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Proper technique and strategy are keys to turning that Grade VI into a mere 12-hour climb.
Smart speeding — the basics for dialing in your first one-day big wall
Last summer 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 is under 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.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?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.Should we aid, free climb, or both? All of the above. My partner and I both lead 5.11 gear routes, 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.Jug or follow? Most of the time jugging is faster. We only followed easy free climbing or traversing pitches on Half Dome.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. 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.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.