Big Wall Free Climbing Tips
Some thoughts on how to save energy for the climbing itself
Checklists - All of my big wall ascents have an associated packing checklist. For an upcoming mission, I just make a copy of my last wall's checklist (or the past ascent most similar) and make the few needed changes. This greatly reduces the mental load of planning - why reinvent the wheel each time! Critically, I also recap post-ascent and edit that list to account for any misses.
Packing - Related to the checklist, I go through my packlist once while pulling items out onto a tarp, and then do a final checking off of items as they go into the bag. It can be hard to know what is in the black hole of a haul bag without keeping track as things go in.
Haul Bag Choice - Multiple smaller bags are much easier to dig through than a giant haul bag. For El Corazon, Jordan and I each had two medium haul bags (each with our personal items/clothes), two small haul bags (one food, one water), two bullet packs (personal day items like snacks, drinks, approach shoes, gloves, etc), and two waste cases (poo bag storage). A key to making so many bags haul well is to use accessory cord "branched tethers", keeping the weight of the heavy lower tier bags off the upper tier ones (see photo below).
Kits - Thinking in terms of kits is very helpful for gear organization. I generally don't intermingle items between my anchor kits, TR solo kit, haul kits, tag kit, jug kit, poo kit, skin kit, and so on.. To me, it is worth the small bit of redundancy in item weight for the mental clarity of where to find key items. I also label relevant bags and stuff sacks with climbing tape and a sharpie to make it easy for both partners to know what is in a given bag. Bringing many spare tiny wiregate carabiners (10-20!) is nice for camp organization without having to disassemble draws and other kits.
Bonus points for the symmetry of your kit!
2:1 Hauling is king - The mechanical advantage of 2:1 hauling will drastically change your wall experience once mastered. What was previously full-force upside-down leg presses to lift a 300lb kit will turn into gentle no-load squats. Gravity does the winching work, and you only use effort to stand back up and reset. Ergonomics are crucial, take the time to perfect the squat depth at a given belay before committing to hauling. A 5-6" stroke may seem demoralizingly small at first, but it really adds up with low effort squatting rhythm. Take all weight off your harness as it increases the energy to stand back up after the squat. Bring a spare Z-cord, as they will sometimes get de-sheathed if weighting over an edge at an awkward belay. See the Mountain Project threads for creating your own 2:1 kit.
Mini Tag Bag - An obvious question for first time multiday free climbers is: how do I free climb with all this extra weight on me? An advanced tactic to manage the load is free climbing with a tagline (~5mm) and tiny foot haul kit (as little as two Traxions on biners + a sling). This small amount of weight hardly affects the leader. Once at the next belay, they use the tag haul kit to quickly foot haul up a tag bag (with the 2:1 haul kit, approach shoes, gloves, a bit of water) and the full size haul line. The leader does need a few extra minutes to then reset for the true haul, but the energy saved is worth it if you have the time to spare. Remember, ergonomics are key! A large, minimal stuff sack is helpful for storing the tagline and can be tied to the tag bag before sending it upwards.
Bag Side Traxion - A Mark Hudon trick for hauling logistics is to use a Micro Traxion on the bag side of the haul line at the load connection point. The Traxion is backed up with a knot just behind it, but the knot is never weighted. This allows you to quickly change the attachment position, and use the haul line tail itself for lower outs. On Corazon, we had a 70m haul line and no lower out cord - it was enough for all but one giant traverse (we used a bit of the follower side lead line to lower out the bags the rest of the way with a bit of knot passing shenanigans).
Docking - A munter mule is far superior to a sling/daisy for docking the bags. When it is time to release the bag, the backup mule hitch can be undone under tension, and then the munter can be used to gently lower the bags off the anchor, no wrestling needed! This is especially helpful if the leader is out of yelling range and they haul the bags tight upwards before the follower is ready to release them. A ~8mm x 15ft piece of cord makes a nice tether for the bag.
Haul Friendly Anchors - It is usually helpful to haul off the highest anchor point to keep things ergonomic. It is also best to avoid hauling off a knotted masterpoint when possible, risking a welded knot if you do. My favorite anchor setup to avoid this is a double shoulder length sling with two medium sized lockers and one mini locker (I bring two anchor kits up the wall). Assuming two solid bolts, I create a knotted V with the medium size lockers on each bolt, with the large basket downwards. The lower V masterpoint is my "free climbing zone", useful for personal anchoring, belaying, etc. I haul high off one of the medium sized lockers, and then dock with a munter mule into the mini locker, hanging off the other high medium sized locker. There is a mini locker for the bag tether on each of the anchor kits, so that when the follower lowers the bag off the mini locker with the munter, they don't have to scramble to clip the mini locker to the tether in order to send it up for the next docking.
