Big wall tips from McHaffie and Muskett

12 November, 2012
Tower to the People bivi
Tower to the People bivi

James McHaffie (known as 'Caff') and Calum Muskett's recent Yosemite trip was a great success. Caff along with Hazel Findlay and the 'dark-horse' of Welsh climbing, Neil Dyer, made the second ascent of the Pre-Muir on El Cap with difficulties up to F8b (5.13c/d), over 30+ pitches of climbing.

Calum, combining forces with Dan McManus, also free climbed El Cap, making an ascent over six days of Golden Gate. Originally climbed by the Huber brothers in 41 pitches twelve years ago and graded 5.13b (F8a), it is now considered 5.13a (F7c+) and generally done in 38 pitches.

Below they share some of their big wall free climbing wisdom from their time on the 'Big Stone'.

JM: Go with people you like, get on with and who are reasonably hardy. It’s not a good idea to go with someone who would eat all the food while you’re leading a pitch (no offence to Calum). There are loads of horror stories about bad times being had by people who don’t get on. A week on the wall can feel a long time or that’s what Hazel and Dyer told me afterwards.

CM: Most big wallers would advocate choosing a single rope which has many advantages over the double rope system. A single rope is much simpler to use in a belay set up as well as being more convenient for seconds to jumar up safely. On well protected crack climbs like many of those found in Yosemite there is very little need for double ropes as the line is often direct and every piece of gear bombproof. Drawbacks include rope drag on weaving lines. Impact forces are greater in scenarios such as leader falls on sport ropes than half-ropes meaning that your crucial IMP is more likely to pull out with a single rope. A single rope running over sharp or rough edges and arĂȘtes may give you less room for error than climbing on two ropes.

JM: Make a checklist. Make sure you’ve got a rain cover for your portaledge, warm clothes, synthetic sleeping bags, headtorch including a spare and batteries etc. Many friends have wished for more warm clothes, it can feel boiling in the midday heat but go Baltic in the evening and when you get wet you lose heat very quickly. A 10% chance forecast of rain in Yosemite last year turned into hard rain all day!

CM: The dark art of bowel control is a handy trick to have in reserve for those long days on the wall. Toilet breaks on a big wall are rather inconvenient and thoroughly unpleasant at times. Try to ration yourself to as few as possible and make the ones you do have count. Good poo pigs can come from all manner of different sources: wide brimmed plastic bottles to Tupperware boxes. The Volkswagen of poo pigs is a capped drainage pipe containing some kitty litter to reduce the smell whilst the Rolls Royce is the pricey Metolius ‘waste case’ fulfilling your every sanitary need!

Caff on a 5.12c pitch two pitches below the F8b corner
Caff on a 5.12c pitch two pitches below the F8b corner

JM: Poo. I took a great deal of pride in making three poo pigs in quite hardy Tupperware containers with old slings gaffer taped to the sides so they could be hooked on the underside of the haul bags. An accident with these things could be a toxic disaster. Make sure you have good sturdy bags to poo into and worth playing with Play-Doh to get adept at slithering it into the poo-pig. Neil Dyer was wondering how heavy six days worth would be and it’s more than you’d like. I’d guess 5 or 6 kg between the three of us over six days. Oh and anti-bacterial hand stuff is obviously a must and whatever happens have a spare bog roll.

CM: Conserving energy when red-pointing on a big wall is a tricky one and at the end of the day it may be psychological pressure that lets you down as much as physical tiredness. Expend as little energy as possible when working the pitch, resting regularly and make sure you know the moves well even on the easier sections. Wherever possible don’t waste energy on red-point attempts when the conditions are poor and wait for the cool of the evening or morning. Conversely look for the warmth of the sun on colder walls.

JM: Make sure you’re pretty fit before you go out and are reasonably happy on bigger cliff faces. The hauling and climbing in the heat feels like hard labour and standing beneath a cliff you’ll be on for several days may be more intimidating than you think.

CM: Read the instruction manual for the portaledge before you head off for your route. Portaledges are easy to put up as long as you know how and learning how to put them up for the first time on a big wall is not very convenient!

JM: Be realistic, read up loads on your climb, ask people who have done it and have a flexible plan. Looking at a guide of some El Cap routes I thought I’d be up in three days. I checked the online journals and realised it was taking some of the best climbers in the world five-plus days. Think about where you’d like to be at the end of each day and if you’re not there arrange the next best plan. Inevitably there’ll be 100 unforseen tangles to deal with. If it’s busy I’d wait until it quietens down rather than increase the likelihood of congestion and getting hit by shrapnel amongst other possibilities.

CM: Look after yourself since multiple days on a big wall can be exhausting and conserving energy over the first few days can be a real life saver when you reach the overhanging headwall! Don’t over-reach yourself, short and efficient days are often a lot better than a really big day followed by a rest day. Maximising climbing time at good temperatures be they night or day are also very worthwhile and it may be worth adjusting your sleeping pattern to match this.

JM: Make sure to have water strapped to your harness (or on the tag line) and some handy in the top of your haul bags or else risk losing loads of stuff trying to dig it out from the bottom when you’re parched. Take enough water, 3 to 4 litres/person each day in the heat is realistic. Make sure the water is in containers that won’t leak and obviously try and protect it from the haul bags sides with whatever you can. The water is what makes the haul bag the pig.

CM: Avoid the nightmare cluster f*** which can easily happen when haul bags and multiple ropes are used on hanging stances. They often require a member of the team to untie so that the ropes can be unknotted and stacked neatly. Wherever possible try and stick to single point power-points on belays. Keep things simple and don’t take shortcuts such as allowing the rope to trail far beneath you because if it doesn’t get caught in a crack, chances are that it’ll probably knot itself at the most inconvenient time. If combining a haul/tag line to the system keep it to one side of the lead ropes and stack the tag/haul line separately to the climbing ropes.

JM: Have a good idea of how to haul. There is some proper crap in some articles about how to haul via mythical ten-to-one pulley systems. Find out how it’s done by people that have done it. Having a good system for attaching the bags to the anchors and releasing the Pro Traxion will save you lots of grief. There are stories of people filling haul bags, getting them to the base of climbs and then being unable to move them so they give up and go home! Cough up for a Pro Traxion, have a Mini Traxion as back up and have this kit with your jumars on the end of your tagline ready to haul. If there are no good ledges, try and stack each rope through separate slings as best you can. You can’t carry enough screwgates and slings.

CM: The choice of device for hauling can be crucial to conserving energy and saving time when hauling. The question is what device to use with the weight of your haul bag? Very light bags can be hauled quite easily hand-over-hand backed up with perhaps an Italian hitch but heavier bags will require pulleys and some sort of device to lock the bags off after every haul. One-to-one ratio haul’s are the most convenient and the bigger the pulley you have the easier the haul. Devices like the Mini, Micro or Pro traxion are excellent self locking devices with different sized pulleys. Two-to-one hauls also work well but with every extra ratio gained the amount of time it takes to haul increases as you begin to make marginal gains. We learnt after over an hour of effort, gaining about 4 metres in height, that haul bags over 60 kg aren’t designed to be hauled with a Mini Traxion!

JM: Getting off the climb. Worth checking out the descent if possible. Our bags weighed a tonne and we lowered all our bags past a knot rather than doing tandem abs down the East Ledges descent.