Women on Walls: How to Start Your Big-Walling Career

It took me three years to go from meadow lurker to an El Cap summiter. Here’s how.

By Libby Sauter | July 29th, 2016

Libby Sauter on the first all-female ascent of the Salathé in a day, with Alix Morris, October 2015. Photo: Cheyne Lempe.

 


This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 236 (August 2016).


The first time I went to Yosemite, my high school friend Sandra and I took pictures in the meadow below Half Dome. One day we would climb those big walls. We would sleep up there, laugh and toil away until we got to the top. It was a lofty goal for a girl who had only led a couple of trad pitches back at my home crag, Red Rock. But I set to work that season on my quest to go from mega gumby to a bona fide big waller.

Today in Yosemite, all-women’s teams crush big routes in a day, women solo A4, women take their newbie boyfriends up their first walls, and women free climb route after route. So if you’re interested, grab your ladders, do some learning and join in.

It took me three years to go from meadow lurker to an El Cap summiter. Here’s how.

 

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

1. Climb with more experienced partners. Watch and absorb their tricks and systems.

2. Take a clinic at a climbing event. I enrolled in clinics on trad anchors and self-rescue at the Red Rock Rendezvous.

3. Practice your multipitch systems on long trad routes. Being confident in your anchor-building skills, crack-to-gear-size estimation and efficient transitions are your building blocks to success. Places like Red Rock and Lover’s Leap in South Lake Tahoe are fantastic moderate multi-pitch meccas.

4. Sport climb. The stronger and more confident you are as a free climber, the more secure you will feel on the mandatory 5.8 free moves on most aid routes. Never underestimate the difficulty of climbing 5.8 in your approach shoes and with a heavy aid rack on your shoulders.

After I had confidence in my multi-pitch skills, I pulled out Chris McNamara’s How to Big Wall Climb. I would go out to the small crag in the middle of San Francisco, where I was living at the time, and haul a bag full of rocks while the little kids in the park giggled and played below me. McNamara’s book taught me haul systems and how to lower out, and I learned those skills before I got on a real wall.

The more you practice, the more fun you will have up there. Jumar in trees. Aid climb local crack climbs. Talk to your local rock gym and see if the staff will let you practice lowering out. Build big-wall anchors.

 

WHEN YOU’RE READY

1. Find a partner with equal goals.

This might be one of the hardest parts about big-wall climbing. It is not only important to climb with someone whose company you enjoy, but more so, you should have similar risk/reward ratios. Is she OK hauling straight off that 1⁄2-inch bolt, but you want it on an equalized system? Are you willing to back clean, but the other person is not? Are you stoked to climb through a storm, but your partner will want to bail? All of these decisions create stress—for the person who has to raise a concern and the person whose preferred method is deemed unacceptable. Talk about how much risk versus reward you both are willing to take. Your best friend is not always the ideal wall partner if your risk-assessment profile is different.

2. Pack your haul bags wisely.

For both men and women, hygiene on the wall is crucial to keeping a healthy body that will continuously endure day in and day out. Bring baby wipes for your face, nether regions and hands. Get that dirt and aluminum off your skin every night to minimize how much your hands hurt in the morning. I’m also a huge fan of panty liners. You can’t exactly bring a new outfit every day, but each morning you can swap in a new, super-thin panty liner and feel as good as new, almost.

3. Go for it!

The number-one factor in success on a big wall is relentless determination. Approach the wall expecting that it will be hard and scary. Keep going. Walking up to a big-wall climb with a realistic attitude about the inevitable trials ahead will help you push through those moments when everything goes wrong. Remind yourself regularly that once you pull up onto the well-earned top, you will forget all the trials, the stuck ropes and the cross-loaded hauling devices. If you fail on one wall, try another. I failed on Washington Column and on Gold Wall (both with male partners) before my friend Amanda dragged me up Leaning Tower.

 

LIBBY SAUTER has climbed El Cap over 20 times, in ascents of up to six days or as little as 4.5 hours. Over 15 of those ascents have been with female partners.

 

 

 

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