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Ask Dr. Piton: What is the Better Way to topstep?
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Apr 15, 2002, 12:43 PM
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Ask Dr. Piton: What is the Better Way to topstep?
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Dear Dr. Piton,

I am an aspiring big wall climber, soon to be testing my mettle on the real thing in
Yosemite. Even though my partner is a very bitchin' and experienced climber who could
easily lead the whole thing from top to bottom, pride dictates that I must lead at least a few of the pitches myself, despite my inexperience. Therefore, I have been spending some time standing in aiders lately
and could have been spotted the weekend before last, whimpering my way up a nice crack in Kentucky. Out of all the many dreadful thoughts that occurred to me on that wall, the one that stuck in my
mind the most is this -- what would I do if the next piece of protection was out of reach? Well, I KNOW what I would have to do -- I would have to leave the comfort of my 3rd steps and somehow get myself into the top steps or even, God forbid, the hero
loops, so that I could place the pro. I must confess, Doctor, that the thought of doing so fills me with dread and trepidation and the predominant image in my mind is of myself falling backwards out of the top steps and plunging into the void. Even if the plunge is for only 3 feet, it is bound
to make a lasting impression that may hinder further progress up the wall. Therefore, I
have a very deep interest in avoiding any type of plunging whatsoever and so I seek your advice. Tell me, Doctor, is there a Better Way to topstep -- a way that eliminates or at least greatly reduces any possibility of plunging, slipping, passing out with fear, or having to be peeled off the
wall by an unamused partner?

[ This Message was edited by: climbchick on 2002-04-15 05:44 ]


Apr 15, 2002, 2:30 PM
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Ask Dr. Piton: What is the Better Way to topstep? [In reply to]
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What about the second step? Top stepping is very difficult especially on steep ground.
You can put in a intermediate piece to hold on to while top stepping. But if you are not experienced you will probably be leading C1 and there for, all of the placements should be straight forward and you will not need to top step.
All of your orginazation will occur in the third step, place your gear from the second step.
I blew a piece on aid two weeks ago, no biggie, it was over before I new it.


Apr 16, 2002, 2:47 AM
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Ask Dr. Piton: What is the Better Way to topstep? [In reply to]
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Being short I totally understand your dilema even on the easiest terrain, a bolt ladder, I sometimes find I need to topstep. When you have to, there are three keys to making it more comfortable , first is to crank your harness on tight, if it slips around it is very unsettling. Second is that the daisy length is critical, but since you've probably moved into the modern era of "better way" aid climbing your adjusable aiders and fifi will make that MUCH easier. Third and most important is BALANCE if you aren't in balance the whole thing will be horrifying , so as you go to make that last step up, hold on to the placement 'biner or your aider loop as the case dictates and "stem out" with the other "free" hand this will give you a wider base to keep your balance.
And remember that for every four or five topsteps you save yourself a whole placement, do that forty times and you've made some serious time and ground!!!


P.S. Don't sweat the Leaning Tower, it's a piece of cheese, now that the A.S.C.A. outfitted it so well!

*edited* to remove clutter unecessary to this thread, and to add smilies to brighten things up

[ This Message was edited by: krustyklimber on 2002-04-16 18:27 ]


Apr 16, 2002, 6:23 PM
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Ask Dr. Piton: What is the Better Way to topstep? [In reply to]
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Rad's comment brought to mind a situation that occured close to me when I was soloing Native Son in 1999. A few hundred feet to the right of me, a near-epic was occuring on the third pitch of Tangerine Trip. Three young Big Wall Theorists were attempting their first ascent of El Cap.

"I simply CAN'T make the placement," the leader shouted down in evident frustration. "It's too far!"

His two partners beneath began shouting up various instructions, including the suggestion he try a different piece of gear.

"There's no placement! The next placement it too far too reach! It's IMPOSSIBLE!"

Generally speaking, on the wall, people tend to shout at me, usually asking me to play their favourite AC-DC song at full volume on my rather substantial ghetto blaster. But this time, it was different - I was the one doing the shouting.

It was time to offer what I like to call one of my "Shouted Big Wall Tutorials."

Note that the number of "Shouted Tutorials" tends to be directly proportional to my proximity to an easier route like the Trip. For instance, last fall I probably shouted a half dozen tutorials over to Zodiac from Zed-Em. This sort of behaviour is usually rewarded by a beer being placed in my hand at some later time when the person in question discovers who it was who helped him on the wall!

"Guys!" I shouted across from the Coral Sea. "Think about it. You're on a Yosemite Trade Route. Maybe a thousand other climbers before you have climbed this pitch. Try to figure out what they did."

