Big wall climbing

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Big wall climbing is a form of rock climbing that takes place on long multi-pitch routes (of at least 6–10 pitches or 300–500 metres) that normally require a full day, if not several days, to ascend. In addition, big wall routes are typically sustained and exposed, where the climbers remain suspended from the rock face, even sleeping hanging from the face, with limited options to sit down or escape unless they abseil back down the whole route (a complex and risky action). It is therefore a physically and mentally demanding form of climbing.


Big wall climbing is typically done in pairs in a traditional climbing format, but with the distinction that the non-lead climber usually ascends by jumaring up a fixed rope to save time and energy. It requires an extensive range of supplies and equipment over and above that of traditional climbing that is carried in haul bags, including portaledges, aid climbing equipment, poop tubes, and food and water. It requires additional techniques such as pendulums/tension traversing, aid climbing, using trail ropes, jumaring, and sometimes simul climbing.

Big wall climbing began in the Dolomites with early pioneers such as Emilio Comici inventing many of the first techniques and tools in the 1930s, and then spreading throughout the entire European Alps by climbers such as Riccardo Cassin and Walter Bonatti with his milestone solo ascent of the Dru in 1955. From the 1960s, American climbers led by Royal Robbins developed Yosemite into the most important big wall climbing venue in the world, with Lynn Hill's 1993 first free ascent of The Nose at 5.14a  (8b+) on El Capitan being an important milestone in big wall history. Major high-altitude big-walls have been scaled in Patagonia and in the Himalayas.


Climbers on a pitch of The Nose route (VI 5.9 C2) on El Capitan Climbers on the face of El Capitan.jpg
Climbers on a pitch of The Nose route (VI 5.9 C2) on El Capitan

Big wall climbing is rock climbing on large routes that often take a full day, if not several days, of continuous climbing to ascend. Big wall climbing is a form of multi-pitch climbing but there is no definition of how many pitches are needed for a route to be a big wall; a minimum of at least 6–10 pitches (or roughly 300–500 metres) is typically required. Big wall climbing is usually done in pairs as lead climbing, however, due to the length of the climbs, the second climber usually ascends via a fixed rope to save energy and time. [1] [2]

Big wall climbing can be performed as free climbing, however, it is common for big wall climbers to use some level of aid climbing on the route, as it is often impossible for very large multi-pitch routes to have a uniform level of difficulty (i.e. there may be some sections that are well beyond the difficulties of the rest of the route). [3] Most big wall routes require traditional climbing techniques for climbing protection however some routes have bolted sections (or pitons) like sport climbing routes. Big wall routes have also been free solo climbed. [1] [2]

Big wall climbing routes are typically sustained and exposed, where the climbers are suspended from the rock wall during their entire ascent with limited availability to sit down (e.g. few large ledges), or to escape from the wall other than by abseiling back down the entire route (which can be itself a risky process). Big wall climbing is thus a more serious undertaking than multi-pitch climbing, and climbers will generally only attempt big wall routes at grades that they can easily manage as multi-pitch routes. [1] [2]

The duration and sustained exposure of big wall climbs require greater equipment—and equipment-handling skills—over and above what is required for multi-pitch routes. Big wall climbers need to be able to haul gear and supplies up the route as they climb (using pulleys and haul bags), ascend on fixed ropes (the non-leading climber), build major anchor points (for hanging belays), hammer-in bolts and pitons as required, and set up portaledges for resting and sleeping. Given the length of the routes, this must happen efficiently. [1] [2]

Notable walls

In determining what is a "big wall", there is not only debate about the height requirements but also on whether it includes alpine climbs such as the north faces of the Eiger and the Matterhorn, which also have a lot of snow and ice. [4] Regardless, a number of walls are considered particularly notable in the development of big-wall climbing: [5] [4] [6]

In addition to the above big walls, several other locations are regarded as having impressive big walls that are climbed. However, their level of challenge (sometimes due to the variable or poor quality of the rock) has not been as notable in the development of big wall climbing; they include Troll Wall (Norway), Cerro Autana (Venezuela), Naranjo de Bulnes (Spain), [14] Tsaratanana Massif (Madagascar), [14] Potrero Chico (Mexico), Ketil (Greenland), and Notch Peak and The Streaked Wall (Utah). [4] [5] [14]


Climber on the famous big wall climb Cassin Route on Piz Badile, which is 850-metres, 25-pitches, and graded TD (IFAS), 5.9 (American), 5c (French), VI- (UIAA), IV (NCCS). Piz Badile - Cassin route.jpg
Climber on the famous big wall climb Cassin Route on Piz Badile, which is 850-metres, 25-pitches, and graded TD (IFAS), 5.9 (American), 5c (French), VI- (UIAA), IV (NCCS).

