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Bigwall climbing - a very quick and simple guide

By Nick
20, Mar, 2014

Alex Jones is climbing a big wall, what does that mean?


TV presenter Alex Jones is completing an ascent of a 'big wall' in aid of Sport Relief. For those of you not familiar with Doug Scotts Big Wall climbing book, this is a quick guide to big wall climbing.

Climbing can fall into a number of disciplines, often dictated by the length of the climb and whether you're using ropes, but it's all climbing at the end of the day! 

Bouldering. Normally short intense sequences of moves, on low outcrops and boulders, without ropes. 

Ben Meakin and Ashleigh Naysmith enjoying an afternoons boulder. Burbage, Peak District. 

Roped climbing

Once beyond bouldering you'll often move on to the use of ropes (but not always!). Now small cliffs can be climbed in minutes, big cliffs take hours to climb. Really big climbs can take so long that you need to take much more gear, enabling you to eat and rest along the way, conspiring to slow you down even more.

Nick enjoys a single pitch route at Black Rocks in Derbyshire. 

Big Walls. We're talking rock faces that run into hundreds of feet high, where often the climbs will take many hours or even days to complete.

Alex Jones, totally new to climbing just a few months ago, has taken on the challenge of climbing Moonlight Buttress, a 1,200 ft high wall in Zion national park. Most climbers would be happy to complete this route in a few days, but one guy (Alex Honnold) did it solo in 83 min, meaning no ropes and instant death if a mistake is made. Don't worry though this is extremely exceptional and Alex is doing it the safe way, which also means she'll be spending longer on the climb. She is of course in safe hands, under the watchful eye of the highly experienced big wall climber Andy Kirkpatrick.


The key difference of Big Wall climbing to the normal, you've seen it on the telly climbing, is the massive amount of kit you need to take simply because the climb is going to take so long. You will often spend a number of nights actually on the rock face so need to take everything from food, water and shelter. Plus all the extra gear needed in order to take all this stuff!

The two bits of gear that really stick out are the large bags, or haul bags, and the portaledge which is a glamourous version of the sun lounger. Without these you would be carrying a really heavy rucksack on your back and you'd have to learn to sleep upright. So while they may look a little weird, they are the best solution. You can check out Alex as she wakes up from a night on her portaledge.

As a quick run down, one person will climb a full rope length first, this is a 'pitch'. They will fix the rope before other people then climb up and haul all the kit up behind them. This is repeated again and again, so explains why it can take so long. They will either climb using nothing but their hands. Or by using pieces of metal they place in cracks or over small edges that they can pull up on or hang off for aid, hence the name 'aid climbing'. Cooking, sleeping and trips to the boys/girls room all take a little extra thought, but most important of all is making sure everything is clipped in and tied down.

Fast Big Wall ascents. After all this, big walls don't have to mean long or multiple days of frightening exposure, if you're good enough you can get it over and done with quicker. Top climbers are always looking at ways of pushing things further by moving fast, light and completing these traditionally long climbs within a day, or indeed a couple of hours. 

Alpkiteer Paul Swail during his day ascent of 2,900 ft The Nose. El Capitan, Yosemite. Ph Tom Evans

By now there are probably a lot of you thinking why, why... no really why?

You'd have to get a climber to tell you this. The exposure, the risk, but actually we love talking about how cool it is once we are sitting down on terra firma having a beer. Most of all it is the perfect excuse to spend time in the most amazing places on the planet. A normal trip to Zion is an hour spent in the car looking at rocks, a climbing trip to Zion will last a few days and the memory will last Alex a lifetime.

Zion National park
There has been nearly a hundred years of climbing Zion National Park, with Moonlight Buttress first climbed in 1992 by Peter Croft and Jonny Woodward at 11 pitches long and at a grade of 5.13b, which is basically like climbing the outside of your house on the brickedges for a 1000ft. The weather can be quite extreme from below freezing to over 30, and although it wont be quite so extreme for Alex it's going to feel like hot, hard work and then be pretty chilly at night. If you're not in to nature then you're not really going to get excited, but if you have driven through Chedder gorge then Zion is like that only a zilions times more impressive.

Trivia - Remember Clint Eastwood in the Eiger Sanction training camp? You guessed it, filmed in Zion.

AlexVsRock - Andy - Alpkit 

Alex is climbing with Andy Kirkpatrick, who we don't really sponsor but have known for many years and are always glad to help out. Mainly because he is usually quite funny to be with and seems to get up to stuff that is pretty interesting. When he said he needed a few things for Sport Relief we were more than happy to help out, making a number of highly durable wall bags for the climb that could take all the knocks. We also sent out a waterproof bivvy bag that Alex could use for her nights spent on the portaledge high up the wall. Although the caption for him comes up "climbing instructor" Andy is actually quite hard and has put himself in positions all over the world that could be considered harsh with a capital H, especially if Ed Rusha was painting.

A little more reading for those wanting to find out a bit more and gain an appreciation of exactly what Alex has undertaken. 

Andy Kirkptrick 

Andy Kirkpatrick Living on the Wall

Andy Kirkpatrick Basic Big Wall Gear

Climbing Your First Big Wall

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