Now the part of the third pitch that buddy was struggling on is "only" rated C1, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a cakewalk, as he was discovering to his chagrin. Buddy's problem was that he did not know how to topstep. A few shouted instructions from Dr. Piton, and he was through the hard section.

"I can't believe how easy that was!" he shouted back to me.

The point of this preamble is to let you know that topstepping is a fundamental part of aid climbing. Be it C1 or be it A5, if you are going to maximize your efficiency and minimize your time, then you must learn how to "Stand Tall in the Saddle." The better you become at topstepping, the better an aid climber you will become.

Be you short, or be you tall, lithe and Babe-O-Licious Beyond Belief, there will always be times when you will need to extend your reach.

Jeff has covered most of the important points. Topstepping is really about managing tension and staying in balance, rather like what you need to do with your partner when the two of you are on the wall. And when you are topstepping, just like when you do your first wall, there is always going to be a lot of tension. You need to make the tension work for you rather than against you. This can spell the difference between success and failure.

The first thing you need to do, as Jeff points out, is to be prepared. This means that you must have your adjustable fifi attached tightly to your harness, with no excess free cord in the knot where it attaches to your harness. It needs to be able to point downwards as much as it needs to point upwards. You will also save yourself heartache if you have a pair of adjustable daisies. While it's true the Masters of a Bygone Era did not have such modern conveniences, their benefits cannot be understated - how the hell could a part time climber/life insurance agent like me ever get up stuff if there weren't a better way. Just because Grossman and Cole didn't use adjustable fifis doesn't mean that you can't!

Next, you really DO have to fasten your harness waist belt TIGHTLY! When you are topstepping, you are creating opposed forces on your body. You are pushing down with your feet in order to lift your body high, while at the same time your adjustable fifi or daisy is pulling down on your hips in opposition! Not only is this counter- intuitive, it can also be damn uncomfortable! When you topstep, the forces you exert downwards on your hips may well exceed double your body weight! I mean, if you're doin' it right, you may really need to be crankin'!

Now, if you have snake hips like Dr. Piton, it's even more important to crank your harness tight, otherwise you are certain to feel your waistbelt sliding down over your hips at the most inopportune time, usually in the middle of some desperate crux move! Leaving your harness dangling from its adjustable fifi as you plummet unencumbered earthward is not the better way.

If you happen to have shapely and curvaceous hips which swell outwards above long, slender and suntanned legs, and hips which taper to the narrow waist of a voluptuous hourglass figure, then Dr. Piton recommends you ask him to help you properly fasten your harness. In situations such as this it is especially important that your harness be properly adjusted.

It is worth noting that despite the fact that you are stressing your body to the max when you are topstepping, you are not exerting any more downward pressure on the piece you are topstepping on than if you were merely hanging from it. Sure, you're pushing down extremely hard with your feet, which pulls down extremely hard on the piece, but you are also pulling up on the piece at the same time with your fifi. So the forces are opposed on the piece, but you are not weighting the piece any more.

Again, this appears counter-intuitive at first, especially if you are topstepping on either a manky hook or a suspect head. Don't worry! You're not doing it any harm! Get on it and topstep, damnit!

Note that you can exert outward force on the piece, so be careful not to do that! You don't want to accidentally pop it out.

The place to learn how to topstep, incidentally, is not on the third pitch of the Trip like buddy above. It is in your basement or your garage or on a tree in your backyard. You can practise topstepping anywhere - and this is what you should do so that it becomes second nature. It is not easy to learn topstepping - you really do need to practise!

The fundamental premise to topstepping is that you must extend your fifi or daisy beyond the maximum cinch-up point you normally use when you are fifi'd "in short" in your third steps. You must lengthen the cord or strap in order to gain height. And you have to do it carefully! You do not want to take the plunge! This is known as falling out of your aiders and will create what is called a Daisy Chain Fall. If there is any slack in your other daisy when you fall on it, you can generate huge fall factors on your lower piece because of the inelasticity of your daisy! Not only will this wreck your body, but it can blow the piece!

Be CAREFUL when you topstep! If you are really scared, consider clipping your lower piece into the bungy cord wrap you have put on your harness. I do this from time to time on really hard aid, but normally don't bother on the easy stuff.

How serious can a daisy chain fall really be? When I soloed Iron Hawk, I took a short daisy chain fall while making a traverse. At the time, in 1997, I did not have adjustable daisies, and when I fell, the slack in the other daisy caught beneath my rib. Ouch! I am almost certain that this resulted in a cracked rib, and for the next week or so I was in considerable discomfort. Never, though, did the thought of bailing ever cross my mind. When you're on the wall, you live with pain. Get used to it.

