First off, I want to say that I am not an advocate of always speeding your way along on a hike or climb. Actually, I feel kind of the opposite; IMHO, nature should not be treated like an outdoor stairmaster, as a place to do a chest beat about how fast you did a particular route, or how many vertical feet you hiked that day. So, you set a fastest known time on some trail or route. Well, yay for you. What are you going to do next, try for the fastest time running through the Louvre museum?
Having said that, a guideline of climbing is that “speed equals safety”. This is true to a certain extent. In big wall climbing, it means not running out of water when your three day climb turns into four, avoiding strangling your partner, and not climbing by headlamp when you could be kicking back in your portaledge.
Why do I mention these tips? Because I ignored pretty much every single one of them on my first couple of walls and sometimes went pretty darn slow as a result. Sure wish I knew all these beforehand.
If you’ve been at the big wall game for a while, you probably know most of these already. If you're fairly new to aid climbing, then these tips may be more helpful. These are just my experience, This is by no means a complete list. In no order of importance, here we go.
Speed does not mean fast. Speed means smooth, controlled, well-planned, and properly executed. The Navy SEALS have a saying: ”Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” Do the task you have in front of you at a proper pace, and do it right the first time. “Smooth” comes from practice and having your systems dialed before you get up on a real climb.
Wall ace Mark Hudon: “Most wall climbers today would gain far, far more time by simply understanding and doing the basic, big wall tasks faster.” So, what are the basic tasks? Leading, cleaning, hauling, anchor building, belay changeovers, rope / belay management, staying fed/watered and comfy during the day.
Time yourself when practicing
During your training, time yourself and your partner doing different tasks. How long did it take you to do EACH of these tasks? Lead the pitch, build the anchor, fix the rope, set up the haul, do the haul, clean the pitch, re-rack the gear, and have your partner start leading the next pitch? Repeat all these on the same training route different times maybe over different days, and notice your times hopefully start to dramatically improve. Have fun, and make training a little competitive. Time each segment, loser buys beverages.
Don’t “learn” to aid on a real route
People stuck behind you who have the skills to climb it for real will not be happy. Practice on obscure 5.11 cracks until you get things dialed. Time yourself repeatedly on the same pitch. Haul a 100 pound bag 1:1. Haul a 200 pound bag 2:1. Experience “riding the pig” by rappelling with your fully loaded haul bag. ( Tip - do NOT hang it from your belay loop!) Set up your ledge on a real cliff and spend a night in it, not just in a backyard tree. Do “aid bouldering” close to the ground, placing all manner of tiny stoppers, marginal hooks and micro cams until you really know how far you can push them before failure. Put in your training. Practice the core skills. You, your partner, and everyone behind you on the route will have a much better time. (People who go try Monkey Face at Smith Rock Oregon who have never aid climbed before and take 2 hours to lead and clean a short bolt ladder, I’m especially looking at YOU!)
Have all the skills needed for your route
Study the topo, photos and trip reports. Is there a pendulum and a lower out? How far is it? Do you need to hook? Is there a burly off width? Do you know how to clean a traverse? What’s the hardest mandatory free climbing, and can I/we do it?
There is a bounty of route beta for just about every beginner route you would ever want to try. Study up, know what skills you need to have, and master them before you go.
Talk over each pitch before the climb
Before you leave the ground, go over every pitch in detail with your partner. Talk over who’s going to do what, when will it happen, and how you’re going to handle any anticipated difficulties. Do we have all the gear needed for the route? What’s the farthest we need to lower our the bags, and do we need a separate lower out line? Does a pitch go around a corner so you maybe can’t hear or see each other? (Better have a clear communication plan.) Are you leading in blocks or swapping leads? Who gets what pitches? What’s our anticipated timeline, and what do we do if we’re faster or slower than we planned?
Having an action plan means you don’t need to create one on the fly and make important decisions when you’re tired and stressed. Sure, you can change your plan, but it’s a starting blueprint that guides your actions, instead of pretty much winging it on every pitch.
Always be asking yourself when you have downtime: “What could I be doing right now to make this climb faster or safer?”
Especially for beginners, there’s almost always something. Always be looking around for small potential problems, and deal with them before they become larger real problems. “Hmm, looks like that haul rope is hung up on something. I better deal with that right now before the leader starts to haul…”
Andy Kirkpatrick: Remember the number one sentence that needs to be avoided on a wall: “Hang on a minute!”
Maintaining the psyche
Mark Hudon has some self-talk he uses when things get spicy: “I may be scared, but I’m at LEAST as good as the worst climber who has ever done this route! If they got past this point, dammit, so can I!” Remind yourself of this, and maybe even laugh a little when you’re faced with a tough spot.
Use a day bag
Don’t be diving into the haul bags at each belay to get snacks, water, sunscreen, windbreaker, etc. Pretty much all the stuff you need for the day should already be in a “day bag” (aka “piglet”) or wall bucket, tied outside your haul bag (probably on a gear tether) for easy access. (Remind your partner to get their day gear all ready at the morning bivy.)
