March 7, 2022

What is Big Wall Climbing and What Gear Do You Need?

by Bernice

Table of Contents

Big wall climbing is a rock climbing variation where climbers ascend long multi-pitch routes that usually require several days to complete the climb.

Often, climbers are forced to live on the routes, use hauling equipment, and even portaledges. The sport is practiced on tall, vertical surfaces with minimal ledges and tiny cracks.

Climbers haul gear, food, ropes, water, and portaledges by pulling them up the rock’s surface to the next belay station.

Various (advantageous) mechanisms are used to haul the bags, i.e., counterweighting. Such systems make it easier for climbers to move the bags and restock their supplies without expending too much energy.

The gear is usually packed and spread over several haul bags with average weights that range between 30 – 40 kg.

This helps minimize the loss of equipment and maximize the system’s efficiency. The system usually has a self-locking pulley that arrests motion and stops the bag from sliding back when hauling stops.

Big Wall Climbing History

Climbers scaled huge rock surfaces in the European Alps and Dolomites using aid-climbing and free-climbing tactics to make bold ascents.

However, bigger rock surfaces were still waiting for later generations to use better methods and tools to make an ascent.

In addition, in the 1900s, various nations had specialized units in the army that had practiced and specialized techniques to gain access to enemy fortifications through wall climbing.

At the start of the 1900s, a US army unit known as the Filipino scouts, which included American officers and enlisted Filipino, demonstrated the skills mentioned above by breaching the Spanish era fortification based in manila through climbing its steep walls.

They did that a second time by climbing the wall carrying howitzers to the top of the wall.

Emilio Comici invented and proposed using solid belays, multistep aid ladders, hanging bivouacs, and a tag/trail line. This was a huge contribution to big wall climbing techniques.

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Big wall climbing officially started in the 1950s with climbers ascending El Capitan’s Southeast buttress and Half Dome’s Northwest face, Yosemite in ’57 and ’58, respectively.

The sport exploded in the ’60s and ’70s with the invention of hammocks and hard iron jumars and pitons.

Big wall climbing has evolved in the past few decades, boosted by raid developments in speed climbing and free climbing.

Routes that used to take days can now be ascended in under 24 hours. Regardless, other parties still do multi-day ascents.

However, very few well-prepared climbers (elites) can free-climb or speed-climb most classic grade IV routes in a few hours. Big wall climbing is one of the many types of climbing practiced these days.

Overview of the Big Wall Climbing System

Leading

Leading is when climbers ascend a pitch by free-climbing, aiding, or both. The lead climber trails a haul line that’s clipped to the back of their harness.

Leading is a bigger risk compared to other types of climbs. Therefore, leading climbers must be experienced enough in elevated rock climbing and mitigate risk.

They should be mentally ready, start easy, take their time, and make slow but steady progress.

Belay Setup

The leader installs the belay and hauling system when they reach the end of the pitch.

The follower lets go of the haul bag from the lower belay while the leader pulls it up.

As mentioned before, you have to be careful regarding how much weight you place on the haul bag.

Jumaring and Hauling

Usually, the leader doesn’t belay their partner up. Instead, their follower uses the fixed lead rope to make their ascent.

The follower jumars up the fixed lead line and removes all the protection as they ascend, while the leader hauls the bag. They repeat this cycle once the haul bag and both climbers are at the top of the belay.

What Climbing Equipment Do You Need for Big Walls?

Here is a list of the climbing equipment you will need when you are climbing big walls.

