4 tips for going light, fast, strong . . . and free
What’s not to love about walls? Climbing sunup-to-sundown, sleeping on a giant face, great views. Oh, and the dreaded haulbag — that pig digging into your shoulders on the approach; hauling and docking the massive load; digging water bottles from the pig’s bowels like Oscar the Grouch doing a handstand. And don’t get me started on trying to free-climb while hauling — fuggedaboutit! I’d rather help Sisyphus with his boulder.
Whether you’re gunning for El Cap, the Painted Wall, or Zion’s Angel’s Landing routes, big-wall free climbing is nails hard — to date, an all-free El Cap VI has never truly been onsighted, toe to summit. History has shown that on free walls, the victors go extremely light, have a dedicated hauling/jugging partner, and/or strategically stash loads — thus removing hauling from the equation. No wonder, then, that following traditional (read: heavy) ground–up rules, like those used aid climbing, make these feats all the more difficult. Only in rare cases — like the FA of The Serpent (VI 5.11+ R/X), in the Black Canyon — have ground–up, all–team free ascents succeeded.
The same rings true on cutting-edge FA/FFAs; these usually require miles of fixed line and heavy Mini Traxion previewing. But even here, savvy climbers ditch the pigs. They’ll also stack the deck with an open mind about (and proper planning for) rapping in, an escape route back to the top, sound nutrition, and proper rest.
Kings (and Queens) of Rap 1993: during her nearly successful ground-up effort to free the Nose, Lynn Hill was thwarted by a fixed pin blocking a crucial hold on the Changing Corners (P27: 5.14a). Rapping in, Hill removed the pesky piece, later making her landmark integral free ascent. Now, in 2009, it’s not uncommon to see teams rapping their way to the Valley floor.
“When I’m prepping to free El Cap, I start at the top and rap, toproping pitches, leaving a few gear stashes, and finishing the day at my car in the Meadow,” obviating the need for the pig, says Tommy Caldwell. Justen Sjong, Caldwell’s partner on the 2008 FFA of Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a), echoes the sentiment: “Hauling up El Cap is more like vertical construction or baggage handling than climbing!” he says. “The best thing about stashing is it becomes cragging.”
Still, rapping big walls is serious business. Although steep, sweeping walls (prime free-climbing territory) keep rope snags to a minimum, they can and do happen. “When solo rapping El Cap without a rack, I got the rope stuck once,” says Caldwell. “Luckily, there were only 30 feet of 5.7 to climb to free the snagged line.” The best defense against snags and other bugaboos is to know your route well — scope it closely beforehand and ask around for Beta regarding anchor locations and other logistics. Then while rapping, have the leader take the rack; and on windy days, have him flake the rope as he goes instead of just tossing it. Also, be sure both team members have proper ascending equipment, and always knot your rope ends.
Look Before You Leap Be sure you can climb out (read: don’t get in over your head). I know teams who’ve rapped a few pitches down to work crux ropelengths only to be left fatigued, without proper gear, and facing either an open bivy or an epic struggle rimward. If possible, leave a fixed line through cruxes (if you’re only going a short way down), and bring extra rack-age to ensure safe French–freeing. I also take a mini–haulbag with some goodies (see “Mini- Haulbag Essentials” sidebar).
Eat for Success Packing canned food was standard issue when climbers still wore painter’s pants. But today, we have Tasty Bites® (vacuum-sealed, “cooks in 90 seconds” Indian and Thai food), and even tuna in vacuum-sealed pouches — so leave the cans. Also, a JetBoil® stove, complete with hanging kit and coffee press, makes vertical cooking a breeze.
Easy Does It Freeing big walls hurts: it’s like running laps on Astroman (V 5.11c) for multiple days . . . but harder. Add extra rest days into your schedule both on and off the rock. Pack extra food and water in the haulbag — after all, you’re hauling down, not up — to replenish your muscles, and rest-day diversions (magazines, tuneage) to pass the time. Who (besides Caldwell) can climb at max potential day after crushing day, anyway?
Climbing Contributing Editor Chris Van Leuven teamed up with Matt Childers and Tim Kemple for a near-free ascent of El Cap’s Golden Gate (VI 5.13a/b) in 2001. Having seen the light, Van Leuven says he now considers aid climbing “passé.”
Headlamps with fresh batteries
Windbreaker/light storm gear, warm hat
10 to 15 biners, nuts, a few extra lockers, selection of cams, extra slings, backup rappel device
Alpine aiders, daisy chains, ascenders
Three to four liters of water, energy gel, and a selection of energy bars
Climbing tape and extra chalk, small first-aid kit, ibuprofen
Fully charged cellphone
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