One of the earliest examples of "big wall climbing" dates from 1887 when a 17-year-old Georg Winkler free soloed the Vajolet Towers in the Dolomites. [15] The Dolomites were the birthplace of big wall climbing, and where pioneer Emilio Comici invented many big wall techniques such as aid climbing with multi-step aiders, hanging belays and bivouacs, advanced rope maneuvers, and leading with a trail rope. In 1933, Comici climbed the overhanging north face of the Cima Grande, then the world's hardest big wall route. Other pioneers such as Riccardo Cassin, himself a leading alpinist, created even harder new routes and spread big wall techniques across the Alps. [5] In 1955, Walter Bonatti ushered in modern big wall climbing with his six-day solo of a new route on the southwest pillar of the Petit Dru, one of the most important big wall climbs in history. [5] [16]

In 1957, a team led by Royal Robbins climbed the Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite, ushering in modern American big wall climbing. [7] In 1958, a team led by Warren Harding aid climbed The Nose on El Capitan using siege tactics (600 pitons and 125 bolts) over 47 days; while the ascent got worldwide recognition it was controversial due to the excessive use of aid. [7] Robbins' ethos of minimizing the use of aid prevailed over that of Harding, and his legacy of partially aided ascents including the Salathé Wall (1961), the North American Wall (1964), and the Muir Wall (1968) cemented Yosemite, and the granite walls of El Capitan, as the world's most important big wall climbing venue and Robbins' place in big wall history. [16] [17]

The development of big wall techniques and tools in the European Alps and in Yosemite led to a worldwide search for new big walls. In 1963, a team led by Chris Bonington established the first big wall routes on the Cordillera Paine, Chilean Patagonia, followed closely by new Italian-led routes. In 1972, Doug Scott, and later Charlie Porter, developed big wall routes on Mount Asgard, and highlighted the enormous big wall potential of Baffin Island. [11] In 1976, a British team led by Joe Brown ascended one of the first-ever high-altitude big wall routes with the granite Trango (Nameless) Tower in the Karakoram, [5] which was followed in 1992 by the two-man team of John Middendorf and Xaver Bongard  [ de ] who ascended the east buttress of the neighboring Great Trango Tower, putting up The Grand Voyage (1,340-metres, 33-pitches, VII 5.10 A4+), the longest big wall route in the world. [8]

From the late 1980s, leading sport climbers began to fully free-climb major big wall routes, and establish new testpieces. In 1988, Todd Skinner and Paul Piana freed the Salathe Wall on El Capitan at 5.13b  (8a). [7] [16] In 1989, Wolfgang Gullich, with others, established the mega-route Eternal Flame on Nameless Tower (fully freed by the Hubers in 2009), [16] and in 1991, created Riders on the Storm on the Torres del Paine. [16] In 1993, Lynn Hill claimed one of the greatest prizes in big wall climbing by freeing The Nose on El Capitan at 5.14a  (8b+). [7] [16] In 2001, Alexander Huber freed Bellavista  [ it ] on the Cima Ovest at 8c  (5.14b). [16] In 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson freed Dawn Wall on El Capitan at 5.14d  (9a). [7] [16] During this era, new milestones were also set in big-wall free solo climbing by Alexander Huber, with Brandler-Hasse Direttissima on the Cima Grande in 2012 at 7a+  (5.12a), by Hansjörg Auer, with Fish Route on the Marmolada in 2007 at 7b+  (5.12c), and by Alex Honnold with Freerider on El Capitan in 2017 at 7c+  (5.13a). [16]


Equipment used on big wall climbs

Big wall climbing requires all of the equipment used in traditional climbing and multi-pitch climbing (but in greater volume as the pitches are of fuller length), as well as specific additional items that are needed for extended multi-day muti-pitch big wall routes, including: [3] [18] [19]


While the essence of big wall climbing is that of traditional climbing, and particularly multi-pitch climbing, it also uses a number of specific techniques that are important in being able to meet the unique challenges of ascending big wall routes, which include the following: [3] [20]

Traversing, El Capitan. Peter Stocker in Yosemite.jpg
Traversing, El Capitan.
Ascending a fixed rope, Fitz Roy. Climbing in Fitz Roy, Chalten - Argentina.jpg
Ascending a fixed rope, Fitz Roy.
Aid climbing, El Capitan. Aid climbing on El Capitan.JPG
Aid climbing, El Capitan.


