If I had told my college buddies that I would one day be heading up the Nose of El Capitan, they may have immediately laughed in my face. Big-waller?! Me?! No way!
…at least not a couple of years ago.
But a year after graduating, I spent a summer in Yosemite.
And while there, without even meaning to, I learned a few things about how to transition from the small stuff to the big stuff. Having now climbed Washington Column (via The Prow), Halfdome (via The Northwest Face), and El Capitan (via The Nose), I guess I could say I’m becoming a big-waller. I feel like I’ve made a solid progression, and perhaps a couple of things that I picked up along the way could be of help to you.
So if you find yourself about to tackle the intimidating task of your first big-wall, here are some thoughts from a climber who just went through a serious transition:
In college, I was hands-down a boulderer/sport-climber. I was terrified of placing gear, and never climbed more than two pitches back to back. But personally, I would get a little frustrated when old traddies would throw out claims that their level of commitment was above that of us “pebble wrestlers.” I didn’t see them projecting a V10 for months to stand proud 15 feet off the ground. At the time, climbing wasn’t about elevation for me, and the long fight of a boulder/sport project was (and still is) in my mind a rewarding, worthy commitment.
But the reality is, that there is a DIFFERENCE between committing to a big wall and a boulder. No duh. You can’t deny that.
And while I wouldn’t belt out that either is more difficult than the other (I’ll leave that argument to the Mountain Project and Rock and Ice forums.), I did drastically change my mindset to make it up the walls. Here’s what I mean:
1. Learn the technical!
Come on people! Sure, Alex Honnald is cool. Yes, free soloing makes you a stud. But big-walling, most often a combination of trad and aid climbing, requires a great amount of technical knowledge to be done safely. This past summer, I hit the books as hard as I hit the cliffs. DON’T SKIMP ON LEARNING THE ROPES! Knots, anchors, hauling techniques, self-rescue possibilities…learn them all.
Tip: Living in Yosemite, I would supplement rest days with reading time. Not only did it force me to take days off, but I learned a ton and could keep my psych up during the rest!
2. Embrace the suffering
Yep. I said it. YOU’RE GONNA SUFFER! And yep, you should suck it up. I’m not gonna pretend I never let out a complaint. In fact, I was probably the worst climbing partner ever on every approach (two words: “Death Slabs”)! But I always found the suffering to be worth the accomplishment.
Tip: Change a complaint to a joke. Negative grumbling can wreck a trip. But light hearted sarcasm about how much you love it when your big toe breaks is better for both your own mental state and your partner.
3. Work up to the heights
Big walls are…well, big. And I’ve now heard story after story of climbers being caught off guard by exposure and then trapped in a panic. My progression to the Nose was not an overnighter. I worked my way from 1 pitch, to 2, to 5, to 12, and so on.
Tip: Get accustomed to the exposure before adventuring on your first multi-day, tough-to-turn back wall.
Serious exposure under my climbing partner Dave at the end of “Thank God Ledge” on The Northwest Face of Half Dome.
On top of the mental difficulties of big-wall climbing, there is obviously the physical battle.
After spending 5 months climbing in Yosemite, my body actually changed. Now understand, I’m 5’8” and a pretty a small guy. At the beginning of the summer, I only weighed 140 lbs. I didn’t think I could lose any more weight…but I did. I actually dropped 10 lbs, both in fat and muscle.
For big walling, you want to be light, lean, and enduring. Here are a few physical changes I adopted in order to embrace big-walling.
If you’re used to cragging around boulders or southeastern sandstone, you’re in for a shock when you discover how many carbs you burn on a big-wall. From what I heard in the valley, climbers will drop anywhere from 5 to 15 lbs on a 3 day climb alone. You just can’t always replace what you lose up there. So carb-up before and after climbs! You’re gonna burn it off. Myself…I go “healthy” with pizza.
Everyone who has talked to a big-wall-monkey has heard it, but it’s true. A day on a wall is like doing 1,000 pull-ups, 2,000 sit-ups and running a half-marathon in a day. ENDURANCE. STAMINA. ENDURANCE. STAMINA. ENDURANCE. STAMINA. Embrace and obtain them both. The boulder in me was particularly caught off guard by the level of cardio-endurance I needed in Yosemite. Get it done. Go train! If you aren’t willing to build the stamina, you’re not in for a very fun time.
And Spiritual Change
Sitting and meditating before sandstone boulders in Tennessee brought a spiritual focus to my life that has transformed me as a person. With intense focus, I would summon the determination and physical strength built into my bones to grab sends with the hardest moves I had ever accomplished. This would test my design to reach its full potential.
This is very different from the spiritual journey of climbing a big wall. To understand more of where I personally am coming from, you’d probably best benefit from reading another of my posts, “Climbing The Nose of El Capitan.” But to try to sum up my thoughts on the spiritual journey of a wall, I will say this:
If you’ve never embraced the connectivity of this world, if you’ve never thought about how you are engrained into the existence of the universe, you will. As your fingers meet rock, your breath seeps forth, as you wake up on a ledge and fall asleep to the stars, as you meet hardship and overcome, you will battle through a life-changing experience that will not fail to spark spiritual curiosity.
I myself find answers in the belief of a created world and a man named Jesus.
But from wherever you are coming, allow the curiosity to grow and truly wrestle with your place in this world as you find your place on the rock. It will only add further growth to the experience.
Founder of The Network 5.12
So there it is. If you are about to embark on your first big-wall adventures, I hope this has helped channel your focus to where you could use more commitment. In fact, the word commitment might sum up what you are about to experience the best. So go do it. COMMIT. To mental, physical, and spiritual change, COMMIT. Get out there, and big-wall.
If you’re already a big-waller, let’s hear it? What are other preparations you made in becoming one? We’d love to have your input!