Big wall climbing is a form of rock climbing that takes place on long multi-pitch routes (of at least 6–10 pitches or 300–500 metres) that normally require a full day, if not several days, to ascend. In addition, big wall routes are typically sustained and exposed, where the climbers remain suspended from the rock face, even sleeping hanging from the face, with limited options to sit down or escape unless they abseil back down the whole route (a complex and risky action). It is therefore a physically and mentally demanding form of climbing.

Big wall climbing is typically done in pairs in a traditional climbing format, but with the distinction that the non-lead climber usually ascends by jumaring up a fixed rope to save time and energy. It requires an extensive range of supplies and equipment over and above that of traditional climbing that is carried in haul bags, including portaledges, aid climbing equipment, poop tubes, and food and water. It requires additional techniques such as pendulums/tension traversing, aid climbing, using trail ropes, jumaring, and sometimes simul climbing.

Big wall climbing began in the Dolomites with early pioneers such as Emilio Comici inventing many of the first techniques and tools in the 1930s, and then spreading throughout the entire European Alps by climbers such as Riccardo Cassin and Walter Bonatti with his milestone solo ascent of the Dru in 1955. From the 1960s, American climbers led by Royal Robbins developed Yosemite into the most important big wall climbing venue in the world, with Lynn Hill's 1993 first free ascent of The Nose at 5.14a (8b+) on El Capitan being an important milestone in big wall history. Major high-altitude big-walls have been scaled in Patagonia and in the Himalayas.


Climbers on a pitch of The Nose route (VI 5.9 C2) on El Capitan

Big wall climbing is rock climbing on large routes that often take a full day, if not several days, of continuous climbing to ascend. Big wall climbing is a form of multi-pitch climbing but there is no definition of how many pitches are needed for a route to be a big wall; a minimum of at least 6–10 pitches (or roughly 300–500 metres) is typically required. Big wall climbing is usually done in pairs as lead climbing, however, due to the length of the climbs, the second climber usually ascends via a fixed rope to save energy and time.[1][2]

Big wall climbing can be performed as free climbing, however, it is common for big wall climbers to use some level of aid climbing on the route, as it is often impossible for very large multi-pitch routes to have a uniform level of difficulty (i.e. there may be some sections that are well beyond the difficulties of the rest of the route).[3] Most big wall routes require traditional climbing techniques for climbing protection however some routes have bolted sections (or pitons) like sport climbing routes. Big wall routes have also been free solo climbed.[1][2]

Big wall climbing routes are typically sustained and exposed, where the climbers are suspended from the rock wall during their entire ascent with limited availability to sit down (e.g. few large ledges), or to escape from the wall other than by abseiling back down the entire route (which can be itself a risky process). Big wall climbing is thus a more serious undertaking than multi-pitch climbing, and climbers will generally only attempt big wall routes at grades that they can easily manage as multi-pitch routes.[1][2]

The duration and sustained exposure of big wall climbs require greater equipment—and equipment-handling skills—over and above what is required for multi-pitch routes. Big wall climbers need to be able to haul gear and supplies up the route as they climb (using pulleys and haul bags), ascend on fixed ropes (the non-leading climber), build major anchor points (for hanging belays), hammer-in bolts and pitons as required, and set up portaledges for resting and sleeping. Given the length of the routes, this must happen efficiently.[1][2]

Notable walls

In determining what is a "big wall", there is not only debate about the height requirements but also on whether it includes alpine climbs such as the north faces of the Eiger and the Matterhorn, which also have a lot of snow and ice.[4] Regardless, a number of walls are considered particularly notable in the development of big-wall climbing:[5][4][6]

In addition to the above big walls, several other locations are regarded as having impressive big walls that are climbed. However, their level of challenge (sometimes due to the variable or poor quality of the rock) has not been as notable in the development of big wall climbing; they include Troll Wall (Norway), Cerro Autana (Venezuela), Naranjo de Bulnes (Spain),[14] Tsaratanana Massif (Madagascar),[14] Potrero Chico (Mexico), Ketil (Greenland), and Notch Peak and The Streaked Wall (Utah).[4][5][14]


See also: History of rock climbing and List of grade milestones in rock climbing § Multi-pitch routes

Climber on the famous big wall climb Cassin Route on Piz Badile, which is 850-metres, 25-pitches, and graded TD (IFAS), 5.9 (American), 5c (French), VI- (UIAA), IV (NCCS).

One of the earliest examples of "big wall climbing" dates from 1887 when a 17-year-old Georg Winkler free soloed the Vajolet Towers in the Dolomites.[15] The Dolomites were the birthplace of big wall climbing, and where pioneer Emilio Comici invented many big wall techniques such as aid climbing with multi-step aiders, hanging belays and bivouacs, advanced rope maneuvers, and leading with a trail rope. In 1933, Comici climbed the overhanging north face of the Cima Grande, then the world's hardest big wall route. Other pioneers such as Riccardo Cassin, himself a leading alpinist, created even harder new routes and spread big wall techniques across the Alps.[5] In 1955, Walter Bonatti ushered in modern big wall climbing with his six-day solo of a new route on the southwest pillar of the Petit Dru, one of the most important big wall climbs in history.[5][16]

