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What Is Big-Wall Climbing?

These tall, steep, and technical rock formations require serious planning and skill.

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Considered one of the most impressive mountains in Antarctica, Ulvetanna (9,616 feet; 2,931 meters), aka the Wolf’s Tooth, is a daunting objective from all sides and angles. Thin, broad buttresses, shaped liked rocket fins, taper to a striking summit that stands as the highest point in the Fenriskjeften massif, or the Wolf's Jaw.

While four climbers on the team have focused on mileage, Jimmy Chin, 44, and Conrad Anker, 55, the two most senior members of the expedition, have been working to establish a first ascent directly up the steep north face of the mountain. Their route will likely converge with the northwest buttress, which was first climbed in 2008 by Alex Huber, Thomas Huber, and Stefan Siegrist.

Here Jimmy Chin flakes out his ropes at an anchor point just a quarter of the way up the wall.

Six climbers have journeyed to Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, to tackle new summits and climb big walls—a term used loosely to refer to very tall (usually at least 1,500 feet or 457 meters), very steep, and highly technical rock faces that would take experienced climbers more than a single day to ascend.

These climbs, which require massive logistical considerations, are particularly challenging in the extreme Arctic environment, and the team’s previous big-wall experience will be crucial to achieving their goals. What exactly does it take to succeed on these formations?

We’ll tell you.

How long do these climbs take?

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, is perhaps the most famous big wall in the world. Incredibly, this 3,000-foot (914-meter) granite monolith has been speed-climbed in just over two hours. However, most climbers require two to five days to reach the top.

Some big-walls can take climbers 20 days or longer, especially if the wall is remote and the climbers are attempting a first ascent, as pioneering unclimbed terrain is a much slower and more exhaustive process than following a pre-established route.

El Capitan, with its five-minute approach from the car and reliable California weather, is the premier big-wall training ground. Climbers hone their technical skills here before going off to tackle bigger, harder, and more remote objectives around the planet, like walls in Baffin Island, Patagonia, the Himalaya, and Antarctica.

Five of the six climbers on this 2017 Antarctica expedition have put in hundreds of days climbing El Capitan over the past few decades, and they will put those skills to use on this trip.

Honnold and I have been using Yosemite-style speed-climbing tactics here in Antarctica,” reports Cedar Wright in a December 9 dispatch, “which has been really useful here because as soon as you stop moving, the cold becomes paralyzing.”

The six primary peaks of the Wolf’s Jaw massif in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, each contain big-wall facets between 1,200 and 2,500 feet (365 and 762 meters) tall. Though taller walls certainly exist around the world, none are situated in as remote a location and in such extreme conditions.

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Twenty-one years after his first visit to Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, Conrad Anker, 55, has returned to tackle one of the most beautiful and difficult mountains on the continent: Ulvetanna, aka the Wolf’s Tooth.

From a distance, the broad granite flanks of Ulvetanna appear to be positively devoid of all features. Upon closer inspection, however, the faces contain a network of vertical cracks that lend themselves to climbing. Climbers look for cracks because they can climb them by jamming their hands and feet into them, and they can also use the cracks to place removable gear.

The key to completing a first ascent on a big-wall such as the Wolf’s Tooth is route-finding, which begins by spying crack systems from the ground, perhaps even by using binoculars. A continuous crack system is ideal, but often times the cracks will peter out after hundreds of feet and dead end in a sheer and smooth vertical face. Linking one crack system to another is the art of route finding and part of the adventure.

Where Do Climbers Sleep?

Big-wall climbers typically employ a variety of tactics to survive multi-day ascents. They use ropes and pulleys to haul up durable kevlar bags filled with gear, food, and water—sometimes a hundred pounds of it.

In Antarctica, the climbers can expect to haul fragmented blocks of ice that have been excavated out of the glacier below prior to climbing. The ice will then need to be melted using a hanging propane-canister stove. The resulting water must be either consumed immediately or used for cooking lest it re-freeze.

During a big-wall ascent, climbers may set up a camp at night on a hanging “portaledge,” a lightweight platform constructed from collapsible aluminum bars and stretched nylon fabric. It is a small rectangle just big enough for two climbers to lay down and rest.

Another tactic climbers use is a series of fixed ropes to create a strand between their highpoint and the ground below. Fixed ropes provide climbers with an easy way down, via rappel, as well as a relatively “easy” way back up to their high point, via mechanical ascenders. With this method, climbers have the luxury of returning to base camp at night. They can avoid hauling superfluous supplies and return each day to their highpoint by ascending the fixed ropes, which is still a grueling workout.

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Anna Pfaff, Savannah Cummins, Alex Honnold, and Cedar Wright stand atop a minor formation they’re calling The Penguin after completing its first ascent. The relatively short, 300-foot (91-meter) climb was a group “rest day” activity. The southwest face of Ulvetanna can be seen in the background.


What Climbing Style Is Used?

In general, the objective of big-wall climbing is to reach the top of the monolith via any style necessary—though there are some ethical parameters, such as not installing scaffolding up the wall, and leaving as little impact and trace on the rock as possible. To achieve this goal, big-wall climbers typically employ “aid climbing” tactics, which means they will place and hang from tiny pieces of removable gear and stand in nylon slings to inch their ways upward.

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Cedar Wright leads the team up the formation they've dubbed the Penguin for a first ascent up the tower.


Aid-climbing is the opposite of free climbing, which describes using only your hands and feet to move up the natural features of the rock—relying on balance, strength, endurance, and technique to not fall. Ropes and gear are used in both aid climbing and free climbing, but the goal in free climbing is to ascend without falling or weighting the gear and rope. A route can only be said to have been “freed”—as in, free of aid—once a climber has linked from one belay point to the next one without a fall or hang. (Commonly confused with free climbing, free-solo climbing means ascending without any rope or gear.)

Little climbing has been done in Queen Maud Land since the first expedition to the region by a team of Norwegians in the early 1990s, and next to none of it has been of the free-climbing variety. This is due to the fact that free-climbing usually means you can’t wear gloves, and in Antarctica, it’s too cold go bare-handed constantly.

What About the Weather?

One of the most important considerations every big-wall climber must examine is the aspect of their object—in other words, which direction the wall faces. Is it in the sun or wind? Can advancing weather systems be spied from that aspect of the wall or might they be likely to sneak up from the opposite side? The aspect of a big-wall informs a dozen considerations, including what kind of clothing to bring, how much water will be needed, and even the stability of the rock itself.

Aspect is especially crucial in Antarctica. With highs in the sub-freezing temperature range, these climbers expect to seek out objectives in the sun, which, in the southern hemisphere, means they will be looking to climb on north-facing walls.

“Once we’re in base camp, the first thing we'll do is set up a sun dial and measure when peak sun is per UTC,” says Conrad Anker, referring to the Coordinated Universal Time zone. “That's a fun little project.”

Anker expects only to receive about four hours of peak sun a day. Knowing this bit of information will help the climbers strategize when to tackle routes.

This information will be especially important if Alex Honnold, whom a teammate calls “the best granite climber in the world,” decides to attempt to free climb one of these big walls.

This story is part of National Geographic's Expedition Antarctica series, which follows a team of climbers exploring Antarctica in an effort to summit untouched peaks and forge new routes in Queen Maud Land's Wolf Jaw massif.

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