Posted on December 23 2014
From the outside looking in climbing in all its manifestations is a strange undertaking. Even from the inside some of the more ‘niche’ aspects of the sport appear bizarre. It would be hard to explain the benefits of dry tooling to a boulderer for example if it weren’t for the fact that bouldering is so seemingly redundant to normal people. I’ve heard more than one younger sibling/cold girlfriend at the top of a crag exclaim, ‘You know you can walk up this side?!’ in an effort to underline the utter absurdity of trying to scale three metres rock via the path of most resistance.
Aid climbing is interesting in that to the layperson it probably makes more sense than many other aspects of climbing. Most people will walk past a boulderer in a disused, graffiti covered quarry and remain dumbfounded all the way to a store where they are so inspired by an image of Leo Houlding standing on a .00 cam they’ll buy a Berghaus jacket. To the initiated climber however it often seems all of the things which are enjoyable about rock climbing are lost in snail paced aid climbing; the movement, timing, necessary strength and skill. All this seems to be replaced by the monotony of placing gear, jumping on it (bounce testing) and then standing up.
Like most things in life however gaining an understanding of something will often unveil its mysteries and eccentricities. The enjoyment of aid climbing is predominantly of the type 2/3 variety on the Fun Scale. Type 1 fun is where your having fun at the moment the activity is taking place. Drinking beer whilst talking to a beautiful girl is a good example of type 1 fun. Type 2 fun is a more mysterious mistress whereby fun was had, but only becomes apparent after the event. Much alpine climbing fits into this category where your brain recalls a moment on the summit and how nice the beer tasted when back in town (it has been speculated that this ‘ascendant beer experience’ (ABE) perversely distorts the fun scale and that alpine climbing is really type 3 fun. Control group field data has proven illusive as few volunteers are willing to forgo ABE so the true nature of alpine climbing may remain a mystery for the foreseeable future). Type 3 fun can be characterised as ABE having ‘little or no effect’ on persistent memories. Basically it wasn’t fun at the time and wasn’t fun retrospectively (Obviously it is still on the fun scale, probably in the same way S&M is on the pleasure scale).
Benefits of aid climbing:
Aid climbing involves a lot of hard work and boredom interspersed with hours of terror. There are however advantages to this style of climbing as we shall see. Much of the type 3 fun is made up of the hard work of hauling massive bags up after you. Now because hauling bags sucks it doesn’t really matter how much they weigh, 20kg, 30kg who cares, its sucks. Because of this many of life’s luxuries may come along for the ride. One luxury which is often to be found in haul bags is beer. Following on from what we previously mentioned this is probably a subconscious attempt to convert type 3 fun into type 2 but whatever the reasons the consequences often formulate as a ‘portaledge party’.
2) Looking cool.
Lets be honest, who wouldn’t like a photo of themselves half way up El Cap, lounging on a porterledge, beer in hand looking pensively towards the horizon. You’ll either have to get seriously good at crack climbing or learn to aid! Aid climbing gets you into positions and situations that whilst terrifying can be pretty amazing and that if you relied on your free climbing you’d probably never get to see.
3) Sleeping on a portaledge.
I think pretty much every climber would like to sleep on a portaledge at some point or other. Aside from looking cool, having a cool name and being probably the coolest place you’ll ever have a beer they’re also a hell of a lot comfier than any of the potential options.
4) Actually useful skills.
Most people who have ventured into the alpine arena will be familiar with a technique called ‘French free’. Whilst I’m not entirely sure if this is thinly veiled racism it is a useful technique for moving quickly when the climbing gets hard. Usually it simply means pulling on a peg, a fixed line or any other piece of fixed gear and not simply using the rock for upwards movement. If you build on these techniques you’ll find all sorts of skills used in aid climbing can be useful in other situations. Everything from jumarring to hauling might prove directly useful in all kinds of situations whilst the organisational skills and systems you learn aid climbing constitute highly transferable knowledge.
5) Learning to control your fear.
Theres nothing like spending a few hours hanging on unrated microscopic pieces of gear with thousands of feet of air below you to learn how to deal with fear. The reality is that if you want that beer you have to finish the pitch so you concentrate, go to your happy place, plug in another piece and stand up, keenly aware that your only getting further away from the belay, the only thing that will definitely stop you.
The list could go on. Aid climbing is an experience. Sure there isn’t the movement and the speed, the feel of the rock under your hands but there is a different kind of enjoyment and suffering involved with aid climbing. The friendships you build after long hard days on a big wall, the rhythm you get into as a team. Learning how to shit in a tube three feet from your mate. All these things will help with other aspects of your climbing, whether its in the alps or rigging a top rope, aid climbing will teach you all kinds of useful skills as well as being an amazing experience in its own right. Give it a go, it makes beer taste better.