etc. are put into large haul bags made of nearly indestructible fabric. These haul bags will follow you up the wall and while seemingly tremendously heavy at first, they’ll get lighter as you get higher up and consume the food and drinks inside.

Guidebooks rate each climb, providing the climber a sense of the difficulty and the amount of time that will be required to finish a climb. There will also be a description of the route and a map, showing each pitch of the climb. As far as big wall climbs go, the rating defines the most difficult move required on the climb, although each pitch will usually be given a rating of its own. Different climbing areas may use their own local rating system, but the following rating guide will apply to most big wall climbs:

A1 – solid, easy placements- no sweat, C1 means that a bolt or piton is available instead of having to place gear
A2 – Fairly solid placements and will most likely hold a fall but may be tricky to place, C2 would be something like rickety fixed gear taking up an otherwise decent placement
A3 – Difficult to set, awkward placements that won’t hold a fall and certain injury can be expected if it pops off
A4 – Gear placements are very tricky to place. May hold only body weight and a fall will most likely result in severe injury or even death
A5 – A placement that will most likely come off when weighted and certain death and destruction await the poor climber who dares to try

Also, here is a guide to give you an idea of how long you should plan on to complete the climb:

Grade I – 1 to 3 hours
Grade II – 3 to 4 hours
Grade III – 4 to 6 hours (if you are fast)
Grade IV – Sunup to Sundown
Grade V – 1 to 2 days (plan on spending the night)
Grade VI – 2 or more days

Of all the many different facets of rock climbing: bouldering, sport climbing, and trad climbing, few casual climbers will ever participate in big wall climbing. It makes you wonder then how someone got the idea of climbing a big wall. Maybe as the aspiring climber explored the joy of trad climbing, there seemed to be a natural progression and fascination toward longer and steeper multi pitch routes. Possibly the exhilarating idea of being able to actually sleep high above the ground up on a cliff rolled around in their mind. And the feeling of being so far up the climb, knowing that is easier to go up than it would be to try and go back down made their palms start to sweat. If you feel like you can relate, who knows, maybe you are ready for your first big wall climb!