Aid Climbing = Moped Riding

I’ve heard about the second ascent of Wings of Steel and am not clear about
the difference between bathooks and batheads. Help!

By Rock and Ice | September 23rd, 2015

I’ve heard about the second ascent of Wings of Steel [page 66 this issue] and am not clear about

the difference between bathooks and batheads. Help! —MikeO, via

Bathooks were developed by Warren “Batso” Harding and he famously used them for his first ascent of the South Face of Half Dome. Faced with the prospect of drilling bolts up hundreds of feet of blank rock, Harding ground down his skyhooks so they would seat in a shallow drilled hole, saving about half the time and effort of drilling a bolt in an aid ladder.

Bathooks as we know them today evolved from Harding’s modified skyhooks, which still required a fairly wide hole, to the use of Leeper pointed hooks, which were meant for natural edge hooking. Somewhere along the way someone discovered that a pointed Leeper fit perfectly into a 1⁄4-inch hole drilled 1⁄4-inch deep. The smaller hole required for the Leeper saved even more drill time, and bathooking caught on.

Batheads are a bizarre contrivance, an extension of the bathook, which is itself a bastard of a placement. For a bathead, you drill a 1⁄4-inch hole about a half-inch deep, and hammer a copperhead into the hole. Batheads are more bomber than bathooks, which don’t offer much in the way of pro, but they are just about impossible to clean. When you try to jerk one out with a funkness device, the cable usually snaps, leaving a blob of copper plugging the hole. Leave the head fixed in the hole, and the cable rusts, rendering it a timebomb with a short fuse and likely to break when you try to clean it.

Batheads and bathooks are both unsavory. Bathooks are used to keep the potential of a fall long. By pure definition, bathooks are a hole drilled into blank rock. Don’t confuse bathooks with “enhanced” hooks, which are edges or bumps that have been drilled out to take the tip of a Skyhook or Cliffhanger that may have its wide blade ground down to a point, similar to that of a Leeper pointed. Enhanced hooks might be even more popular than bathooks, as most aid climbers consider them the more natural of the two, since they usually require less rock removal, and were widely used on many El Cap routes including the famous Sea of Dreams.

I can’t figure out why anyone would ever use a bathead: When you drill a hole for a head, it makes sense to put in a rivet or just bathook the hole so it is available for repeat use.

I prefer rivets to batheads and even bathooks. A rivet, originally a short, smooth aluminum dowel hammered into a shallow drilled hole, and also invented by Harding, is a threaded hex-head machine bolt hammered into a shallow drilled hole of a slightly smaller diameter. When you hammer in the rivet, the threads mash, providing a ver tight friction fit. In fact, machine bolts are so bomber they can be stronger than the carabiner, depending, naturally, on how shallow or deep you drill the hole. Some aid climbers play the nuanced game of drilling very shallow rivet holes, then, when they get scared, drilling a deep one, then switching back to shallow.

Rivets don’t take much more work than bathooks or batheads, and age gracefully, making them usable for future ascents decades down the road. Brass rivets, although harder to find and more expensive than steel rivets, last just about forever and I’ve even seen one—drilled straight up in a roof—hold a fall. In recent times, aid climbers who encounter bathooks often drill the hole a bit deeper, and pound a rivet into it.A good move, I think, as long as you keep it in proper perspective, remembering the words of Chris Kalous, who said, when comparing aid to free climbing, that “Aid climbing is like riding a really sweet moped: No matter how tricked out your ride is, it’s still a moped.” Next!

This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 198 (December 2011).           

Leave a Reply

Notify of

Can Sleeping on Your Rope Cause Damage?

Entire generations of luckless alpinists have used ropes to level out ledges and insulate against the cold ground, ice and snow.

read more

Will Dog Urine Harm My Rope?

A buddy’s dog peed in the general direction of my new rope. I don’t think it was a direct hit per se, but collateral damage is a high possibility. Do I need a new rope or will a good scrubbing do the trick?

read more

What's the Point of Spotting Highball Boulder Problems?

When a person skyrockets off a problem from four times their height, does spotting expose numerous people to injury instead of just one?

read more