Big wall climbing involves a great deal of rope management, transitions, and organization in order to keep upward progress in perpetual motion. A team’s ability (or lack there of) to climb and function efficiently on a wall can be the difference between topping out and getting appointed “Bail of the Day” on ElCap Report. Whether you’re tackling your first big wall this season or simply looking to improve your systems, here are a few tips to help you become a more efficient big wall climber:
Keep the leader moving
Your team can only move as fast as your leader. If you’re currently seconding, helping the leader continue to make upward progress should be your priority. Offer to carry larger cams they won’t need for the next pitch to lighten their rack. Refill their water bottle and be ready to pass it off along with some snacks at the top of the pitch. Remember, the leader doesn’t need to climb fast; they just need to keep moving.
Don’t get stuck in aid mode
You’ve been aiding through a thin crack, only to reach a couple 5.9 moves. Instead of tucking away your aiders and busting out the free moves, you precariously attempt to fiddle in a micro nut to get past the easy slab to the next solid gear placement. We’ve all been there. It’s easy to get caught up in the comfort and security of your aiders – don’t fall into this trap! Force yourself to become comfortable with the transition from aid to free climbing and back to aid again. It’s an easy way to increase your speed and efficiency on a big wall and will help turn your three-day ascent of the Nose into a NIAD run.
Organize the rack as you’re cleaning the pitch
All to often I see the second arrive at the top of a pitch with a complete mess attached to their harness. Cams are erratically clipped around their waist, nuts are intermittently hanging from draws, and slings are haphazardly dangling between their legs. The two partners then proceed to spend the next 10 to 15 minutes reorganizing their gear at the anchor. Be organized. Take the extra couple seconds to rack cams in the proper order, transfer nuts to a single biner, and unclip slings to wear around your shoulder. Racking gear on a sling rather than on your harness will make transitions at the belay even more efficient. You’ll be able to hand over a neat, orderly sling of gear to your partner, freeing up your time to transfer to the anchor, clean the fixed rope, and put your partner on belay.
Keep eating and drinking
Climbing a big wall isn’t a sprint; it’s an ultramarathon. Most parties will spend anywhere from two to four days on a wall. And even in-a-day parties spend anywhere from 8 to 24 hours intensively working. Fueling your body as well as replacing electrolytes and fluids is vital to maintaining the energy and focus needed for success on a wall. Always have a snack in your pocket. Make eating and drinking a part of your recurring routine on every pitch. There’s nothing worse than having progress screech to a halt because you or your partner haven’t kept up with calorie or salt intake.
Make efficient belay transitions
If you spend 20 minutes at every belay, over the span of 30 pitches you’ll add 10 hours to your total climbing time. 10 hours! That’s an entire extra day on the wall, which means you’ll need to pack another days worth of food and water, which equates to heavier haul bags, which results in slower progress… you get the point. It’s a vicious cycle. Evade the time suck of belays by keeping busy and staying organized. Your priority, whether you’re the leader or follower, is to avoid making your partner wait.
As the leader: Go off belay as soon as possible to free up your belayer. Fix the rope for them and set up the hauling system before stopping to take a drink and grab a snack. Once your partner is free to begin jugging the pitch, you can then take care of your own needs. If you finish hauling and stacking ropes before your partner has finished cleaning the pitch, consider placing your first piece of protection off the belay (if you don’t have the right piece of gear, decide what piece you’ll use). Once your partner puts you back on belay, you’ll be that much quicker to clip your first piece and get started up the next pitch.
As the second: Save time by leaving your back up knots from the previous pitch tied to the biner on your belay loop. As you belay your partner, only untie the knots as you need more rope. Once your leader reaches the anchor, the remaining rope will already be neatly tied to your harness, eliminating superfluous rope management, as well as wasted energy of the leader pulling up extra rope every pitch.
The more time spent practicing these tricks, the more second nature they’ll become. At the end of the day, efficiency on the wall translates to a more enjoyable and safer experience.