Second leaves the belay fast
Try to minimize time when both climbers are at a belay and not moving. Especially, strive for fast belay changeovers. Slow belay changeovers can be a huge time suck for beginners.
The leader should call down when they are getting close to the anchor (the 25 foot rule) so the second can start tidying things up. One good thing to do at this point for the belayer is to be sure the haul bags are properly packed away, unencumbered, the haul rope is running freely, and the bags and rope are ready for lift off. (The leader should never be “ready to haul” and have to then wait for the second to sort things out.)
When the leader calls “rope is fixed” the second can clip their ascenders to the lead rope and fully weight it. This frees up most of the anchor, the second can get to work breaking it down, and get ready to release the bags.
Releasing the bags should be pretty much effortless if you use a docking cord. This should never be a cluster point. If you don’t use a docking cord, it very well might become one.
Clean the gear in semi-tidiness
You don’t need to be super type A and organize every piece of gear immaculately when cleaning, but you sure don’t want to throw it on your harness any which way. One cleaning system that works for a lot of people is to simply have two single runners, one over each shoulder. You clip free carabiners and slings onto one runner and gear onto the other. Generally order the gear by size, but don’t be too fussy about it at the expense of upward progress. When the cleaner gets to the top anchor, these two gear slings can be clipped to somewhere safe, and quickly added back onto the lead rack by whoever is leading the next pitch. There’s no need for one person to individually hand pieces of gear one by one to the new leader, they should rack themselves. Oh, and avoid putting gear on your harness, unless you like the feeling of your harness slowly creeping down towards your ankles. Always rack gear on a shoulder sling of some sort.
Leader places lots of cams
Cams are a lot faster to clean than nuts. Make life easy for your second and put in a cam when possible. If you’re going to place a nut, see if you can place a cam to stand in, and then set a nut next to it without loading it with your bodyweight. This makes it much easier to clean. (Note: on soft desert sandstone, it can be better practice to use nuts rather than cams. Many popular routes are optimized for nut placements, and doing so helps preserve the rock.)
Build anchors fast
Anchors in many climbing situations rarely see any significant weight at all. Anchors on a big wall see large loads all the time.
You and your partner need to agree on an anchor system that you can use at most anchors, and stick to it. It should probably be based around three roughly horizontal bolts, because that’s probably what you’re going to find. But always read the topo and know what to expect.
Strive for clean, simple, easy-to-understand anchor systems. A spaghetti pile of rope and webbing is confusing and dangerous, because you don’t readily know what can be safely unclipped and what cannot.
Have two different identical “anchor kits”, a pre-packaged collection of whatever biners and slings you and your partner agree on to quickly build an anchor. (Avoid the common beginner mistake of building an anchor with whatever bits of slings and scavenged biners you have left after a long pitch.) At the bare minimum, your anchor kit should have three large carabiners. Once you are skilled at big wall anchor building, the leader should be hauling in not much more than 10 minutes after reaching the anchor on a trade route.
Here’s one of many approaches to anchor building:
Leader clips three large locking HMS carabiners from the anchor kit onto each bolt.
Leader cloves themselves to the middle bolt and adds a backside butterfly knot on an outside bolt closest to where the second will arrive (call it the right) at the anchor. BOOM, leader is connected to two bolts, and the lead rope is fixed to two bolts for the second. This should take about two minutes max.
Leader clips a pre-tied quad anchor, or maybe a long PAS, or two single runners onto the opposite (left) and center bolt. Leader starts hauling from this equalized masterpoint. Bag(s) are docked to the loops on the PAS or the top loops of the quad.
Regarding hauling from a single bolt: Yes, it’s probably okay to haul off of one bolt, provided you have COMPLETE confidence in it, but if you feel happier distributing that big load onto two pieces of gear, go for it. Do you KNOW that bolt was placed correctly? Common trade route in Yosemite granite (maybe with an ASCA - “American Safe Climbing Association” - hanger), probably yes. More obscure route in most other parts of the world, maybe no. (Don’t go by what’s stamped on the hanger. Could be a lame 5 Kn bolt in a 20 Kn hanger.) The consequences of a single bolt hauling anchor failing may be catastrophic. Think it through and use the system you are comfortable with, even if it takes a bit more gear and another minute to set up.
Complex rigging is generally not needed on trade routes
Equalizing three modern bolts with a cordelette (or even two!) is probably not needed. Most people will want to haul off of some kind of actual rigged anchor. A pre-equalized system, such as a permanently-tied quad or a long PAS can work great. Both of these systems also do not require you to untie any welded knots when you break down the anchor, which can be a big plus.
