Use this guide as a basic introduction to aid climbing. Remember, learning about rock climbing online serves as a tool, but in no way are written articles a substitute for hands-on instruction. Failure to follow appropriate safety measures could result in serious injury or death. If just getting started, seek professional climbing courses offered by AMGA-certified guiding services. Be smart, and climb safe.
Ever laid eyes on El Capitan and thought,
man, someday I would really like to get up that thing.
Maybe you got so motivated as to even research the grade and topo of its most famous route—upon which you learned that The Nose goes free at 5.13+, and promptly gave up on that dream.
Well, I’m here to tell you that there’s another way that doesn’t require you to crush as hard as Lynn Hill!
It entails using a technique so popular, that all but five people (Lynn Hill, Scott Burke, Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Jorg Verhoeven) who have ever climbed The Nose have used this method at various points to finish the route. The technique is called aid climbing —and conceptually, it’s quite simple.
Whether you have previously heard of this climbing technique or not, it is my intention in this article to leave you feeling a little less mystified about what it is, where it came from, and what it entails.
Who knows? One day you may even use it to get yourself up a big wall like El Capitan.
What is aid climbing?
OK, so what is it? According to Wikipedia,
Aid climbing is a style of climbing in which standing on or pulling oneself up via devices attached to fixed or placed protection is used to make upward progress.
These ‘devices’ are simply daisy chains and aiders—where an aider is just a ladder made of webbing loops attached to a placed piece (see below for pictures). These placed or fixed pieces might include pitons, nuts, cams, hexes, RPs, bolts, cam hooks, and more. But forget pitons and hooks for now.
Imagine a trad climber leading a pitch: as they ascend they place nuts and cams into cracks in order to protect themselves in case of a fall. In theory they need never hang from their pieces unless one of those pieces catches a fall, right? Aid climbing is a technique in which the climber does hang on each piece they place as they proceed up a route.
See this video of Chris McNamara for a visual demonstration of what it looks like (minus the daisy chains).
Basically you’re just hanging on gear, very slowly proceeding up a climb, piece by piece. Although conceptually simple, aid climbing is quite technical, gear intensive, and more than anything: slow … or at least slower than free climbing.
A look at basic aid climbing gear
Here’s a list of the main gear a typical aid climber would use:
Once again, these are just webbing ladders. The French word, ‘etrier,’ generally describes a lightweight low profile aider. ‘Ladders’ describe the Yates style aider with a spreader bar and no right/left foot designation; generally easier to get in and out of, and slightly more versatile, although heavier.
In aid climbing you use two of these for a variety of purposes. Primarily, you have a right daisy and and left daisy (the trick is not getting twisted on each other as you proceed up a pitch), which clip to the top of each aider. They also serve as a dual anchoring system, help with jugging (ascending a fixed rope via ascenders), and keep your aiders from falling all the way to the ground if dropped. It’s important to buy daisies that aren’t too short so you can adjust to the right length for your body!
Recommended daisy chain
Black Diamond Dynex Daisy Chain
It’s a daisy chain … that adjusts in length! This handy device is not necessary to aid successfully, but it definitely makes the process a little smoother. Basically, on certain sections of a technical aid climb it may be required to hang suspended between two separate pieces. When this is the case, an adjustable daisy allows you to fine-tune your position on the wall; getting exactly where you need to be in order to place the next piece.
Without this piece of gear, you end up having to hold a one-arm hang while you strenuously place a piece with the other hand, getting you exhausted faster.
Recommended adjustable daisy chain
Metolius Easy Daisy Chain
Petzl just came out with an ingenious system which turns both of your two necessary daisy chains into adjustable daisies by incorporating a rope-camming device easily operable with one hand.
Petzl Evolv Adjust
This little aluminum hook girth hitches to your harness master point and allows you to hang on a placed piece for a brief second or a minute while you get ready to place the next piece. Mostly a convenience piece, the fifi is not meant to be fallen on or to ever really come in contact with rock.
Recommended fifi hook
Black Diamond Fifi Hook
Why would you aid climb?
You may now be wondering,
Why anyone would ever want to do this?
The short answer is that it is simply a means to an end. Aiding gets you through the hard sections you couldn’t otherwise free climb.
Picture a blank slab of granite: totally featureless, connecting two pristine cracks high up on some uncharted big wall. How would one get from one crack to the next? By aid climbing and placing bolts (ideally, only when absolutely necessary) along the way, of course! It’s wild that this was for a long time, the standard approach to climbing …
A brief history of aid climbing: from fixed to clean aid
Back in the early 1900s, when the world really started getting serious about climbing and mountaineering, there wasn’t even a fraction of today’s gear available.
This was a time when climbing footwear consisted of hobnail boots, ropes were stiff, non-dynamic and prone to breaking, belay devices were non-existent, and carabiners were not yet invented.
