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My First Aid Climb

Aid climbing eh? Not very fashionable in the UK these days and, to my uninitiated mind, a bit pointless anyway, after all, how hard can it be?  You throw in a piece of gear and walk up a ladder, hardly seems like a challenge, right?  WRONG!

The Stawamus Chief, Squamish, Canada

Step back a moment, imagine the piece of gear you’re putting in is a #00 peanut (one of the smallest wired nuts known to man!).  Your heart beats a little faster…Not forgetting that the last 3 pieces you put in were the other three peanuts on your rack, each with a breaking strain of less than 4kN (i.e. don’t fall on them!).  Now imagine that the piece you’re putting in is, well, really only half in and that to get it in you’ve had to stand so high in those ‘ladders’ that you’re in danger of a lateral pull on the few millimetres of alloy that’s been holding all your weight while you’ve been at full stretch for the last 10 minutes struggling to fiddle the next piece into a heinously shallow crack that leads to what appears to be a blank face.  Never mind what you’re going to do when you get there….?  For now, take a deep breath….


Then, imagine that after placing, sorry, half placing that peanut, you’re faced with several more top step manoeuvres in order to reach, wait for it….., some fixed gear!  But, that fixed gear is not a shiny new 10mm bolt, or even a bolt without a hanger that you could simply have slung with a wire.  Oh no, all those were left behind on the first pitch as this route cunningly lured you in with a friendly bolt ladder and fun pendulum to get you off the ground.  Instead, the fixed gear is a rusty old bashy/copperhead that you struggle to fathom the physics of since it literally looks like it is glued to the rock!  Metal = Glue?  Now you really are scared!  Your heart is bursting up into your throat and, whilst you’ve hardly moved an inch in the last 20 minutes, you’re still sweating and breathing like you’re running up Snowdon.  For, unlike a nut, the ‘head’ is just kind of sitting there, with no visible constrictions to stop it from ripping out of the rock at the slightest gust of wind, never mind the excruciating downward and probably lateral pull you’re about to place on it…..


So, now do you think it’s a challenge?  Well, I tell you, 100m off the ground with no way to go but up, because you sure as hell ain’t going to lower yourself off any of the cruddy pieces you’ve placed in the last 15m, it suddenly becomes very challenging indeed!  You begin to wish you’d done a bit more research about this aiding lark, perhaps taken it a bit more seriously.  Maybe forked out on some of that weird looking gear that hangs in the dark side of the shop but which you never really understood how to use and didn’t care to ask; cam hooks, skyhooks, talons, every kind of micro wire and, my saviour once I’d tasted the bile rising in my stomach and retreated to return better armed - tiny toy cams!


My first taste of aid climbing was spurred on by a friend with whom I had planned a trip to Yosemite to climb the Nose; he was constantly haranguing me about the fact that I wasn’t taking it seriously enough, that I hadn’t appreciated how complicated aid climbing could be.  I began to succumb; all those bits of gear tugging at your waist (top tip: buy a bandolier, then it can tug at your shoulders too!), complicated rope manoeuvres, daisy chains, jumars, etriers, etc. etc.  Ok I thought, I’d best give it a go….


Squamish in Canada is home of the Stawamus Chief, the second biggest granite monolith in the world and offering some of the world’s best free and aid climbing.  But, since everyone had no doubt seen the rain in the forecast I was feeling a little lost without a partner; enter the perfect opportunity for learning the art of ‘whack and dangle’….


Cannabis Wall C3, 5.7

The guidebook read:

“Cannabis Wall: A3 or C3, 5.7, 5 pitches.  Along with Ben’s and Wrist Twister, this climb is a great first wall.  Just south of Freeway, a bolt ladder indicates the start.  Finish by rapping down (most common) or up Crescent Ramp..  The route was originally called ‘Kannabis Wall’, a contraction of Tantalus and (real) cannabis.”


The words ‘bolt ladder’ on the first pitch immediately caught my eye – nice and safe I thought and hopefully a decent belay too - since I was going to be soloing the bolt belays would provide a much appreciated multi-directional anchor for my rope.


After a boring day of watching the rain fall, a gap in the clouds appeared late in the day and so I wandered up there on Sunday evening in the drizzle thinking I’d polish off the first pitch in the half hour of daylight that remained, get this aiding lark wired, then fire off the remaining 4 pitches the next day.  Looking back, it was good to feel the naivety that I had years ago when starting out to learn to free climb on the big trad sea cliffs back home!

