Nothing evokes awe in the aspirant climber like a high exposure picture from El Capitan. Seeing tiny Beth Rodden, or a ropeless Alex Honnold looking Sunday afternoon bike ride casual on the 5.13 fingers of the Great Roof, or the 5.14 houdini-corner that is the Changing Corners on The Nose, are great – great for making the mountain look gigantic, and our own personal skills and abilities comparably miniscule.
These comparisons cause many climbers to dismiss bigwall climbing. And that’s a shame. Those pictures of the pros free climbing on El Capitan should make you envision yourself with them on the ledge at sunset, sharing a warm meal and taking in the awesomeness of the vertical world. How you got to that ledge might be different, climbing-wise, but the shared joy is the same. The sunset looks the same whether you free climbed or aid climbed up to watch it!
Aid climbing will allow you to experience the joys of camping on the Big Stone; and it will give you the motivation to push yourself harder on your next route, whether that’s by free climbing more or by climbing faster/more efficiently, or by leaving the route better than you found it by doing route maintenance.
Most climbers on the Nose of El Cap say they waited to do the climb until they could comfortably lead 5.10 trad at their local crag. And yet when they get on the wall, those same climbers on the Nose usually cannot free climb pitches harder than 5.9. Bigwall free climbing is hard. Luckily, there are no rules or judges in nature. The best way to push your bigwall free climbing is to climb more bigwalls. Get up em any way that you can! More summits = more successes.
The founding fathers of El Capitan, folks like Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, George Whitmore, and friends buffered their obsessions with pushing their physical limits with equal enthusiasm for having fun on the mountain. Harding and crew hauled a whole turkey and gallons of wine a 1000’ up the Nose to celebrate Thanksgiving 1957 – that was over a decade before harnesses were invented. (They climbed up ropes with heavy packs hanging from their webbing belts)!
My most cherished bigwall memories are bathing in the golden glow of the sunset from the bivy ledge, my wide, crusty grin laughing at the waves of bliss radiating off the stone, and the ridiculous adventures and rope tangles my partners and I have had that day. My consciousness fading as the light fades to the sparkling dance of the Milky Way. It hurts to smile that much!