Establishing ‘Ground Up’ First Ascents: Part 2

From roadside sport crags to back country big walls, Dakota Walz has established miles of new rock climbs across Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and beyond. Follow along in this 3-part series as he shares his secrets on the dark art of ground up new routing.

by Dakota Walz

Now that we’ve got an idea of what a ground up first ascent is and the thought and skills required to take on the challenge, let’s talk gear. I will only include equipment that isn’t already included in a standard climbing rack: harness, cams, nuts, rock shoes, etc. Instead, I’ll focus on tools that are specific to new routing or that come from big wall kits.


Wall hammers come in all shapes and sizes. It’s the weight of the hammer that will matter most when you’re hand drilling vs. pounding in pins. Typically, you want a heavier hammer for hand drilling, as it’s going to help deliver a lot of power per impact and ultimately reduce the number of volleys for each hole. Conversely, a lighter hammer is best for pounding iron as it can help keep you from overdriving your placements. We’re focusing on the weight of the head (the hitting part, not the holding part) specifically, because this is where the power comes from.

In the past, folks have tied cord to a standard hardware store hammer and gotten the job done. But I wouldn’t recommend them. On one route a few hundred feet above the desert floor, I tried to impress veteran first ascensionist Rob Pizem with my speedy hand-drilling skills. We each started drilling an anchor bolt at the same time. I was nearly halfway done when I looked over to check on Rob’s progress: his bolt was already installed. Had I been using the proper hammer, I might have been able to keep up!!

Hammer Drills

These are the power drills or “bolt guns” that make the job of drilling holes easier. A bolt gun can make a hole 50 times faster than doing it by hand. But don’t let this power go to your head. Before taking up a powered hammer drill, I encourage you to hand-drill a few of your own holes first. This will give you a greater sense of appreciation for the impact you’re making on the otherwise natural environment.

So, what makes a good hammer drill? The factors I want to focus on are weight and power. Nearly every cordless hammer drill on the market has a slotted drive system (SDS), but there are a few that may not. If the drill you’re looking to buy doesn’t, it likely isn’t a hammer drill at all.

The weight of your drill is going to be the biggest factor when going ground up. Often, you’ll be drilling holes above your head to get the most out of your placement. If you’re hiking a few miles in and free-climbing with a drill on your harness, those extra pounds can make a big difference. The power of your drill will come into play if you plan on drilling many holes in extremely hard rock (quartzite, granite, etc.). When drilling into hard rock, weaker drills will drain battery much faster.

Hand Drills

Hand drills are basically a “holder” for the drill bit that you hit with a hammer over and over to create a hole. Technically, you could just hold the drill bit and hit that with a hammer, but odds are you’ll hit your hand and perhaps even break the bit. Most hand drills will accept the same SDS drill bit as hammer drills. The SDS hand drills will feel loose and have some play even after the bit is in. Some hand drills are able to lock the bit into place, which transfers much more energy to the rock, but again, this increases the risk for breaking the bit off in the hole.

Drill Bits

Again, we’re focusing on SDS style bits. Bit diameter will depend on the bolts you wish to install (typically 3/8” or 1/2”). Make sure the bit has a carbide tip for strength and hardness. There are also options for two-point and four-point tips.

It’s wise to have extra bits for back-up. How many you need will depend on how hard the rock is. A dull bit can double the time it takes to drill a hole, and a broken one will make it impossible. Mark the length of the bolts you’re using onto the bit with a Sharpie as an indicator for how deep you need to drill.


The amount of information regarding bolt choices could fill volumes, so we will simply hit the key points. The factors to consider are: material, wedge vs. sleeve vs. glue-in style, and length.

Standard options on the market include plated steel (PS), stainless steel (SS), and titanium. Titanium tends to be the most expensive and is often utilized in marine environments that see PS and SS corrode at alarming rates. Plated steel is a cheaper option over stainless but rusts quicker. Stainless steel doesn’t rust nearly as fast, but it has the downside of being more expensive and being a softer metal. Because of this, SS bolts have lower torque rates which lead to more frequent spinners. According to the American Safe Climbing Association (ACSA), using PS is considered below the modern climbing standard. When in doubt about which material to use, consult the local standard. Whatever you use, don’t mix metals. For example, if you choose SS bolts, use SS hangers. If you mix the metals, the rust process will be greatly accelerated.