Big wall climbing is used exclusively in relation to rock climbing. Long rock climbing routes that also have ice or snow, are referred to as alpine climbing. There is overlap in the skill sets, and many famous alpinists such as Walter Bonatti, Catherine Destivelle, and Alexander Huber, were also big wall climbers. The most common grading systems used in big wall climbing are the French, American (also known as the Yosemite Decimal System), and to a lesser extent the UIAA rock climbing grades for free climbing; the A-grade or C-grade systems are used for sections of aid climbing. [24] [25]

In addition to the above rock climbing grades (for both free climbing and for aid climbing), a National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) grade is sometimes quoted on North American big-wall (and alpine) climbs, that are described by the American Alpine Club (republished in 2013) as follows: "North American NCCS grades, often called "commitment grades", indicate the time investment in a route for an "average" climbing team": [26] [27]

Because of the great length of big-wall routes, detailed topos are usually provided outlining the grades on each pitch, and the aid climbing versus free climbing options at key sections. For example, one of the most famous big wall routes is the 31-pitch 870-metre route The Nose, on El Capitan, which is graded VI 5.9 C2 as a partial aid climb (mainly due to its roof section), but which is graded VI 5.14a  (8b+) if climbed completely free. [24]

Evolution of grade milestones

The following big wall free climbing redpoints (i.e. no aid) are notable in the evolution of big wall climbing grade milestones and standards from being a skill used in alpine climbing to a standalone sport in its own right; some are at the borderline of being multi-pitch rather than big wall climbs: [16]


Climbers on the roof of Pan Aroma (and Bellavista) 8c (5.14b) on the Cima Ovest in the Dolomites. CimaOvest-PanAroma.JPG
Climbers on the roof of Pan Aroma (and Bellavista) 8c  (5.14b) on the Cima Ovest in the Dolomites.


High altitude and expedition

A number of big wall-free climbs are notable for their high altitude or the remoteness of the expedition:

In film

A number of notable films have been made focused on big wall climbing including: [46]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing</span> Activity to ascend a steep object

Climbing is the activity of using one's hands, feet, or other parts of the body to ascend a steep topographical object that can range from the world's tallest mountains to small boulders. Climbing is done for locomotion, sporting recreation, for competition, and is also done in trades that rely on ascension, such as rescue and military operations. Climbing is done indoors and outdoors, on natural surfaces, and on artificial surfaces

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing route</span> Path to scale a mountain, rock, or ice wall

A climbing route is a path by which a climber reaches the top of a mountain, or rock/ice-covered obstacle. The details of a climbing route are recorded in a climbing guidebook and/or in an online climbing route database, and will include elements such as the type of climbing route, the difficulty grade of the route–and beta on its crux(es)–and any risk or commitment grade, the length and number of pitches of the route, and the climbing equipment needed to complete the route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">First ascent</span> Mountaineering and climbing term

In mountaineering and climbing, a first ascent, is the first successful documented climb to the top of a mountain or the top of a particular climbing route. Early 20th-century mountaineers and climbers focused on reaching the tops of iconic mountains and climbing routes by whatever means possible, often using considerable amounts of aid climbing, and/or with large expedition style support teams that laid "siege" to the climb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">El Capitan</span> Vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park

El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The granite monolith is about 3,000 feet (914 m) from base to summit along its tallest face and is a world-famous location for big wall climbing, including the disciplines of aid climbing, free climbing, and more recently for free solo climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexander Huber</span> German rock climber

Alexander Huber, is a German rock climber who is considered one of the greatest and most influential climbers in the history of rock climbing. Huber came to prominence in the early 1990s as the world's strongest sport climber after the passing of Wolfgang Güllich. He is the second-ever person to redpoint a 9a (5.14d) graded route by ascending Om in 1992, and has latterly come to be known as the first-ever person to redpoint a 9a+ (5.15a) graded route from his 1996 ascent of Open Air.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Solo climbing</span> Style of climbing performed alone

