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)
- 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
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
Do whatever is most conducive to getting in a lot of laps.
1. Start with just two aiders and no daisy chains.
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).
3. Without stopping, step all the way until your waist is at the piece (or higher if you can).
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.
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.
7. Clip the rope to the piece (skip this step if you are top roping without a mock lead rope).
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.
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.