So you want to climb a big wall?
Do you want to climb a big wall, wake with a start in the dark clipped to a ledge the size of a dustbin lid?
Do you have dreams of nailing pin scar cracks a kilometre up, or maybe hand jamming your way to victory?
What are your dreams made of: El Cap, Moonlight Buttress, Trango Tower?
Have you read other books, watched endless videos, asked around but still don’t have a bloody clue how to go about it?
Yes you can climb 5.12 but you’ve been shut down by hauling, or you can haul the bags but don’t know how to clean a traverse or pendulum.
Maybe you’ve never even set foot on a big wall because the weight of questions cannot be resolved, even though you’ve read all the books.
If only there was a way to long jump some of that learning curve….
Behind the book
Last year, sat on the El Cap’s East Ledges descent, someone asked me how many days I’d spent up on big walls in my life. I did a quick count, my brain a bit fried after nineteen days soloing South Seas, thinking about the walls and faces, totting up the numbers on battered fingers. The rough answer was about three hundred days, maybe over a year if I included bivys and camps at the bases of walls. If I threw in just ‘being in the mountains’ then it would be twice as long. “You must understand rock at the granular level?” they said. I thought back to the last two weeks, where placing a cam or hook one millimetre either way would see me fall, taking a whip that may yank out piece after carefully placed piece, my body free-falling down the wall. “Yes - you’re probably right”.
I’ve climbed walls fast, sped up El Cap in a day, but really I’m a man who likes to take his time, believing in the Karma Sutra’s dictum that, “Whatever you’re doing, do it at half the speed”. When you take your time you have time to consider things, to get things right, to think of better ways rather than simply ‘the way’. Learning all the techniques necessary to climb big walls has become as much the kick of climbing as the climbing itself, to be able to scale not only clean and sunny walls, but cold and chossy ones too, any new wall just an excuse to learn new skills.
This obsession with climbing big walls has seen me spending many months living the high life, from thirty+ ascents of El Cap (including 5 solos, 2 one day ascents, 1 winter ascent), routes on the Troll Wall, Dru, Eiger, places like Patagonia, Zion, Alaska and Antarctica, five failures for every summit.
My solo climbs led to a lot of questions from climbers about that black art, and so led to the writing of Me, Myself and I, one of the few big wall soloing manuals around (maybe the only one?). When I wrote Me, Myself and I, I imagined it so niche that few would buy it, and gave it a heavy price tag to match. In the end I found there were many climbers who wanted this book, a good percentage who went on to solo walls with its help, but also many who just liked to know more stuff about the sport they love. Since then the number of questions about big walls has steadily increased, with at least one person a day asking me how to do something wall related, from small technical details to more expansive questions about motivation and getting it done.
At the moment there are a small number of dedicated big wall books, all excellent, but most were written over twenty years ago, and so tend to feature outdated ideas, advice, or are missing new cutting edge techniques. Another issue is that they tend to be limited in their detail due to the need to keep the book within reasonable cost, meaning the real nitty gritty, the granular stuff, tends to be missing, as books like this need to be sold for about £20, meaning much of the good stuff is left out (a war is won on details!). But climbers love the nitty gritty, like how to remove a beak without breaking it, drilling a rivet or bat hook, how to rig a portaledge in a storm or rig a parachute for a wildness retreat (on that last one, don’t buy a €19 parachute off eBay!). It’s often these little details that make or break a climb, not the big things.
Based on a lifetime of numpties
Higher Education is not only based on my personal learning on many walls, but also from teaching hundreds of climbers how to climb big walls, from 5.14 climbers wanting to free El Cap, to 5.6 climbers who want to frig it all. Being able to take a highly complex set of skills and pass it on helps to create an approach to teaching that makes learning easy(ish), mainly by keeping it simple, and not overloading the pupil. Beyond this I’ve also taken many novice climbers up walls, people who were not even climbers, and taught them the skills to haul, clean and even lead. When you climb with novices, or people who are disabled, children, blind or ginger, you soon learn what’s important and what’s not.
Beyond the basics
This book gives the climber access to all the skills needed to climb anything from alpine peg ladders to trade route walls, as well as jumaring and hauling and all the stuff you need to stay alive, but unlike other books it also goes into the more technical aspects of climbing, the extreme stuff of hooking, pegging, heading and loose and expanding rock.
Beyond the sunny walls
Higher Education is not simply a book looking at sun-drenched Californian walls (the best place to learn), but also colder, more stormy walls, where you may be dealing with ice and snow, killer storms and frigid bivys, where at the end your sleeping bag is more ice than insulation. These aspects of extreme big walling may seem beyond the realms of most end users of this book, but are ‘shitty fan’ concepts that could well prove valuable even on sunny walls!
Just another instruction book?
Higher Education, like Me,Myself & I, is as much a story about big wall climbing as an instruction manual, full of personal stories and stories by others (I’m a big fan of learning by story).
Forward by Doug Scott A brief history of big wall climbing
- Psychology of the wall climber
- Psychology of the wall
- Psychology of the team
- Setting goals
- Free climbing
- French Free
- Gorilla Aid
- Basic Aid
- Hard Aid
- Advanced Aid
- Haul bags
- Basic Hauling
- Heavy Hauling
- Fixed Ropes
- Cams and Nuts
- Fitness and preparation
- Climbing as a two
- Climbing as a three
- Climbing as a four
- Food & Drink
- Toilet stuff
- Alpine bivying
- Wall bivying
- Expedition bivying
- Getting to the wall
- Speed climbing
- Capsule climbing
- Siege climbing
- Rescue Equipment
- List of climbs
* Me, Myself & I is the most complete book on roped soloing around, and trying to cover soloing in this book would create a monster book, so I’ll only cover the very basics which can be employed by teams on a wall (short fixing, self rescue etc).
Who’s this book for - only aid climbers?
I’d buy this book for a start, but then I would, as I always try and write the types of books I’d like. Beyond that the book is written for both the experienced climber and novice, as well as the armchair big wall climber, who just wants to know about new and strange and exotic climbing techniques. The issues covered will be of great interest to free climbers looking to do new routes in alpine environments, alpinists who want to tackle routes that feature aid climbing, expeditionists who employ fixed ropes, and anyone who needs a bit of motivation for their own seemingly insurmountable objectives.
The book itself will be printed by the same people who printed Me, Myself and I, and be a black and white soft back. This is not a coffee table book, but a cutting edge manual for big wall climbers. It’s hard to judge the overall size of the book but I expect it will be running to around 700 pages (brick thick).
How much should such a book be? The most complete big wall book I ever bought was Chongo’s ground manual back in the 90’s, a telephone directory sized big wall guide that only dealt with the pre climb! This cost me $60 back in 1995, a price I was happy to pay, both eager for knowledge but also eager to help out the legendary Chongo. This book was simply photocopied pages with a green card cover yet every penny was well worth it, and in many ways, beyond big wall climbing, set me on a course to write my own books. The amount of work involved is considerable but the market itself is limited, and looking around at what else we buy every day, when compared to the value of this book, makes me think that a fair price is €45 (FREE P&P for most customers ). Sorry that prices are in Euros but I live in Ireland, so can’t offer a dollar or sterling price.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram