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Basic Aid Technique

By Chris McNamara


The following is an excerpt on basic aid leading from the book How to Big Wall Climb by Chris McNamara:

Basic Leading Technique

This is the most important part of the book. Most big wall climbers fail because they learned the aid climbing basics but never took the time to master them. There’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and being able to do it fast.

Having the basics dialed means moving up your aiders almost as fast as walking up a stepladder and then making a smooth and quick transition to the next piece with minimum time spent organizing gear. This translates to climbing a C1 or C2 in less than an hour. It means getting to the bivy with hours left in which to enjoy the end of the day instead of setting up the portaledge by headlamp. It means finishing with extra water on the summit, not rationing water and climbing light-headed on the last day.

The good news for folks who don’t live near Yosemite is that 80 percent of success comes from mastering aid climbing basics that you can do at your local cliff, in a gym, even in your backyard tree.

Skills to Learn:

  • Efficiently moving from piece to piece
  • Keeping the aiders untangled
  • Always knowing where the aider is
  • Using the most simple system possible
  • Stepping as high in the aider as is efficient

Gear You Need:

  • Two aiders (ladder aiders are best to learn on)
  • 4-6 free biners, quickdraws (One per bolt or placement)
  • Helmet
  • Stop watch
  • Rope (don't bring daisy chains or fifi hook)

Where to Practice

The best wall to learn on is 30-50 feet tall and slightly less than vertical. Important: Don’t start on an overhanging wall or you will be frustrated and develop bad habits. Some good places to start:

  • A bolt ladder in a climbing gym (important that it is less than vertical)
  • A sport climb with bolts close enough to reach (you only need 4 to 6 bolts)
  • Any short crack route that takes gear every four feet

Solo fixed rope self-belay or partner?

It is always nice to have a belayer and partner. However, on your first aid lead you will discover a fundamental law of aid climbing: you are always moving slower than you think, much slower. You feel that you are moving at a moderate pace but your belayer and the clock tell you otherwise. Trying to find a partner to aid climb with is about as hard as finding a friend to go to traffic school with. And anyway, it's possible to practice almost every aid technique with a fixed rope self-belay by anchoring (or “fixing”) a single rope to the top of the cliff and then using a device like the Petzl Micro Traxion to self-belay.

If you can manage it, the ideal setup is to find a buddy to do this course with you. You then find a cliff that has two climbs side by side. That way 30 percent of the time you can belay, encourage and help each other while 70 percent of the time you can self-belay on a fixed rope so that you each get in a lot of laps.

Warning: There is a big difference between a solo fixed rope self-belay (described above) and solo lead self-belay. On a properly set up fixed rope self-belay, you don’t “fall” because you are essentially on top rope. Solo lead climbing is a whole different thing. It is much more advanced and dangerous than a fixed rope self-belay. It's more dangerous than lead climbing with a partner because there are so many more things to go wrong. It is an advanced technique not covered in this book.

The Basic Aid Climbing Sequence

There are four ways to set this up.

  • On top rope
  • On top rope trailing a second line as a “mock lead rope”
  • Solo fixed rope self-belay 
  • Leading

Do whatever is most conducive to getting in a lot of laps.

1. Start with just two aiders and no daisy chains.

Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>.

2. Clip aider directly to piece. (Never clip the biner attached to the piece because this shortens your reach to the next piece. If using etrier-style aiders, make sure the aider is oriented right (if stepping with your left foot, the step is left of center).

The correct way to clip an aider: directly. Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>.

Incorrect way to clip aiders to a piece of gear (you are losing a lot of reach). Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>. 

Use the aider grab hook to move up as fast as possible. Alternately, I often just grab the carabiner connecting the aider to the peice. Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>. 

3. Without stopping, step all the way until your waist is at the piece (or higher if you can).

Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>.

Click your heels together and gently smear the foot that is not in the aider. Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>. 

Tip It's more comfortable to put yours heels together and smear the foot that is not in the aiders on the wall.

4. Take your other aider and clip the next piece. Make sure the aiders are not overlapping and the steps are not twisted.

Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>.

5. Step into the next aider at the highest step that is comfortable (usually this is a step or two up from the bottom).

6. Unclip your bottom aider and clip it to the side of you harness. Always clip the aider to the same spot so it forms a habit and you always know where to go for it.

Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>.

7. Clip the rope to the piece (skip this step if you are top roping without a mock lead rope).

Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrill</a>.

8. Walk up the aider all the way until your waist is at the biner. If you can balance, then go even higher in the aider. In general, you want to walk as high as efficiently possible.

9. Repeat.

Helpful tips

Really get your foot in the aider. Standing on your toes in the aider will burn your calves. On low angle terrain it's hard your foot all the way into the step. It helps to turn your foot sideways as you put it in the aider . . . then flatten it out.

Photo by <a target="_blank" href="">Jerry Dodrillt</a>.

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