Which Big Wall Spirit Animal Do You Need?

It’s the season of epic big-wall free climbing battles! Are you ready? What’s in your tool bag? As many of us witnessed, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson didn’t just walk up to the Dawn Wall—now the most difficult big wall free climb in the world—and free it. They put in years of dedication involved —seven for Tommy—plenty of strategy.

I freed my first big wall in 2006: Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12+) in Zion National Park.  This climb was the top grade that my partner, Kate Rutherford, and I had climbed in a single pitch, so we knew we were dancing a fine line between sending and not. We sampled a few different tactics, such as rappelling in from the top and trying the most difficult sections. The objective was also our first long climb together and we turned out to be great partners with compatible personalities, similar vision, style, and drive. The goal seemed appropriate, inspiring to both of us and with the right amount of difficulty.  We each gave a more sustained effort on this goal than on any previous climb, and pulled off a first female-team free ascent by the skin of our teeth. The achievement built our confidence and encouraged our curiosity of what was possible. The following year we tried a route in Yosemite and then another.  

What began for me as a “let’s just go try hard and see what happens” climbing approach evolved steadily into an adaptable skill set for big wall free climbing tactics. Compatible partner and objective selection aside, here are the different responses that I’ve found most helpful along the fickle path of big wall free climbing. Each one comes in handy at a different time, and some come more easily to certain people than others, but they’re all powerful. Which “spirit animals” have helped you up your big wall projects?

The Princess (Non-gender specific)

  • You’re a problem-solving diva who aims to reduce the workload while on route by doing work beforehand. 
  • Your high attachment to sending + time-crunch/impatience + general preference to reduce pain when possible = OCD prepping and planning and removal or management of as many variables as possible.
  • Examples: Pre-hauling bags and stashing gear/water on the route; previewing crux pitches; practicing placing different gear, writing out the order and visualizing execution.

The Morale Booster

  • You make room for items or actions that connect you to peace, love and joy, bringing comfort and a smile to your face, or making you feel like a badass.
  • Examples: Music you love, chocolate, flare (special clothing; bandanas; rainbow flags, etc.), thoughtful gestures for your partner (“Do you want to use the final the wag bag before me?”), or self-care (clipping nails, filing skin, applying salve). You can’t put a price on morale!

The Honey Badger

  • You completely embrace the unknown.
  • At this point you may not care about safety of yourself or others.
  • Most of us have a very finite supply of this skill, so we must deploy it only when absolutely necessary and create opportunities to relax.
  • Examples: My friend Nik Berry, who giggles into the void while engaged in a dangerous moment.

The Squirrel

  • The squirrel tries beyond comprehension and finds a scrappy, very “un-princesslike” way through a crux. It’s not always pretty.
  • Surrenders to magic.
  • Examples: My friend Sarah Shaw. I have no idea what she just did, but she got up the pitch.

The Non-Buddha/Zone-Out

  • Knows that attention is precious and checks out to restore.
  • Examples: Napping, listening to music; self-soothing in ways that connect you to other places, maybe texting your lover about future holiday plans.


  • This one gets straight to the heart of the matter, prioritizing the well-being of self, partner and environment over the objective.
  • The carebear is aware of self and partner, especially when both are fatigued past recognition and going into a tunnel.
  • Examples: Acknowledge a poor decision that your partner is about to make as an option and gently present other options, picking up trash—even micro trash—on route and aiming to leave a popular route without a trace of the ascent.

On the stage of the big wall, remember that you have these awesome responses to draw from and make your bag of tricks go even deeper. Aim to be open to new concepts, ideas and tactics, and feel free to email me other ones additions to these at madaleine.sorkin@me.com.

Photo: Nik Berry at the Honey Badger while we freed El Corazon on El Capitan (VI 5.13 R). By Jeremiah Watt.