The style of bolt you use will be dictated by the type of rock. In granite, I prefer a wedge-style bolt, as they are easy to install and are plenty strong in good rock. Sleeve bolts can also be used in granite with good results. For softer sandstone, wedge bolts are not an option. The wedge mechanism isn’t designed for soft rock and will not last long, if at all. For soft sandstone, long sleeve bolts are the way to go. Glue-ins come in handy for really soft rock, but they are tedious to use on ground up ascents as they require time to dry.

Bolt length will again depend on the rock. Longer bolts allow for more surface contact in soft rock and may not be as necessary on high-quality granite. It’s not uncommon to use a 4.75” long sleeve bolt in desert sandstone or a 2.25” long wedge bolt on a granite slab.

The amount you’ll need always depends on your objective. (Regardless of how many you bring, you’ll likely be about one short of what you actually need.)

Removable Bolts

These very specialized tools that are basically super bomber cams that fit into a bolt hole. They’re very useful for bolting steep roofs on rappel but can also be employed to save on bolts during ground up efforts. They get stuck very easily, so to get them out I place a small pin or screw on the disengaging plate and tap it with a hammer.

Blow Tubes and Brushes

Blow tubes are for cleaning out all the rock dust inside of the hole after it’s been fully drilled. This can be a standard plastic tube from a hardware store plumbing section. It should be about 2 feet long and as flexible as possible.

I use two different hole brush types: soft plastic bristle for super soft rock and wire for harder stuff. The soft brushes will likely be in the cleaning isle, while the wire brushes will be by the welding equipment. For cleaning big holds and various cracks, I use various toilet brushes of different shapes and sizes. For tough lichen on granite, a small wire brush can be an invaluable tool. Don’t use any wire brush on soft rock like sandstone or limestone, as it can be easily damaged.

Aid Gear

It’s not often that you can cast up an entire wall on-sight, free-climbing every bit of the way. Sometimes doing clean aid on your free-climbing rack of cams and nuts will be enough. Other times you’ll need to be equipped with all the iron aid shenanigans to continue upward. How much you bring will depend on the style of route you climb. If you expect it to be a full-on aid route, then bring the kitchen sink. Personally, I chase free-climbs and only find myself aiding short sections here and there. I recommend at least having the option to bust out the ladders with an assortment of hooks and beaks and maybe even a lost arrow or two. And always bring a pair of jugs per team member if you plan on fixing lines.

Static Lines

Static lines are non-stretching ropes that have many uses. Firstly, they’re great as a tag line for tramming extra gear to the leader. When the leader makes it to a belay, the tag line can then be used to haul. Fixing static lines means to leave ropes on a section of wall to give access to a high point. You may fix lines to the ground and return the next day, or you may fix lines above your wall camp and jug them first thing in the morning. These are completely optional depending on your style. The number you bring with you will depend on how many pitches you plan to fix, if any.

Progress Capture Pulley

This could be any pulley device that is able to hold the rope without your assistance. I use them to hand-haul tag bags and even small haul bags. It’s a great tool to have when navigating emergency or just complicated big wall situations. I love using it to TR solo (with a back-up) while rehearsing free-climbing moves after a pitch has been established. I always have one on me and suggest my teammates bring their own if they have one.


While not at all necessary I have found that radios make it considerably easier to coordinate a team on a big wall. If you’ve climbed enough multipitch, you’ve gotten good at shouting commands or even communicating by tugging on the rope. However, with new routing there are so many things that can go sideways, and being able to communicate with your team can be a critical benefit. Typically, two radios are plenty, but if you happen to have members of the team on many different parts of the wall, or even a ground team, a third radio can be useful.

Leaver Gear

This is standard lead gear that you’re okay with losing. Leaver gear could be slung around a boulder to bail from or a fixed nut that you hammered into a crack in a panic. Usually, you’ll only want to part ways with the cheapest and oldest gear you have, but that’s not always an option. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do get down.

Part III: We’ve got the base understanding. We’ve got the gear. Let’s put on the rock shoes and start going up! Check out Part III for tactics for ground up new routing, drilling and hand drilling, and how to share our new route with the world (if at all!)!