Preview Product Rating
Black Diamond Equipment - Cliff Cabana Double Portaledge Black Diamond Equipment - Cliff Cabana Double Portaledge No ratings yet
Black Diamond Equipment - Deluxe Single Fly Black Diamond Equipment - Deluxe Single Fly No ratings yet
PETZL Ascension Gold Ascender Yellow Right PETZL Ascension Gold Ascender Yellow Right 558 Reviews
Black Diamond Equipment - Etrier Webbing Ladder - Six Step Black Diamond Equipment - Etrier Webbing Ladder - Six Step No ratings yet
Black Diamond Equipment - 12 mm Dynex Daisy Chain 140 cm - Red Black Diamond Equipment - 12 mm Dynex Daisy Chain 140 cm - Red No ratings yet
Black Diamond Equipment - Lost Arrow Piton - #1 (Short Thin) Black Diamond Equipment - Lost Arrow Piton - #1 (Short Thin) No ratings yet
Black Diamond Stubby Haul Bag Black Diamond Stubby Haul Bag No ratings yet
Black Diamond Equipment - Pulley Black Diamond Equipment - Pulley No ratings yet
PACEARTH Swing Swivel, 35KN Swivel Swing Hanger, 360° Rotational Swivel Swing Hook, Strong Safety Swing Spinner Hanging Accessory for Hammock, Rock Climbing, Web Tree Swing, Aerial Dance PACEARTH Swing Swivel, 35KN Swivel Swing Hanger, 360° Rotational Swivel Swing Hook, Strong Safety... No ratings yet
KIKIGOAL 2pcs Safety Daisy Chains Strong Climbing Strap Adjustable Nylon Strap Rope Yoga Pilates Stretching Straps (Grey, 180cm * 1.5cm/70.87'x0.59') KIKIGOAL 2pcs Safety Daisy Chains Strong Climbing Strap Adjustable Nylon Strap Rope Yoga Pilates... 348 Reviews
Black Diamond Equipment - Bosun'S Chair - NO COLOR - All Sizes Black Diamond Equipment - Bosun'S Chair - NO COLOR - All Sizes No ratings yet
PETZL Unisex_Adult Goutte D'eau Skyhook, Black, Uni PETZL Unisex_Adult Goutte D'eau Skyhook, Black, Uni No ratings yet
Black Diamond Equipment - Zodiac Gear Sling - Small/Medium Black Diamond Equipment - Zodiac Gear Sling - Small/Medium No ratings yet
Black Diamond Cliffhanger Black Diamond Cliffhanger 4 Reviews
Black Diamond Equipment - Big Gun Harness - Tequila Gold - Small Black Diamond Equipment - Big Gun Harness - Tequila Gold - Small No ratings yet
La Sportiva TC Pro Climbing Shoe - Men's, Sage, 34 La Sportiva TC Pro Climbing Shoe - Men's, Sage, 34 78 Reviews
Black Diamond Equipment - Half Dome Helmet - BD Orange - Small/Medium Black Diamond Equipment - Half Dome Helmet - BD Orange - Small/Medium 1,153 Reviews

Last update on 2022-10-01 // Source: Amazon Affiliates

How to Get into Big Wall Climbing?

Have you been researching big wall climbing? Ever wondered how you could get into it? If you have, you should know that big wall climbing involves routes that take more than one day to climb.

Attempting to climb such routes requires you to have a high skill and fitness level. You should also be experienced sleeping on the cliff’s surface in a portaledge and hauling gear.

Note that a lot goes into big wall climbing and a lot that you’ll need to do. You are probably familiar with sport climbing if you’ve been (primarily) lead climbing in the gym.

While climbing 5.12 indoors is a good achievement and useful in helping you grow your strength and improve your technique, it isn’t enough.

You’ll need to look for someone that has and knows how to use a trad rack. You’ll need to practice using the trad rack by climbing as many 5.9, and 5.8 outdoor crack climbs as you can.

If you haven’t tackled crack climbs before, then you’ll need to focus more on top-roping, figure out, and master the technique.

Doing this is important since you’ll learn how to use your feet to push yourself up, how to lie back, and how to hand jam.

You should also work out and do appropriate exercises to ensure that you are physically fit enough to tackle such climbs.

Go the extra mile and push yourself past the limit to make climbing big walls less challenging.

Can I Climb a Big Wall?

Yes, you can! The thought of climbing multi-day walls can be overwhelming. However, it becomes infinitely easier when it is segmented into small sections.

The goals (or milestones) become more realistic and achievable. Jumaring, aid climbing, and hauling are reasonably easy skills to learn by most experienced trad climbers.

The most important part is going out and practicing until you are extremely good at your skills.

If you put in enough effort in your training and do it properly, the chances are that you’ll be skilled enough to tackle multi-day climbs in a short period.

However, you must note that it may take different periods since each climber has capabilities and motivations.

