Aid Climbing — Aid climbing involves the upward progression by the use of gear or another mechanical means. This means the section of cliff you are climbing on just doesn’t have good enough holds to afford climbing with feet and hands like you would if you were free climbing.
In order to continue going up, you would have to get better at climbing without holds or put in a piece of protection and use it to get you up further. Most of the time, before you start a climb, you would know beforehand if the route would involve any aid climbing, but on a first ascent that could be a different story.
Say, for instance, a climber is going up a crack, protecting it with trad gear and he comes to a place where the crack pinches down to a thin sliver not even big enough for a little pinky finger. Five feet above him the crack opens back up again. What he would do to get up to the bigger part of the crack is to insert a piece of gear small enough to seat comfortably in the crack, clip a sling to the piece and stand up in the sling.
At this point he may be able to reach up into the bigger part of the crack and move up. If he was too far away to reach, he would repeat the process until he could reach up into the wider part of the crack. What may have started out to be a traditional climb just turned into an aid climb.
On big wall routes, aiding is the order of the day. Some wall climbs will involve 15 to 20 pitches of aid climbing. Most of these routes will have very little parts that can be free climbed; instead each and every move up the miniscule cracks must be aided with gear.
Aid climbers must carry massive amounts of gear. While being in the mere presence of that much gear may sound really great, carrying all of it up the cliff is not. Sometimes as much as 65 pounds of gear must be hauled up the route by the climber. To make this daunting task more bearable, gear has been designed to keep climbers comfortable.
Padded gear slings allow the big wall climber to clip all of those cams, nuts, hexes, pitons and carabiners to loops on the slings to help organize all that gear and speed up placements. Etriers or aiders are ladder-like loops made of webbing for the climber to stand in. Aiders are clipped to each piece that is placed and are moved up with the climber.
Although different types of rock make for varying difficulties of aid climbing, the process of placing the gear, clipping an aider to it and standing up on the piece of protection to reach the next gear placement is much the same.
Aid climbers must face the reality of a complete reliance on the gear they use. Free climbers trust only their hands and rock shoes to get them up the cliff, while aid climbers are relying totally on the gear and how well it has been placed in the crack to further the journey upward. This dependence on sometimes rickety gear can be very tough on the nerves.
Sometimes, an aid climber will come to a blank section of the climb that will involve the use of hooks to climb up to where a solid piece of protection can be placed. Hooking may well be the scariest moment when aiding, because the chances of the hook slipping from its purchase are just too much to think about!
Pendulums are sometimes employed to reach other crack systems, as well as tension traverses where the climber will have the belayer play out slack in the rope while he slowly inches his way over to another part of the crack. As a last resort, bolts or rivets may be placed to also aid through blank sections of the cliff.
Aid climbing has a rating system to describe how hard the climb is and how much danger is involved, as well as a grading system to let the climber know how long the climb might take. The ratings follow the Yosemite Decimal Rating System which is outlined in the article Climbing Ratings. Here are the rating and grading systems as shown in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills:
Class 6: Aid Climbing
A0 or C0
A1 or C1
A2 or C2 or A2+
A3 or C3 or A3+
A4 or A4+
A5 or A5+
GRADE I: Normally requires several hours, can be of any technical difficulty.
GRADE II: Requires half a day, any technical difficulty.
GRADE III: Requires a day to do the technical portion, any technical difficulty.
GRADE IV: Requires a day to do the technical portion, the hardest pitch is usually 5.7 or harder.
GRADE V: Requires a day and a half, the hardest pitch is 5.8 or harder.
GRADE VI: A multi-day excursion requiring difficult free climbing and/or aid climbing.
For the most part, most beginning climbers will rarely ever do anything harder than a GRADE I climb. The grade system is helpful for climbers who are planning to climb something that is hundreds or even thousands of feet high and need to know how much time they will be spending on the wall. When the system mentions the hardest pitch it means the hardest section of the climb.
A pitch is the length of a standard climbing rope. The shortest common length is 50 meters (165 feet) and the standard length today is 60 meters (200 feet). Since climbing by today’s standards originated in Europe, most climbing measurements are done with the Metric System.
While most beginning climbers may never do an aid climb, big wall climbing and other aid climbing are fun to read about. Having knowledge of what goes into doing an aid climb, what gear is used and how it is implemented can carry over into other styles of climbing. As for the gear junky, aid climbing is as good as it gets!
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