Solo climbing, or soloing, is a style of climbing in which the climber climbs a route alone, without the assistance of a belayer. By its very nature, it presents a higher degree of risk to the climber, and in some cases, is considered extremely high risk. Note that the use of the term "solo climbing" is generally separate from the action of bouldering, which is itself a form of solo climbing, but with less serious consequences in the case of a fall. The most dangerous form of solo climbing is free solo climbing, which means both climbing alone and without any form of climbing protection.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Aid climbing is a form of rock climbing that uses mechanical devices and equipment, such as aiders, for upward momentum. Aid climbing is the opposite of free climbing, which only uses mechanical equipment for protection, but not to assist in upward momentum. "Traditional aid climbing" involves hammering in permanently fixed pitons and bolts, into which aiders are clipped, whereas "clean aid climbing" avoids hammering, using only removable placements.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lead climbing</span> Technique of rock climbing

Lead climbing is a technique in rock climbing where the lead climber clips their rope to the climbing protection as they ascend a pitch of the climbing route, while their second remains at the base of the route belaying the rope to protect the lead climber in the event that they fall. The term is used to distinguish between the two roles, and the greater effort and increased risk, of the role of the lead climber.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Top rope climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Top rope climbing is a form of rock climbing where the climber is securely attached to a climbing rope that runs through a fixed anchor at the top of the climbing route, and back down to the belayer at the base of the climb. A climber who falls will just hang from the rope at the point of the fall, and can then either resume their climb or have the belayer lower them down in a controlled manner to the base of the climb. Climbers on indoor climbing walls can use mechanical auto belay devices to top rope alone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pitch (climbing)</span> Steep section of a climbing route requiring a rope

In climbing, a pitch is a section of a climbing route between two belay points, and is most commonly related to the task of lead climbing, but is also related to abseiling. Climbing on routes that require only one pitch is known as single-pitch climbing, and climbing on routes with more than one pitch is known as multi-pitch climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Type of sport

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations or indoor climbing walls. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Multi-pitch climbing</span> Type of climbing

Multi-pitch climbing is a type of climbing that typically takes place on routes that are more than a single rope length in height, and thus where the lead climber cannot complete the climb as a single pitch. Where the number of pitches exceeds 6–10, it can become big wall climbing, or where the pitches are in a mixed rock and ice mountain environment, it can become alpine climbing. Multi-pitch rock climbs can come in traditional, sport, and aid formats. Some have free soloed multi-pitch routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free solo climbing</span> Form of climbing without protection

Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is a form of rock climbing where the climbers climb solo without ropes or other protective equipment, using only their climbing shoes and their climbing chalk. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and, unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights, where a fall can be fatal. Though many climbers have free soloed climbing grades they are very comfortable on, only a tiny group free solo regularly, and at grades closer to the limit of their abilities.

<i>Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome</i> Multi-pitch climbing route in Yosemite, US

The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome was the first Grade VI big wall climbing route in the United States. It was first climbed in 1957 by a team consisting of Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas. Its current aid climbing rating is VI 5.9 A1 or 5.12 for the free climbing variation. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and considered a classic around the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rope solo climbing</span> Type of solo climbing with protection

Rope-solo climbing or rope-soloing is a form of solo climbing, but unlike with free solo climbing, which is also performed alone and with no climbing protection whatsoever, the rope-solo climber uses a mechanical self-belay device and rope system, which enables them to use the standard climbing protection to protect themselves in the event of a fall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of rock climbing</span> Key chronological milestones

In the history of rock climbing, the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the late-1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).

<i>The Nose</i> (El Capitan) Multi-pitch climbing route in Yosemite, US

The Nose is a big wall climbing route up El Capitan. Once considered impossible to climb, El Capitan is now the standard for big wall climbing. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and considered a classic around the world.

<i>Salathé Wall</i> Technical climbing route up El Capitan

The Salathé Wall is one of the original big wall climbing routes up El Capitan, a 3,000-foot (900 m) high granite monolith in Yosemite National Park. The Salathé Wall was named by Yvon Chouinard in honor of John Salathé, a pioneer of rock climbing in Yosemite. The route is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and is considered a classic around the world.


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Further reading