But, at the base of the route were several tricky slab moves to be free-climbed before even reaching the first bolt.  I decided it was sensible not to go anywhere until I had a strategy in mind and so the rest of the first pitch took me a long while to figure out from the ground – the direct line had it’s first bolt about 15m off the ground, but I couldn’t figure out how to get to it, until I spotted another 3 bolts off to the left, the first being about 8m off the ground and which offered the possibility of some free climbing up to it.  It was just about dark before it dawned on me that this had to be a pendulum move – hey, a pendulum on the first pitch – this aiding lark was going to be fun!



Returning next day during a lull in the rain and with the first few metres marginally less slimy, I geared up with my shiny new aiders, daisy chains etc and my Gri-Gri for self belay.  The pendulum was indeed fun and the huge gaps between bolts were explained on closer inspection by the appearance of hangerless bolts, over which I quickly learned I could very securely attach the wire from a small nut.


The first pitch in the bag, I was getting the hang of the rhythm of moving my 2 pairs of aiders from one piece to the next and so after abseiling to get the gear out of the first pitch and jugging back up again (another skill not be dismissed lightly) I decided, what the hell, the next pitch was given A2+, which I very roughly understood as pretty safe, so off I went.  A little free climbing over easy ground, then straight into a shallow corner with a narrow crack/seam at its back curving off to the left, where it eventually went through an overlap to the next belay.  Back cleaning my precious cams soon became a necessity if I was going to make any progress, at least until staring at the run-out below made me shiver more than staring at what was ahead!


Pitch 2 – my first experience of ‘heads’ – it was a bit of a shame that the first one I saw had had its wires ripped out as this really inspired me with confidence in the next 3 equally cruddy looking ones I had to clip in succession as I moved very very gingerly from one step to the next, thinking light thoughts and wishing I’d not pinched those 3 extra doughnuts off the breakfast bar at the Travel Lodge last week.



In-situ gear, not always all it’s cracked up to be!


Nerves a little frayed, I felt it was time to call it a day, I had no idea what time it was but the next 3 pitches would make a fine day out tomorrow.  I later discovered the second pitch had taken me something in the region of 3½ to 4 hours for its 50m.  Another lesson: aid climbing (or rather my aid climbing) is very slow!


So, the summit day!  Well, not quite since the route finishes at a ledge only 2/3 of the way up Tantalus Wall, which itself doesn’t stretch to the summit of the Chief – another indication of how pointless this task appeared to be until I got myself so totally immersed in it.  For this route was sapping more mental focus from me than anything I could remember and time was flying as I stood swinging around up there.

The guidebook gave the second pitch as A2+, the 3rd A1, 4th A2 and 5th C2/5.9.  Since I was doing the whole route ‘clean’ (without a hammer) it was perhaps justified that the guidebook’s ‘A’ grades would feel different for me – but I really believed the crux was under my belt (after all, how could a ‘great 1st wall’ get any harder or scarier than yesterday?).  Lesson number…? I’d lost count!  Anyway, pitch 4 was a nightmare! The crack, which again curved off left and over another overlap, suddenly seemed to disappear into a horribly flaring shallow groove.  I questioned whether it was possible or, and more justly, whether I was up to the challenge on my first aid route.  I frantically searched around for an alternative, or maybe a way of escaping, but to no avail.  The next 15m were just plain scary.  All I wanted to do was get up it as quickly as possible but, to get up it at all it took me an age of fiddling with different sizes of micro gear until realising at each placement that nothing was going to be as good as I’d like and so, more often than not, after trying each tiny piece on my rack in numerous different positions, I usually had to settle for the first piece I‘d tried and just hope for the best.


Salvation was waiting for me at the top of the pitch in the form of a tree and bolt belay.  I’ll never know how close I was to not making it there.  I really couldn’t tell whether some pieces would hold or fail, particularly since I’d lost the balls to bounce test my dodgy placements long, long ago!


So, the final pitch, surely it can’t be another tough one….  Well, I guess it wasn’t all that bad, or at least wouldn’t have been had it not started to rain after 10m!  The free moves I had to bust half way up the pitch were brought alive by the moisture replenished moss and lichen covering the holds, the tipped out cam I’d placed before breaking free from the etriers and the shitty hook I was relying on to protect my free climbing traverse. Nice!


When I reached the top I’d imagined myself being overjoyed - whooping enough to wake the dead.  Instead, I was mentally spent.  Soaked through.  Starting to shiver.  I just wanted out of there, to get down.  To warmth.  To safety.  10 minutes later it was pitch dark.


Aid climbing, enjoy the challenge!!