A whole lot of weight moving easily up the wall
Fix and Following - One of the biggest differences for multiday climbs is the need for a follower to climb at the same time as the leader hauling. The simplest way to do so is to fix the lead line and follow on a TR solo setup. This is highly recommended for pitches in the “onsight range”, or 5.11ish and below. For harder pitches it is worth the follower waiting for an active belay after the leader is done hauling. Efficient hauling takes about the same time as following the pitch. A dialed party can be free climbing with 7 days of supplies nearly as quickly as a regular multipitch party.
Shoes - I like to bring two pairs of climbing shoes up a multiday wall. My first pair is an all day comfort TC Pro, tight enough to onsight well, but flat footed enough to keep on for hours at a time. My second pair is the performance edging Miura VS for any hard pitches or redpointing. The stiffest shoe possible is usually best for El Cap granite, as the sun heat and foot fatigue of wall life will surely make them feel softer than at the crag. This pair is a half size smaller (expect your feet to swell a few days in, don't go too tight!).
OW Cam Tether - Another novelty of El Cap free routes is the prevalence of very long OW pitches. Standard tactics for these pitches is to often bring a cam or two of the large size needed and bump it for quite a long ways. A quick energy savings tip is to tether in directly to this cam with a sling tether or PAS while bumping it, taking the rope weight off the cam. This greatly reduces the effort required to push the cam upwards with one arm while trying to hold tension with the rest of your body.
Day Rations - It is crucial to keep day rations of water, snacks, and a lunch meal in a spot with easy access. I like to have a bullet pack for each person that lives inside of the respective upper haul bag. This is easy to pull out at belays post-hauling to regroup and take in calories. The bullet pack is also mobile for when leaving the haul bags at camp and jugging/rapping to a different anchor to work a pitch.
Portaledge Setup - The BD Cliff Cabana, immortalized in the Dawn Wall film, is a giant, heavy, and stable portaledge. Once set up, it is a wonderful sky cragging platform, but is quite cumbersome to deploy. An ergonomic trick to save unnecessary wrestling during assembly is to flag the air side long tube tight to the anchor point. The end tubes are then easily inserted up into the air side block corners. Gravity holds the long tubes parallel, and a bit of foot pressure downward on the wall side long tube lets the final edge tube connection snap in with ease.
Bag Access - When setting up camp, I first dock the bags to the opposite side of where I expect the portaledge to go. A standard two bolt anchor is not wide enough for the bags to not interfere with the ledge, so ideally a third bolt or a piece of gear is used off to the side. If docked at knee height and ~ 4 feet to the side of the ledge hang point, it is easy to lean off the ledge and reach into the upper bags. A ~20ft tail of the haul line fixed to the bag docking point makes a great zip line to GriGri down to access the lower bags (knot the rope end!) and is easy to jug back up with a jumar above the Gri.
Camp Anchors - When configuring a wide camp achor described above, I chain all the anchor points together with a bit of slack between each to create via ferratta style clip in points. Clipping into these shelves is not really redundant unless the loop is closed back to the first anchor point - so a second, higher shelf is created back towards the starting point with less slack between each point. Using two personal tethers, it is easy to move around on the lower shelf without ever being detached from the wall, especially if the lower shelf is reserved for anchoring and the upper shelf is reserved for clipping gear.
Camp Tethers - Adjustable daisies are very useful to reduce effort while hanging out at a belay or camp. I don't ever crag with a PAS, but do love the Petzl Adjust Connect for wall climbing. With the fat stock cord swapped out for a half rope (~8mm), it is easy to winch yourself in and out at even the most awkward belays. I keep one on me while free climbing, since it is very useful for transitioning during TR solo follows. Locking off with one arm to change a daisy chain length with the other arm is a waste of energy, and it all adds up. Once at camp for the night, I add a second tether to my harness to move around camp easily, clipping one tether to my next anchor point before unclipping from my previous.
A quite comfy hanging camp arrangement
Pack Stacks - The one downside of my many-pack recommendation above is the difficulties carrying everything down. The giant single haulbag is a bit more friendly for the descent hike, but it is easy to make do with a bit of packing strategy. I try to put the heaviest items in the main medium size backpack, and then have a full smaller bags with light bedding, trash, clothing, etc. These are easy to lash onto the top of the main backpack without loosing too much stability (keep alpine draws and cord out until the end while packing up!). Ropes are then draped over the top over the stack, as they are too bulky to fit easily inside a bag.
Riding the Pig - Rappelling with a heavy bag can be yet another energy waster - with no weight it is easily to yard rope tight through the rap device before removing the then-slack personal anchor. With a heavy bag it is much better to munter mule the bag in at each anchor. Combine this with "riding the pig", where the rap device is attached to the bag itself, and then you attach to the rap device with a secondary locker from your belay loop to the main rap locker. It then is easy to load the rap device snug, but use the munter mule to lower both the bag and climber weight off the anchor to weight the rope .
A careful stack of packs