Related: Climbing Gear of the Past
In this era, pitons served European climbers pushing the limits of the sport. Mountaineers, like Lionel Terray and Maurice Herzog pushed the limits of climbing and mountaineering by aiding only on pitons. At that time there was no question about removing the pitons after you had placed them; they were just there, forever. We know this technique now as Fixed Aid.
The following half-century sprang the creative mind of Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia and the Pacific Ironworks—now Black Diamond—through which the cam and the nut were commercialized). Consider reading, Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard for more insight.
Thanks to removable forms of protection, for the first time ever, you didn’t have to bring 100 lbs of pitons up a big wall climb to climb it. Moreover, you didn’t have to scar the rock in order to complete your climb (after removal, pitons leave grooves in the rock where they were initially hammered in, known as pinscars), thus paving the way for free climbing and Clean Aid.
Clean Aid is most widely used today and is the style you see on The Nose. Nowadays, climbers tend to only use pitons or drill bolts on routes where no other clean aid options are available; typically on first ascents of new routes, such as this Baffin Island expedition.
Understanding aid climbing grades
Like bouldering or any other type of climbing for that matter, Aid Climbing has its own set of ratings. In the case of aid, this generally describes the inherent danger associated with the movements.
The letter in front of the grade specifies what is left in the rock from the process: A represents a climb where pounding pitons or other pieces is required, whereas C stands for clean aid, where you leave the route clean, relying only on cams and other removable pieces to get yourself up.
Reference this simplified grade summary, taken from Moja Gear’s Climbing Grades: Comparison Chart and Rating Systems Overview:
- A0 or “French Free”: A free climb with an occasional aid move that does not require specialized aid climbing gear, such as etriers. This often involves pulling on bolts.
- A1, C1-C2 (beginner): Considered beginner aid, most of the climbing is straight forward with secure placements. Some aid climbing gear, like hooks, cam hooks, even a couple pitons, (which are often fixed on beginner routes) may be necessary.
- A2-A3, C2-C3 (intermediate): Moderate aid climbing with some tricky gear placements. There is no long fall potential, but some aid-specific gear is likely required.
- A3+-A4, C3-C4 (advanced): Involves hard aid climbing with many tenuous placements in a row. Long or dangerous fall potential may exist. Gear may be secure, but will not hold falls.
- A4-A5,C4-C5 (expert): Consecutive tenuous and body-weight only placements that could result in a fall of 20-meters or more. These require extreme technical expertise and mental strength. A single pitch could take many hours to lead.
Unlike the V-scale or the Yosemite Decimal System, aid ratings don’t exactly describe how physically difficult a route will be. Sure, “hard aid” is hard, but primarily because it’s sketchy and at points you feel like you might die because the placements are so bad. Plus, falling is always scary.
Here’s a great example of hard aid:
The harder the grade, the worse the placements. A5 represents a pitch with placements so sketch that they can take body weight only. That means if you take even the tiniest fall, your piece might blow. But honestly, it’s more of a technical head game than a demonstration of strength like hard bouldering or trad climbing.
Although controversy on the legitimacy of a rating system like this does exist (see the video below), aid ratings are generally accepted among the big wall climbing community and serve to represent the security of placements on a pitch.
In summary, aid climbing is basically assisted lead climbing, used primarily on big walls to get through sections that are too hard or impossible to climb using the given holds (or lack thereof).
Super interested in climbing the Dawn Wall but only capable of climbing Yosemite 5.9? No problem! Free climb all the 5.9 pitches and aid through anything harder than that. Easy!
…or is it?
Interested in learning more about aid climbing? Getting on your first big wall? Check out Chris McNamara’s masterpiece guide to big wall climbing, or just download the first three intro chapters for free here.
How to Big Wall Climb
Remember: aid climbing is just one technique you’ll need to master before venturing up on a big wall. Depending on the route, you’ll also need to gain a firm grasp of other techniques, including jugging, lowering out, hauling, self rescue, and more.
That being said, with proper professional instruction and the right equipment, you can begin your aid climbing journey.
Related: How to Build a Trad Rack
Tips for practicing
Before heading out to practice on your own, you should seek professional instruction and ensure you have a full understanding of how to practice safely.
Chris McNamara recommends first practicing aid climbing on low-angle bolted routes where the bolts are very close together. Close together bolts allows you to focus all on the aid and not worry about switching from aid to lead all at once; a tricky process to master.
Routes where bolts are about 4-6 feet apart are ideal. A route like this allows you to sink your teeth into the process for placing ladder after ladder and ‘top-stepping’ on each placement, (this is the term for walking up your aider to the very top for maximum efficiency).
Once you have aiding on bolted low-angle terrain dialed, you might think about graduating to a steeper bolted route, then a vertical bolted route, then an overhanging bolted route. With a little practice you’ll quickly have the sequence down. With a lot of practice you’ll be ready for a big wall like El Capitan.