In 1957, a team led by Royal Robbins climbed the Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite, ushering in modern American big wall climbing.[7] In 1958, a team led by Warren Harding aid climbed The Nose on El Capitan using siege tactics (600 pitons and 125 bolts) over 47 days; while the ascent got worldwide recognition it was controversial due to the excessive use of aid.[7] Robbins' ethos of minimizing the use of aid prevailed over that of Harding, and his legacy of partially aided ascents including the Salathé Wall (1961), the North American Wall (1964), and the Muir Wall (1968) cemented Yosemite, and the granite walls of El Capitan, as the world's most important big wall climbing venue and Robbins' place in big wall history.[16][17]

The development of big wall techniques and tools in the European Alps and Yosemite led to a worldwide search for new big walls. In 1963, a team led by Chris Bonington established the first big wall routes on the Cordillera Paine, Chile and Patagonia, followed closely by new Italian-led routes. In 1972, Doug Scott, and later Charlie Porter, developed big wall routes on Mount Asgard, and highlighted the enormous big wall potential of Baffin Island.[11] In 1976, a British team led by Joe Brown ascended one of the first-ever high-altitude big wall routes with the granite Trango (Nameless) Tower in the Karakoram,[5] which was followed in 1992 by the two-man team of John Middendorf and Xaver Bongard [de] who ascended the east buttress of the neighboring Great Trango Tower, putting up The Grand Voyage (1,340-metres, 33-pitches, VII 5.10 A4+), the longest big wall route in the world.[8]

From the late 1980s, leading sport climbers began to fully free-climb major big wall routes, and establish new testpieces. In 1988, Todd Skinner and Paul Piana freed the Salathe Wall on El Capitan at 5.13b (8a).[7][16] In 1989, Wolfgang Gullich, with others, established the mega-route Eternal Flame on Nameless Tower (fully freed by the Hubers in 2009),[16] and in 1991, created Riders on the Storm on the Torres del Paine.[16] In 1993, Lynn Hill claimed one of the greatest prizes in big wall climbing by freeing The Nose on El Capitan at 5.14a (8b+).[7][16] In 2001, Alexander Huber freed Bellavista [it] on the Cima Ovest at 8c (5.14b).[16] In 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson freed Dawn Wall on El Capitan at 5.14d (9a).[7][16] During this era, new milestones were also set in big-wall free solo climbing by Alexander Huber, with Brandler-Hasse Direttissima on the Cima Grande in 2012 at 7a+ (5.12a), by Hansjörg Auer, with Fish Route on the Marmolada in 2007 at 7b+ (5.12c), and by Alex Honnold with Freerider on El Capitan in 2017 at 7c+ (5.13a).[16]


See also: Rock-climbing equipment

Equipment used on big wall climbs

Big wall climbing requires the equipment used in traditional climbing and multi-pitch climbing (but in greater volume as the pitches are of fuller length), as well as specific additional items that are needed for extended multi-day muti-pitch big wall routes, including:[3][18][19]


While the essence of big wall climbing is that of traditional climbing, and particularly multi-pitch climbing, it also uses a number of specific techniques that are important in being able to meet the unique challenges of ascending big wall routes, which include the following:[3][20]

Traversing, El Capitan.
Ascending a fixed rope, Fitz Roy.
Aid climbing, El Capitan.


Big wall climbing is used exclusively in relation to rock climbing. Long rock climbing routes that also have ice or snow, are referred to as alpine climbing. There is overlap in the skill sets, and many famous alpinists such as Walter Bonatti, Catherine Destivelle, and Alexander Huber, were also big wall climbers. The most common grading systems used in big wall climbing are the French, American (also known as the Yosemite Decimal System), and to a lesser extent the UIAA rock climbing grades for free climbing; the A-grade or C-grade systems are used for sections of aid climbing.[24][25]

In addition to the above rock climbing grades (for both free climbing and for aid climbing), a National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) grade is sometimes quoted on North American big-wall (and alpine) climbs, that are described by the American Alpine Club (republished in 2013) as follows: "North American NCCS grades, often called "commitment grades", indicate the time investment in a route for an "average" climbing team":[26][27]

Because of the great length of big-wall routes, detailed topos are usually provided outlining the grades on each pitch, and the aid climbing versus free climbing options at key sections. For example, one of the most famous big wall routes is the 31-pitch 870-metre route The Nose, on El Capitan, which is graded VI 5.9 C2 as a partial aid climb (mainly due to its roof section), but which is graded VI 5.14a (8b+) if climbed completely free.[24]

Evolution of grade milestones

See also: List of grade milestones in rock climbing § Multi-pitch routes

The following big wall free climbing redpoints (i.e. no aid) are notable in the evolution of big wall climbing grade milestones and standards from being a skill used in alpine climbing to a standalone sport in its own right; some are at the borderline of being multi-pitch rather than big wall climbs:[16]


Climbers on the roof of Pan Aroma (and Bellavista) 8c (5.14b) on the Cima Ovest in the Dolomites.


See also: List of grade milestones in rock climbing § Free-soloed

High altitude and expedition

A number of big wall-free climbs are notable for their high altitude or the remoteness of the expedition:

In film

A number of notable films have been made focused on big wall climbing including:[46]

See also


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  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p The Mountaineers (2018). "Chapter 15. Aid and Big Wall Climbing". Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (9th ed.). Quiller Publishing. p. 276. ISBN 978-1846892622.
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  6. ^ *Elli, Fabio; Zabrok, Peter (2019). "Appendix A: Bitchin' Places to Climb". Hooking Up – The Ultimate Big Wall and Aid Climbing Manual (1st ed.). Versante Sud. pp. 619–664. ISBN 978-8885475809.
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  14. ^ a b c d Cooper, Tarquin (25 April 2018). "7 epic big walls to climb". Retrieved 20 May 2023.
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Further reading