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17 Tips for Moving Faster (Safely) on Big Walls

Trying to turn that Grade VI into a mere 12-hour climb? Or just looking to make a 6-pitcher a feasible after-work feat? Proper strategy and preparation are crucial.

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Part 1. Some frequently asked questions

In the early 2000s, I completed one of my all-time dream climbs: a one-day ascent of Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.8 C1). At 23 pitches, it was the longest single-day route of my life. Though the speed record on Half Dome was about two hours, our goal was simply to get up the thing in a day. We took around 14 hours, passing one party and delayed by another, and climbed from just before dawn to just before dusk, moving steadily throughout. Taken this way, a one-day Grade V or VI big wall is well within reach of many climbers. Below are some of the questions that dogged us before the climb and the answers we learned during that long, great day.

1. What should we bring? We needed enough gear to get safely up the route (or down in case of retreat), but didn’t want too much weight and

clutter. On Half Dome we took one set of lightweight aiders, a single pair of ascenders rigged with simple foot slings (instead of aiders), a 7mm trail line for emergencies, rain jackets, and headlamps. To choose your rack, it’s essential to get beta from other one-dayers, not from parties expecting to aid every move. For example, do you really need the three sets of cams necessary for full-blown aiding, or would one or two suffice?

2. Should we haul? No. Hauling is exhausting and time consuming. Work out a system to carry everything on your back and harness. Even though this will lower your free-climbing level and be tough duty for the second early in the day (when the pack is filled with water), it’s essential to making good time.

3. Should we aid, free climb, or both? All of the above. My partner and I both lead 5.11 gear routes back then, yet we didn’t free climb many pitches harder than 5.8 on Half Dome. However, even at this standard, we only used aiders on a third of the pitches. Usually we got by with pulling on occasional pieces—the so-called French-free method. If you have to grab more than two or three pieces in a row, using aiders will be more efficient.

4. Jug or follow? Most of the time jugging is faster. We only followed easy free climbing or traversing pitches on Half Dome.

5. What about simul-climbing and short-fixing? Simul-climbing is when both climbers move together with gear between them; short-fixing is when the leader pulls up all the slack at the anchor, ties it off, and keeps going rope-solo while the second jugs. Both are essential for record-busting speed ascents, but we weren’t after records. We studied the topo for each section and chose whichever method seemed best. We occasionally short-fixed when the next pitch started out with easy-to-solo aid. We also simul-climbed one easy passage in the middle, linking two pitches. Usually, though, it seemed best to focus on what we knew—leading and following—and to do it as efficiently as possible.

6. How will we pass? Two words: opportunity and diplomacy. We got stuck behind a party of three, who stalled us for several pitches. When their leader chose to free a tricky chimney on pitch 12, we seized the chance to aid quickly up a neighboring corner. Friendly banter and a sense of “We’re-all-in-this-together” camaraderie really help.

7. What techniques should we practice beforehand? Two come to mind, and they both involve the second: jugging and cleaning efficiently, and lowering out to follow traverses or pendulums. If both climbers have these thoroughly dialed, you’ll save tons of time.

Part 2. Ten Tips That’ll Help You Move Faster

For years you’ve dreamed of free-climbing a Grade V in a day, but every time you attempt a Grade III or IV route, a symphony of errors always slows you down: evil approaches, inadequate water supply, or your cumbersome rack. Is your system as streamlined as it can be? The following light-and-fast tips will shave precious ounces off your load and offer advantages that can prove to be mission-critical by the seventh or eighth pitch.

1. LED there be light. Always carry a headlamp on long routes, but make it a svelte one. Micro LED headlamps are infinitely smaller and lighter than standard headlamps; their batteries last longer (up to 120 hours), and their moonbeam-like luminescence doesn’t cast confusing shadows.

Tech Tip - Trad - Ten strategies for moving quickly on long routes

2. Paperclip power. A rack of 30 wire-gate carabiners saves almost three-quarters of a pound over oval biners. Also, wire-gate biners significantly reduce the risk of gate whip and are less likely to freeze up on alpine routes.

3. Sticky situations. Get a pair of super-lightweight approach shoes. Sticky soles give you added confidence on sketchy 4th class terrain, and the low profile of the lightweight models is key for unencumbered climbing. Tuck the laces into the toe box, clip a biner to the pull tabs, and clip the shoes to the back of your harness.

4. Be prepared. Mother Nature can close in faster than you can climb. Carry a lightweight wind/rain jacket on ascents longer than three or four pitches. Numerous companies produce highly compactable jackets that’ll keep you dry and won’t weigh you down.

5. Hydration. Are you going to carry a pack? If so, bring a bladder-style dromedary bag rather than a water bottle. Bladders get smaller as you consume water, and allow you to drink whenever you get thirsty, instead of rummaging around in your pack for a bulky bottle. For chimneys and off-widths, girth hitch a runner to the pack and clip it to the second’s belay loop. This will give you freedom to climb efficiently in tight spots (and will save wear on your pack).

6. Sustenance. Energy gels pack smaller than energy bars, and offer a solid energy blast for their unit weight. Power down an energy gel pack and you’ll be ready to hike the crux pitch!

7. Skinny runners. By converting your runners to Spectra (a.k.a Dyneema) you can save weight and bulk. By weight, Spectra is stronger than nylon, and thinner slings make for easier racking. But Spectra has its drawbacks (it doesn’t flex as much) and can be dangerous if used incorrectly: read this to learn more.

8. Trick triple. Instead of carrying full-length runners bandolier style, which can make for difficult clips, “trick triple” your runners as extendable draws. To extend, simply unclip one biner from two of the three strands and pull.

9. Storage space. If you’re climbing without a backpack, strip an extra chalk bag of its lining and clip it to your harness. This is an excellent place to stash your LED headlamp, rain jacket, a space blanket, and an energy gel or two. Shift it from side to side as the pitch demands.

10. Navigation. Print out a topo or download it to your phone. If you’re going with the paper version (not a bad idea, since charging your phone while charging up a big wall isn’t super easy) plaster both sides with packing tape, and trim down to size. Punch a hole in the topo, tie a loop of thin cord to the topo, and clip or girth hitch it to a gear loop on your harness. Now you can suss out route Beta at belays and stances.

Both of these articles were published in Climbing’s Tech Tips department in the early 2000s.