Leader gets safe, fixes the lead rope, and starts to haul before doing anything else
The main task of the leader is to get the haul bags just a meter or so off the lower anchor so the second can start breaking down the anchor and cleaning. The second can’t really do anything until that happens. So the leader has to fix the lead rope, then start the haul ASAP. The leader can take a break, have a snack, take pictures, etc. only after they lift the bags a bit off the lower anchor. Note: the leader should always fix the lead rope first, THEN set up the hauling system. This is an important safety consideration that both climbers should follow.
Leader preps for the next pitch at the belay
After the leader has hauled, they should be scoping the next pitch, reading the topo, readying needed gear, noting gear that’s not needed, and helping the follower (if swinging leads) to blast off ASAP and properly equipped in any way possible. If the leader is especially courteous, they can place the first piece of gear for the next pitch for their second. This lets the second move up and through the belay, often spreads out the climbers, and can generally decluster things, especially if the belay is something other than wide and horizontal. If the leader is especially on the ball, they can break down the hauling kit and clip it to the first piece of gear for the next pitch, so the second can easily grab it and not forget it.
Rope bags can significantly decluster your anchor, and prevent the all too common beginner big wall mistake of somehow having part of your lead rope pinned underneath the haul line/bag, or some other random bit of rope weirdness that needs your time, mental energy and sometimes brute force to sort out. Rope bags are cheap and helpful. Use them.
Use butterfly knots
Just about anytime you’re thinking of tying a figure 8 on a bight, you're probably better off tying a butterfly knot instead. The butterfly serves pretty much the same function, and it's easier to untie after it's been loaded.
Lead with confidence
You’re on a C1 or C2 route, and you’ve got a boatload of modern gear. This is the aid version of climbing a 5.9 sport route with huge jugs!
Don’t test that bomber cam with three bounces. Set it and go. Don’t tiptoe up in your aiders, tentatively pausing at every step. Step up high and quickly. Your goal is to get into your third or even second steps ASAP, so take the “stairs” fast. If that piece does blow, you have another bomber placement at your feet, right? So get on up there! Watch a good aid climber on C1. They are pretty much always in upward motion. That should be your goal as well.
Try “Teeing Off” when leading
“Teeing off“ (a technique generally credited to Utah big wall pioneer, Ron Olevsky) is a lesser known but highly effective way to stand tall in your aid ladders, on steep terrain, without using a fifi hook. Stand with your right foot in your aider, turn your left toe counterclockwise to the left, and then put the arch of your left foot over the toes of your right foot (making a letter “T”, get it?), with the aid ladder between each leg. Sounds weird, but try it. You'll be able to stand in your second or even top step in complete comfort, with no fifi even if the terrain is up to vertical.
Fifi and daisies
If you’re using a fifi hook, try step up tall and clip it into your designated aider biner, not anything lower. One way to remember this is think “metal to metal”. If you’re climbing with adjustable daisy chains, avoid the habit of pulling them in tight on every single move. Yes, it may feel secure, but then extending them after each move really adds time. You really only need to inch your way up on them if it’s overhanging. On anything less than vertical, there’s not really any need to snug up your daisies at all. This is why you need a fifi AND your adjustable daisies - use the fifi on those less than vertical sections.
The leader does not need to carry every piece of gear they might need for the entire pitch. They don’t even need to carry the haul line, which can actually get pretty darn heavy near the top of a long pitch. If the leader is using a tagline (usually 6mm or 7mm static cord) to send up gear as needed, they should give the second a heads up as to the gear they need, so the second can get it ready. Such as: “I’m going to need that #4 Camalot in five minutes.”
Are you climbing a crack that’s consistently 1 inch wide? Well, keep a 1 inch cam on each of your aiders, and start “crack jugging” by moving them up several moves in a row without clipping the rope. Stop every 10 feet or so and put in gear. If the crack varies a bit in width, you could have an Omega Pacific Link Cam on each aider, which covers a wider size range. Either way, you’re not fiddling with gear on your rack; it’s right there on your aider ready to plug in. This of course also makes it faster for your second, because there’s less cleaning.
For that matter, you could take the next step of adding a small locking biner on the end of your aiders, and clipping in a few of the most commonly used small cams. Maybe add a cam hook, a Talon hook and a rivet hanger, depending on the gear needs of the pitch.
Trust and use cam hooks
They can be a huge timesavers in small cracks. Use them whenever you can (but not on softer sandstone, as they can damage the rock). They come in a range of sizes; most folks find the medium to get the most use. You can girth hitch a cam hook directly to your aider if you think you’ll be using them a lot.
A next, and more advanced, step in speed is to learn how to short fix. Here, when the leader reaches the belay, they fix the lead rope, tie in with a clove hitch self belay, and continue on the next pitch while the second ascends and cleans. Describing this beyond the scope of this beginner-oriented post, but there are plenty of great resources on the web to learn how to do this. (Note that if you’re hauling big loads on a multi day route, this is not normally used; short fixing is mostly used for speed ascents. with minimal hauling.)
This is an advanced technique you will probably not use on your first few walls, but it can be the next big step in speed and efficiency.