So you want to climb the Captain? Here is what you should know.

So you want to climb the Nose (or another big wall)?

Ben and Lindsey Kunz (both Grassroots Athletes for Outdoor Research), and I recently climbed the Nose.  It was awesome to  nail our timeline, do it in “comfort”, and feel great afterwards.  We felt so great that after one rest day we went to climb the Rostrum! It wasn’t a freebee, however, and we all prepared a lot.  Between Google Docs, back and forth emails, multiple conversations over dinner, and countless practice days, front-loading the effort felt key to success.  At one point, Ben and Lindsey Kunz even cornered Hans Florine after he gave a slideshow at Second Ascent in Seattle.

Here are some of the take-away lessons.

Practice, practice practice.

Climbing a wall like the Nose will test your quiver of skills.  Being able to adapt to situations on the fly, and at the same time avoiding obvious cluster-*****, will turn a 4 to 5 day mission safely into a 3 day one.  Previous to the Nose, I had done the Salathe Wall in a long 5 days. I knew just how arduous big-walling can be, especially if you aren’t dialed.  It was quite amazing to Ben and Lindsey on their first major wall, cruising it in style.  The entire success of the team was achievable through lots and lots of practice.

So, what exactly should you be practicing?  First, go aiding.  Then go aiding again.  Once you feel good about aiding,  put away the comfortable approach shoes and put your rock shoes back on. Then go aiding again, with a focus on making free moves when possible.   Once you trust yourself and your partner, its time to start short-fixing too.  Test your lower-out skills.  Haul a HEAVY bag all the way up the route.  Taking a ledge?  If so, be super confident you can set it up, in the dark, when you are tired, in terrain you haven’t seen before.  Believe it or not, this requires practice too. Having your own system for each of the above items, and figuring out what works on the ground or in a less-intimidating context, will make all the difference.

Lindsey lowering out on the haul bag under the great roof. Climbing as a party of three required familiarity with all the classic wall systems, and a bit of creativity. Practice made this one straight forward, though other lower-outs still provided some difficulty with three.
Lindsey lowering out on the haul bag under the Great Roof. Climbing as a party of three required familiarity with all the classic wall systems and a bit of creativity. Practice made this one easier to execute, though other lower-outs still provided some difficulty.

As you practice, focus on speed and efficiency.  Sure, you can get the haul bag up the pitch, but do you know how to do it with minimal effort?  Do you know how to body haul?  When setting up the haul, aim to do so in such a way that you can use your legs, body weight and momentum. Learn to adapt the haul setup to the anchor and rock features at various belays (on a slab, at a ledge, or in a corner). Other efficiencies can be found in transitions, block leading, docking the bag, jugging, and the list goes on. Each time you master one of these, you move one step closer to being able to cruise the wall in style.

Ben is cleaning, Lindsey is hauling, and I'm shorting fixing. Now that's efficiency!
The view from half way up the Pancake Flake on the Nose. Ben is cleaning, Lindsey is hauling, and I’m short fixing. Now that’s efficiency!

Focus on communication

When you are on a route like the Nose, it’s not uncommon to hear members of another party yelling at each other on the route.  As the days wear on, its easy to become frustrated with your partners.  For example, the leader reaches the top of the pitch, and you want them to take the weight off the bag, so you keep yelling “Ready to haul” at the top of your lungs.  Why aren’t they hauling yet??  What is taking them so long??

To avoid situations like this and others, talk through the plan periodically (perhaps before each pitch).  Everybody in your group should know their role as you move up the route.  If there are idiosyncrasies to hauling a specific pitch, or to rope management after the leader tops out, try to identify those beforehand with your partner.

In addition to on-route communication, its also important to discuss apprehensive thoughts, strategy, and risk before hand.  Take some time before you head up to discuss some situations that might occur during your multi-day journey.  Also take some time to debrief the experience afterwards.  Lindsey sent me an email a week after we got off the Nose to review a few specific moments.  This type of communication, before and after the climb, leads to great partnerships, and creates a closed-loop learning process, allowing you to gain the most from your experience.

Finally, don’t even start the route until you know the standard commands you should be using to communicate various stages of belay transitions and bag management with your team.  Make sure your partner and you are both sure what these commands mean, so that when you yell, “Haul away”, the leader knows what he is then responsible for.

Be prepared to move all day long.  Walling can be hard.  You wake up early, it’s cold, you’re sore, and you’ve got to drag that darn pig up another 10 pitches. I’ve heard some people compare big-walling to yard work. The individual tasks aren’t pretty like a five-star sport route, but they’ve got to get done. Your plan for handling the all-day intensity may involve changing out leaders, ensuring food and water are always available, lots of chocolate, or playing music when you need a moment. Figure out what you can do to stay psyched, and to avoid those creeping thoughts that you are in over your head.

Having spent some long days on the wall before, I knew how intimidating the experience could be.  To make sure we were ready for this,  Ben, Lindsey, and I discussed commitment before we ever stepped on the ground in Yosemite.  We decided as a group to avoid conversations about progress or bailing, until the end of each day.  Starting the climb with the group intention of making it to the top made all the difference.

Learn about the features of your gear, and ask others for advice.  So you’ve decided to train for the Nose. As you practice jugging, are your feet falling out of your aiders?  Perhaps check if your ladders have elastic straps to hold your feet in (many do).  Backing up your haul traction-pulley device? (You should be.)  Check if the manufacturer has their own recommendations for doing so. For example, Petzl provides built-in features backing up the Mini/Micro/Big Traction devices.  There are some smart people out there who have run into these problems before and engineered some useful and simple solutions.  You’re not alone.  Do some research or ask around when you are unsure as to a specific problem you might encounter on the wall.  While on route, we received some advice from another party.  While being told what to do can be a hit against the Ego, being open to new information will help to make your journey a lot easier.

Here we are in the Mountaineers parking lot in Seattle, setting up the ledge just a few feet off the ground. While super comfortable, the BD Cabana can be difficult to setup. Learning to do it right took a bit of time, and figuring out what the orange straps were for!

Enjoy a few moments, too.  Like I mentioned above, even within a strong team, each day will required hours and hours of effort. Take some time to enjoy your morning coffee, the sunset, and moments with your parents.  I personally brought my coffee mug up and the best instant coffee around because I knew I needed these moments. Watch the sunrise, the sunset, and take in the little moments.  Laugh, play some funky music, and smile.  When you finally head up the wall, recognize that you can do more than just stare at the rock all day, and that the moments with friends and the views are those that make the adventure worth it.

I brought my coffee mug for a little bit of comfort every morning. Never regretted it for a second! Figure out what you want on the wall to keep you happy!
I brought my coffee mug for a little bit of comfort every morning. Never regretted it for a second! Figure out what you want on the wall to keep you happy!

Lindsey super psyched at Camp V
Lindsey super psyched at Camp V. We enjoyed the colors at sunset while Ben put up a few more pitches. I promise Ben, I was still belaying….!

After reading this, if you do decide to go for it, I’ve put a trip report which details our preparation and ascent here.  Happy climbing!

2 thoughts on “So you want to climb the Captain? Here is what you should know.

  1. Carol

    Hi Chris,

    This is your mom sending you a big congratulations! Great article about communication, teamwork, savoring the special moments, & making it a memorable experience. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!

    Your One & Only Mom

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