Learning how to make your way up your very first big wall? Then make sure that you and your partner are fully prepared and equipped with the skills that you need to take on this massive climbing endeavor. Big wall climbing requires extensive planning and a thorough technical understanding of all the mechanics of climbing and your gear.
Here are 10 of the most common mistakes that beginner big wall climbers make:
1. Not learning to haul
I’ve seen more people bail off their first big wall from frustrations with hauling than almost any other reason. Pulley systems seem simple enough on the ground but it’s not advisable to head up on the wall without actually practicing hauling a pitch or two with real world loads. Even if you plan on only using a 1:1, be familiar with other pulley configurations in case something doesn’t go as expected.
Also, remember that not all rock climbs go straight up. Have a strategy, such as an extra lower out line, to deal with traversing pitches. The last thing you want is to let your bags loose from the anchor and have them fly off into space and slam into the wall—exploding your precious life giving bottles of water or even worse your poop! Expect the hauling to be difficult and try not to let it ruin the experience. It’s just the price you pay for admittance onto the wall. To paraphrase the former Governator,
Everybody wants to be a big wall climber but nobody wants to lift heavy ass weights.
2. Not bringing enough water
Being on a big wall is a lot like being out at sea. If you didn’t bring enough fresh water, you’re in trouble. The unfortunate thing about it is that water is just about the heaviest item you bring on a wall, as well as the most important. The advice given to me before my first big wall was to bring enough water for at least two days more than you’re planning on being up there. This gives you some wiggle room in case you drop something, a bottle breaks, or you are way slower than you thought—all very real possibilities.
3. Not packing enough food or bringing poor choices of food
Set yourself up for success and bring plenty of calorie dense food. Don’t let the crusty old timers tell you to bring cold chili and to be thankful it’s not cat food. You wouldn’t try to run a marathon malnourished and climbing big walls is no different. You’ll be burning tons of calories and you need to refuel. Just like with water, truly overestimate how much you need.
Oatmeal with loads of peanut butter and chia seeds is a great way to start the day. Another favorite of mine is sticks of salami. Lots of calories and salt, which are both things your body needs to keep going. For dinner, a popular choice for many are the prepackaged indian meals, such as Tasty Bites with precooked rice. Unlike with backpacking, foods that don’t need extra water to prepare are a good choice.
Supplement your main meals with bars, bagels, good candy, salt pills, or even tamales from the village store. Just keep eating all day long. Your body will thank you. Eating well on the wall can be relatively expensive but if you’re new to the game why not treat yourself? You can always up the level of suffering on your next big wall adventure.
4. Bringing too much crap
Go big on water and food but leave everything else at home! Do you really need multiple thirty racks, a full-size boom box, and several outfits to make sure you look good for Instagram? While all those things are fun, seriously think about what you truly need. If it isn’t exclusively there to keep you alive or even worse, from bailing, leave it behind. If all goes well, feel free to start bringing the random goodies the next time around, but I’d caution you to test the waters by going as light as possible.
5. Wearing the wrong outerwear
Obviously climbing in blue jeans and flannel is awesome, but it’s really not the best choice for big wall climbing. Wearing synthetics, having a rain layer, and an insulation layer will minimize the chances of you feeling miserable, having to be bail, or needing a rescue. Worry about your steeze at the pizza deck, not on the wall.
6. Being ill-prepared for pooping
Don’t be that guy/gal tossing your poop off the side of the wall. Nobody wants to get hit by a mud pigeon, and it makes climbers as a whole look like jerks. Bring wag bags, a poop tube, or waste case and keep your shit under control. El Cap trade routes reek of feces because a few assholes leave their poop up there. I’ve stumbled across open chili cans filled to the brim with poop. It’s disgusting and unacceptable. Keep these special places pristine. The Yosemite Climbing Rangers will provide you with as many free wag bags as you need. Please use them!
Learn to build your very own poop tube:
7. Performing inefficient changeovers
If you’re ever in Yosemite on a rest day, head to down to El Cap Meadow and watch climbers on the early pitches of the Nose. You’ll see people spending literally hours at belay changeovers. While this is on the extreme side of things, be very conscious of how long you spend messing around at belays. It adds up very quickly. 30 minutes spent at every belay station over the course of 30 pitches adds a cool 15 hours to your climb. People lose more time here than almost anywhere else. You don’t have to climb fast, you just need to continue climbing to be successful.
8. Lacking the skills to self/partner rescue
Self-rescue is a huge topic to cover and requires a pretty serious amount of instruction. If the idea of having to perform basic self-rescue is totally alien to you, you don’t belong on the wall. Read a book, take a class, and practice on the ground. Make sure you and your partner are self-sufficient. Don’t rely on rescue.
You brought extra water and food … why are you heading down? It’s hard? Of course it’s hard! Just keep pushing on. I’ve seen some pretty unlikely teams successfully scrap their way up walls because they refused to give in while more experienced teams bail because it turns out climbing big walls can be uncomfortable. Before you make the call to bail, take a deep breath, stop yelling at your partner, eat a snack, and climb another pitch.
10. Not knowing how to bail safely
For whatever reason, things just aren’t working out. Maybe you broke your ankle and are self-rescuing, or maybe your partner dropped the entire rack. Either way, it’s officially time to head down.
Many people don’t know to safely rappel with all of their kit. I myself didn’t until a friend saw me trying to rappel with a haul bag on my back and was quick to step in and tell me what a poor choice that was. Trying to control that much weight is difficult and dangerous. My preferred method of rappelling with weighted bags is to extend my rappel device off of my harness and then hang the bags directly from the device. Extend the bags with a runner of some kind so they are hanging between your legs, enabling you to easily manipulate them as you descend. Be sure to use a backup such as prussik and take it slow.
Buck Yedor has been trad climbing for almost a decade and is a member of Yosemite Search and Rescue. Having completed courses like Rigging for Rescue and other numerous in-house trainings with YOSAR, he is competent in safely moving over large pieces of stone. Buck’s technical training combined with years of personal climbing experience have given him the chance to see and make plenty of mistakes that he hopes will help you in avoiding to make the same ones.
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