|By "Pass the Pitons" Pete Zabrok
From Oakville, Ontario
Mar 14, 2010
Dude! You're giving away my secrets!!
If you read most any wall climbing text or article, they will say that you should be a reasonably competent 5.10 free climber if you want to climb big walls. And most people who free climb with any consistency and dedication should be able to reach this level. [I disregard indoor climbing and sport climbing when I speak of 5.10, as they have little to do with each other] Climbing trad 5.9 on the escarpment is pretty hard - you have to be able to hang out and place gear in strenuous situations and then go for it.
Now back in the day, you'd go to Yosemite, try to free climb, and get spanked a few letter grades til you figured it out. You'd hop on the same walls everyone else did - and still does - and you'd figure it out and make it to the top. Every now and then you might have to bust a free climbing move, but not much. You didn't really think about it.
Nowadays with sources like McTopo, you get pitch by pitch breakdowns of how hard the free climbing is on every damn pitch, so you know how hard you have to free climb. Supposedly.
In reality, if you know what you're doing, you almost never have to free climb on a big wall. While you might want to because it could be faster, you don't have to. Plus it's hard when you're carrying so much gear, and then you would need to change shoes, too. So if it's just a couple moves, much faster and easier to aid.
Now look at me, I manage to get up all sorts of different walls, and honestly these days I can't free climb AT ALL. I couldn't go to Rattlesnake and lead a 5.8 right now, I don't have the finger and forearm strength, nor the skill to even make the moves anymore. I don't remember how to finger jam and stuff. Lots of "free" moves on walls can be aided with gear or hooked.
One time, it was back in 2001, I had just soloed Zed-Em on Yosemite, sort of A4-ish on the soft side. So I was feeling pretty bitchin'. I hooked up with three girls in the caf, and we went up to the base of El Cap to climb some free routes. I attempted to lead Sacherer Cracker about 5.10a which goes from fingers to hands to fists to offwidth. Most people flail at the offwidth, but not me - I was hopeless at the finger crack! I was screaming, "Bloody 'ell, I have *no* idea how to climb this any more! Not only that, it seems totally pointless to me! Give me my aiders and a few Aliens and I'll be up here in a heartbeat." So I failed. Miserably. I haven't really bothered going free climbing at all since then.
If I had a climbing gym near me I would go to stay in shape. I hate to admit it's fun. But I can't be bothered trying to stay strong, just to go out to the escarpment and go free climbing. I'd have to work and work and work to get back up to 5.10, let alone 5.11 where I once was. And to me, the payout is nowhere near worth the pain to achieve that.
Compare free climbing [for me] to going to Yosemite. I have the wall systems dialled, because I know what I'm doing. I'm reasonably fit going caving all the time, but my first few days on the wall my hands usually cramp up in pain til I start to get fit again. But because I have over 30 years' experience, I know I can get up off the couch, walk to the base of El Cap every spring, and climb it. Not as fast as the hardmen, but I get up it ok. I'm there more for the camping and having fun hanging out than the actual climbing.
So what about you? You want to climb big walls? Great. Why waste your time free climbing when you could instead be learning wall and aid climbing skills? Don't have a partner? Doesn't matter with aid climbing. Go to the crag by yourself, find a continuous crackline in the 5.9 to 5.11 range, and start solo aiding. Make sure you have lots of gear, you'll figure it out. Practise jugging and hauling bags of rocks and everything else.
You'll learn more about placing gear while solo aid climbing than you will free climbing. This is because you will place so much, and you will learn what holds and what doesn't, because you will clean your own gear, too. Actually practising wall climbing systems at home, and learning the fundamentals, will go ten times as far as just becoming a better free climber.
So don't get hung up on numbers. Get your McTopo guide, and figure out what you want to do. Go to Yosemite and climb WFLT and the Prow on the Column. Work your way up to longer routes. People don't fail on those routes because they can't free climb, they fail because they chicken out or they underestimate the amount of suffering, or they try to go too light and fast and figure they'll run out of food and water, or they can't figure out how to do the jugging and hauling systems. You would think the leading would be what causes most to fail, but that just ain't the case.
After I had done a few El Cap routes, Chongo told me I needed to "join the club". He told me I should solo El Cap by a route that was longer and harder than anything I had ever done, so I chose Iron Hawk. I didn't know anything about it, except Warren Hollinger told me it was good. All I had was the Reid guide, they didn't have McTopos back then.
So all summer long I went out to the escarpment and practised solo aiding and hauling bags of rocks with a 2:1. I figured it out. I had the confidence that I could haul enough food, water and beer to get on the wall and stick it out til I reached the summit.
Oh yeah, Iron Hawk has some wicked run-out 5.10 obligatory free climbing at the top. I had to come out of Free Climbing Retirement to complete the route! NEVER AGAIN will I climb those pitches. What was I thinking?!