It’s a bluebird October day in Yosemite Valley and you’re drinking a lukewarm Cobra underneath Cap’n Tom’s tree, celebrating your toils on the granite seas. A crusty wall rat zones in on you as a prime target for the day’s entertainment and asks a series of probing questions, waiting for the right topic to pounce on his unsuspecting prey. The topic of ladders comes up and you tout your love of Yates speed wall ladders. The living relic has their opportunity to make some sport and lures you into defending every gear decision you’ve ever made, contorting nitpicked stats into the foundations of what it means to be a Yosemite climber.

This is a typical scene in El Cap meadow, because aid climbing is an alcoholic gear-head’s sport. Nothing gets people more riled up than comparing each other’s kit and whether you should use Yates Speed or Yates Big Wall style ladders will be a never ending point of debate. So here is my attempt to fan the flames a little higher.

The author reaching for a mid-wall marg.

The only way to get to the heart of this debate is to ask yourself what your climbing style is and what you’re trying to get out of it. Are you a ‘run-the-pdl, beak, beak, cam hook, free move’ kind of person with a drive for athleticism or are you ‘hanging off the cliff as a vacation– pounding pins, drinking cobras inching your way up week after week’? Depending on the amount of time and beer I have to consume, I find myself doing both.

Photo by Tom Evans
Takin it slow and sketchy on Lost in America A4. Photo: Tom Evans

Does Anything Matter?

On face value the Big Wall and the Speed Wall look to be nearly identical with just a few underlying differences. So what is this fuss all about? Minor differences when you embark into the vertical lead to vastly different life experiences. Climbing El Cap is arduous, scary and doesn’t make much sense unless you convince yourself that you’re having a good time. Getting to the summit won’t make your crush fall in love with you, earn you the respect of your coworkers or make you rich. The only reason to be up there is to have a grand old time while the exposure gradually erodes away your IQ and having sore feet from ladder pinch is a sure way to not appreciate that sunset during a never ending hanging belay.

IMG_0663-Edit 1
The Big Wall ladders coming in handy on copperheads while re-establishing Hockey Night in Canada during the 4th ascent.

Will I ever get to the point? Well if you’re asking then you’ll never make it through a monologue given by any of the quintessential meadow ranters such as Pass The Pitons Pete, Chongo or Shapopoi. But I understand your pain all too well so I’ll try and get on with it.

...In my experience, I enjoy the extra girth.

Hayden Robinson

Going Big.

The Big Wall Ladders from Yates have extra webbing sewn onto the steps and a lower clip in point to connect 2 ladders together.

The Big Wall style is my uncontested favorite. A sometimes unpopular opinion because it is slightly heavier due to more incorporated webbing. The Big Wall style steps have the same 1” structural strap of webbing as the Speed Walls, but they have an additional .75 inch of material on the footbed of the step. Out of the differences this is most often brought up. Does this added material just make the big walls more cumbersome and heavy at 15.6 oz’s compared to the speed walls 13.6 oz or is there added benefit? Most opponents of wall styles cite the lack of added structural support the extra material brings, in my experience I enjoy the extra girth. When on pitches that involve a lot of tinkering, a wiggle of the foot to get some blood back could be just the nudge that desperate hook needed to make gravity a little sassy and send you for a ride.

If you find yourself aid climbing harder than C2, the moves can feel like slow motion time contorting consequential yoga; every breath needs to be balanced as you think light thoughts trying not to budge the couple of millimeters of metal connecting you to the wall.  The added webbing, while not being as integrated in the ladder wall, still distributes pressure and I find it helps lock the ladder into the boot for confident bounce testing. Being able to give a forceful yet controlled bounce test on sketchy gear is the most critical element of leading an aid pitch and I’ll take any extra benefit I can get.

Hayden hammering away
The extra reinforced steps of the Big Wall Ladders make long nailing sessions just a little comfier.

The added length of the 7 step Big Wall is certainly the biggest advantage out there. Compared to the Speed Wall’s 66 inches, the 81 inch Big Wall allows you to bounce with your center of gravity lower on the gear making a failed test generally less consequential. They also have a carabiner attachment point on the bottom to chain two together in the event of a “yer gunna diii” moment to make a desperate bounce test to save your life. This extra length also provides a greater confidence of reaching from that top step. After all that is what the game is about.

WeighMyRack note: Yates lists the current version of the Big Wall Ladder as having 6 steps, but if you want the extra step you can special order it by calling Yates directly.

So What About Speed?

All that being said I don’t enjoy stepping out of the stirrups to do that scary free climbing thing. The Speed Walls are a great tool for those with a little too much energy who will actually be inclined to leave their ladders behind. The lighter weight and the thin steps allows smooth transitions and who cares about bounce testing when you are going to pull on a ring lock instead.

The Yates Speed Wall Ladders are each 57g lighter than the Big Wall Ladders.

Then there is a matter about looks. As we all know the only thing that actually matters is that we look cool up there. Tom evens, admin of the el cap report, retired big wall climber and seasonal photographer of the monkeys, will slander even the most hardcore party if they are decked out in grey. The Speed Walls Rasta color aesthetic will be the only way other dirtbags will know how edgy you are.

In short, if you’re going to be up there wasting away on the big stone choosing to let your body wither and your brain crumble, you might as well be standing in the ladder that suits your style best. At the end of the day, that wall rat will always stumble to his bivy behind the bear boxes with conviction that he had you beat but as long as you keep getting after it, let them stare up at your headlamp as you use whatever ladder you like.

Hayden Robinson

Hayden Robinson

I like to drink beer on big rocks. I used to bartend the mountain room bar in Yosemite valley but now I reside in mammoth lakes and pour beer at mammoth brewing.

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