Looking to climb but not suffer the early August heat and humidity-slick rock, Brian Haugli, Mike Hensley, and Court Zabel donned approach shoes trekked down-river to the shade of Cow Hoof for a morning of aid climbing.
Everyone was fairly new to the practice of aid climbing, but all were enthused about adding this skill to their trad toolbox and aboutthe excellent opportunity to practice gear placements and to see how they behave under load (a great benefit to both new and old leaders).
Because of the softness of the rock at Great Falls, everyone opted for the security of a top rope. Though there are a few leads to be had in the park, it's inadvisable to attempt to protect smaller cracks, as the rock has been known to crumble and fail on simple nut placements under body weight alone.
Having set a rope that could hit the 5.8 & 5.9 variations of Socrates' Downfall as well as Hard Nut (A3), Brian racked up to try the two hand cracks of Socrates' Downfall. After free climbing the tricky start, he worked his way up the left hand crack using smaller cams until the crack widened. Having determined that the bird nest in the wide crack was not on route, Brian practiced the process of transferring between cracks, and finished the route on the right hand crack.
Mike was the next to step up to the rock. Though it was only his second time aid climbing, he did a great job of working his way up the left hand crack. He was able to avoid the need to change cracks by working his way higher in his etriers and finding a placement where the crack narrowed again above the birds' nest.
Court opted to attempt the Hard Nut aid route up the blank overhanging face at the center of Cow Hoof. After an abortive attempt to use a hook to start the route, Court worked his way into the crack and began the slow process of ascending the seam in the rock. Court quickly learned the accuracy of the definition of A3 (from BigWalls.net):
A3: Hard aid: testing methods required. Involves many tenuous placements in a row. Generally solid placements (which could hold a fall) found within a pitch. Long fall potential up to 50 feet (6-8 placements ripping), but generally safe from serious danger. Usually several hours required to complete a pitch, due to complexity of placements.
The seam proved quite difficult (but very interesting) to protect, as it was largely narrower than the smallest BD nut, and the few wider portions had likely been created by pin scars, and were therefore flaring. It was lucky that Brian was able to offer small aid nuts to supplement Court’s rack, because the crack mostly took #1 & #2 aid nuts, though DMM Wall Nuts proved handy where their curved sides were able to find purchase on smaller features of the crack. Thankfully Brian was patient enough to provide a good belay for while Court took a long time to complete the lead. In the course of the 40’ crack only 2 nuts and a yellow C3 would likely have held a shock-load fall, while the remainder of the placements were either very small or very tenuous or both, luckily though everything held well after bounce testing.
As with any truly good day out, everyone learned quite a bit.
- Daisy Chains are best for tethering your etriers to your harness because the daisy loops provide more frequent places to hook with your fifi, giving you more opportunities for rest.
Only use one carabiner to hook each etrier to each daisy chain tether, and use that same carabiner to clip to your gear.
Rack your hooks individually, rather than on your etriers.
Be extra organized with all your gear, & try to rack gear on either side of your body in case you find yourself in an awkward corner, since you’ll be there for a lot longer than if you were free climbing
In a pinch a grappling hook can be used as a second fifi
When belaying very slow climbing, it’s incredibly nice to be able to tie off your climber in a munter-mule knot while he’s looking for his next piece, and getting ready to move to it - just be ready to undo the knot and put him back on belay when he’s ready to move.
For harder aid routes, a standard set of BD nuts might actually (and surprisingly) be too large for tiny aid cracks.
Always look away from your placement when bounce testing it (something which always seems to be re-learned in every aid climbing session).