After two years of training, some climbers have managed to ascend typical walls like El Capitan. However, some have taken significantly longer.

Climbers have noted that about 50 percent of people who try big wall climbing often back down for various reasons. Some of the reasons include bad weather.

However, one of the biggest reasons is a lack of mental preparation. You should train yourself to tackle complex challenges (i.e., multi-day big wall climbing) both physically and mentally.

You may be physically prepared but get surprised when you face your challenge and notice its sheer height.

You should have the mental aptitude to cut down the challenge into manageable bites that you can handle comfortably.

Where Can I Climb a Big Wall?

It would help if you tried climbing rock surfaces in Yosemite Valley (California) when the weather is right.

Yosemite Valley has several easy routes and simple approaches, making it the best training ground for beginners who want to begin their climbing career.

Other locations include the Dolomites in Italy, Squamish in Canada, Zion in the USA, Catalonia in Spain, and Orco Valley in Italy.

That said, there are other locations available globally. Often, most of these locations are in remote or wild places that are difficult and expensive to reach.

Additionally, they could also have no rescue services and bad weather patterns.

Thus, you must build up your skills in easily accessible locations with good weather patterns before going off to try your luck in wild and remote locations.

How to Choose a Big Wall Climbing Partner?

Choosing the right big wall climbing partners is crucial, especially if you aren’t experienced enough or a solo climber.

It could make the difference between having the best experience of your life or experiencing your worst nightmare.

The best climbing partners are those with whom you’ve climbed multi-pitched routes, enjoy good company, and share similar goals.

Climbing big walls with a good partner (someone you know already) can be a good adventure than someone you meet with randomly on the internet.

Keep in mind that you’ll have to spend several days sleeping and eating. Therefore, you’ll need someone you get along with if you want the best experience.

How to Choose a Big Wall Climb?

Choosing a big wall to climb depends on several factors, including your stamina, physical fitness, mental preparedness, location of the big wall, weather, climbing partner, skills, experience, etc.

The most critical thing to ensure is that you are physically and mentally ready to do the climb.

You should also train adequately, have appropriate skills, and ensure that you have a reliable climbing partner, especially if it’s your first time.

In addition, you should assess the location where you want to practice big wall climbing and check whether the weather’s good.

You can choose to climb remote or well-known areas depending on your experience, sense of adventure, and safety.

Big Wall Climbing Etiquette

You’ll have to follow some straightforward rules when big wall climbing.

The rules are somewhat general, and they come down to simple politeness, respect, and adopting common sense.

Here are some basic guidelines to help you maintain good big wall climbing etiquette with fellow climbers.

  • Don’t enhance placements or chip holds.
  • Don’t add more rivets, bolts, boathook holes on existing routes.
  • Use clean aid when possible.
  • It would be polite to let them pass when you’re moving slower than other climbers.
  • If other climbers beat you to a route, you should let them climb first.
  • Take your human waste and litter home.

Training for Big Wall Climbing

Training for big wall climbing is all about building your stamina and enhancing your skills. There are two ways you could go about it.

The first one is by training all day while the second one involves working out two hours each day. Training all day may not be the best strategy for individuals with a demanding schedule.

Therefore, their best option would be to engage in intense training for two or more hours, depending on how much free time they have.

Remember that this training is a bit rigorous and requires dedication and mental conditioning. Therefore, you’ll need to give yourself enough time for your body to build enough stamina necessary to tackle big wall climbs.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to maintain a proper diet, hydrate, and increase your training progressively.

Epic Big Walls to Climb

This is a list of five of the most epic big walls to climb.

  1. Yosemite, USA
  2. Baffin Island’s Mt. Asgard, Canada
  3. Tsaranoro Massif, Madagasca
  4. Trango Towers, Pakistan
  5. Ulvetanna Queen Maud Land, Antarctica

1. Yosemite, USA

It’s no surprise that this came first in this list since we’ve mentioned it more than a couple of times in this article.

The location is best known for its deep valleys, waterfalls, giant sequoias, and towering monoliths.

Yosemite became a national park in 1980 and is receiving visitors up to this moment. Some of these visitors include novice and experienced mountain climbers.

Yosemite is 1000 meters high, is averagely remote, has a 9/10 difficulty, and has an above-average aesthetic beauty.

