Aid, Free, Solo and Free Solo – How to climb El Capitan

STORY BY Debbie 23rd September 2019

Free soloing
Free soloing – the style that Honnold recently made famous, means an ascent that is one alone without any ropes for protection/safety. However, people are often confused because climbers also talk about free climbing and soloing. These are very different styles that both involve ropes, and are much more in common in general and particular on big walks like El Capitan.

Free climbing
Free climbing is climbing with ropes but without using those ropes for upward progress. The ropes catch the climber if they fall, but all the climbing is done by pulling or pushing to rock itself. Depending on the features of the rock available for the climber to grab, this can be relatively easy, or nearly impossible.

Aid soloing
Aid climbing, or “aiding” came first and is the most common form of climbing El Capitan and other Yosemite big walls. Climbers place gear in the rock and then use that gear to make upward progress. Easier than free soloing though it may be, aid climbing has its own separate difficulty rating depending on how solid the climbing gear is and what kind of gear is used.

Solo climbing
Solo climbing means climbing by one’s self with rope. On a big wall like El Capitan, a solo ascent can be brutal because you’re covering the same ground three times. The first time, you ‘lead’ the pitch, a section of the climb, trailing multiple ropes behind you. Then you descend down to the anchor by lowering yourself down the rope (rappelling) and removing all of the safety gear that you left behind while leading. Then you have to climb the rope again up to the top where you can haul you gear up to your new position and repeat the process.

Speed climbing
Take any of the other types of climbing and do that quickly and you’re speed climbing. Speed ascents of El Capitan focused more on precision, efficiency and risk management. Stopping to place gear takes time, so whenever possible climbers will free any sections they can climb quickly with minimal safety gear.

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