It is considered the Mecca of wall climbing and has hosted some of the best and legendary climbs since the 1950s.

2. Canada, Baffin Island’s Mt. Asgard

Named after the fictional Asgardian Kingdom, Mt. Asgard is 1200 meters high, is quite remote, has an above-average difficulty, and aesthetic beauty.

It holds a special place among ski BASE and Bond movie fans. It’s the same mountain that Rick Sylvester (the famous stunt legend) skied off and opened a parachute printed with a British flag in 1976.

Leo Holding (a British climber) led a team of climbers in 2009 trying to make Northface’s first free ascent.

The story was told in the award-winning film The Asgard Project by Alastair Lee. Houlding BASE jumped off the mountain’s summit paying homage to the mountain’s history.

3. Tsaranoro Massif, Madagascar

Tsaranoro Massif is 400 meters high, remote, 6/10 difficulty, and has above-average aesthetic beauty. This mountain is considered Africa’s Yosemite.

It has huge granite walls that have been quite popular among climbers since the late 90s. They aren’t so long and can be tackled in a day.

One of the most famous lines (Tough Enough) can be ranked alongside most multi-pitch routes found globally. The wall is suitable for people seeking to improve their skills and stamina.

4. Trango Towers, Pakistan

Trango Towers is 1300 meters high, quite remote, difficult, and has excellent aesthetic beauty.

Few mountains globally strike awe and fear into climbers’ hearts, and Trango Towers is among them. Its towers are some of the hardest to climb and have attracted several top climbers globally.

Getting to Trango Towers’ peaks is an expedition, and the climbing takes place at 6000 meters, which is extremely difficult for starters.

Polish big-wall climbers Marcin Tomaszewski and Marek Raganowicz took 20 days to complete a new forty-six pitch route.

5. Ulvetanna Queen Maud Land, Antarctica

Ulvetanna Queen Maud Land is 1750 meters tall and quite difficult, remote, and aesthetically pleasing.

The mountain juts out of Antarctica’s white desert like a ship’s prow and provides a wonderful sight that anyone bold enough to visit is sure to enjoy.

Rock climbing at the bottom of the world isn’t for the faint-hearted. For instance, while bare hands are often the best when rock climbing, it’s a bit difficult to use your bare hands when climbing at minus 25 degrees.

However, Leo Houlding led a team that ascended the unclimbed northeast ridge in 2013.

What is Considered a Big Wall Climb?

Typically, a big wall climb takes more than one day to compete regardless of the climber’s expertise.

The climb often necessitates climbers to carry their food, gear, and water with them as they do the climb while they spend their nights sleeping in portaledges or natural ledges whenever it’s needed.

How Do Big Wall Climbers Poop?

Big wall climbers often find themselves in challenging climbing situations, i.e., when nature calls.

In such instances, climbers often poop in bags, sealed and placed in poop tubes, i.e., PVC pipes with caps on both ends, which are then hauled up with you as you climb.

When peeing, climbers are advised to aim as far out into space as possible. Female climbers use a special funnel that turns the pee into vapor.

You should avoid peeing into cracks on the rock’s surface since it may fester and disgust future climbers that may have to use the crack to climb the route.

Who is the Best Big Wall Climber?

The American climber, Alexander Honnold, is best known for his solo climbs on big walls, i.e., his solo ascent of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan (2017).

He is the first person to solo climbs the wall and the fastest to ascend the Yosemite triple crown.

He is the author of the memoir Alone on the wall and was the subject of Free Solo’s biographical documentary in 2018.

How Do You Do a Big Climbing Wall?

You’ll need to have and follow a safety checklist, which ensures that you have a good climbing session.

You’ll have to review what worked and didn’t work during the training sessions (before you go out on your climbing adventure.

Ensure that you have enough practice and are competent enough in big wall climbing and self-rescue techniques.

Being cautious and ready will help minimize any problems that may arise in the field and provide good strategies to mitigate risk.

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About the author 

Bernice

Bernice often jokes that she is better at climbing than walking. With avid parents of climbing, her first encounter with the high vertical rock walls was at the age of one. Her favorite style of climbing is bouldering.

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