It might only be a three foot fall, ClimbChick, but it could well be the hardest three-footer you'll ever take. If you are going to plunge on the wall, Dr. Piton believes it should be on your terms.

Topstepping is actually very very easy when the angle is less than vertical. On the A4 ramp of Jolly Roger, I was standing right in my hero loops - the little grab loops on top of your aider. Had you been watching from beneath, and seen my knees knocking and my bollocks shrivelled in terror, you would have realized I did not feel "heroic" in any way! But when the angle is less than vertical, getting into your second steps or even your topsteps is actually quite easy. This is how you should learn - go out to a slabby area, and practice "standing tall in the saddle." I mean, make it easy on yourself, eh? Like, any fool can be uncomfortable.

As the angle steepens to vertical, topstepping becomes more difficult, and when it gets overhanging, it's really quite hard. But the principles remain the same. If you are ever going to climb one of Steve Gerberding's rivet ladders, then you had better be damn good at topstepping. Not only is that bastard tall, but he drilled those rivets standing right in his topsteps! That guy is a master topstepper, that's for sure! Do not make the mistake, as I did, of assuming that "if he drilled 'em, I can clip 'em." Man, did I ever learn THAT the wrong way!

Note: If you do not know how to rig a cheat stick on the fly, which I sure as heck needed to do on one of Steve's ladders on Reticent Wall, then you should Ask Dr. Piton.

If the angle is not too steep, then you can almost think of topstepping as free climbing in your aiders. As Jeff points out, strive to maintain balance. Pretend you are free climbing - keep your toes carefully pressed against the wall and your feet and legs in balance. Use the handholds on the wall for balance! Actually grabbing the rock and hanging on is the single best tip I can give you while topstepping! Of course, this will not always be possible, but if you can, do it. This will greatly extend your reach.

OK, so now you're buddy on the third pitch of the Trip. The move appears to be impossible. Yet you know it can't be, since someone ahead of you had to have figured it out.

Here is a maxim you should remember on the wall:

"Things always look better from the next step up!"

I believe that's a Dr. Piton Original Quote, incidentally, and you would do well to remember it when you have no idea what to do next.

If you can't figure out for the life of you what the heck you're supposed to do while you are standing in your third steps, then it is probably time to do the "Texas Two-Step". Gently put a bit of slack into your fifi and adjustable daisy, and look around for some handholds on the wall. If none exists, you will have to use the gear itself or else your aiders. You will have to figure out which foot to move up first. That depends on personal preference, and also the orientation of your body at the time. I tend to move up one foot up first preferentially. This is something you need to figure out on the ground first, eh?

But before you commit to your second steps, take a look at the placement you're going for. Do you have any idea what might fit? If you do, you might want to have it ready on your other aider. (Of course it goes without saying that you have already extended the adjustable daisy on your other aider to the max in preparation for the move.) This way, you won't have to faff around as long from the discomfort of topstepping. With any luck, you can step up into your second steps, and slam the next piece in, thus sparing yourself unnecessary work.

Then again, on hard aid you may truly have no clue what you need to do next. Hard aid is sometimes quite microscopic, and completely invisible until you're staring it in the face. You may well have to hang out in your topsteps, and figure it out.
OK, time to step up. You've put the slack in your fifi and your adjustable daisy. Carefully stick your lead foot into your second step, and stand up on it while holding on. Bring your other foot up into the second steps, and stand tall. Now here's the key bit - once you are in your second steps, adjust the tension in your fifi and/or adjustable aider so that you are comfortably in balance.

If something is "not working," and you can't move up, you have probably hosed yourself by not putting enough slack into your daisy and fifi. This is a common mistake to make in the heat of battle. Expect it to happen. Make sure it's not your fault that you've hosed yourself before you start screaming at your partner to give you slack! You do not want to bitch at your partner unnecessarily - it is your neck on the line at the moment, not his.

Assuming you even have a partner.

Now by "adjusting the tension" in your system, I mean that you must do so to the nearest MILLIMETRE! The tiniest adjustment in tension can make a world of difference as you stand in your second steps! Believe me - it is critical that you get the tension adjusted perfectly! Now, get yourself comfortable. If you are doing it right, this should not feel too bad. You will be pushing down hard on your feet, and your harness should be pulling down hard on your hips, be they curvaceous or snake-like, like there's no tomorrow.

Try to relax! This is important. Don't fight it! Get your tension managed correctly, and if the angle is less than vertical, you will be able to stand in perfect balance and surprising comfort. If the angle is overhanging, however, there is not much you can do to become comfortable. Hopefully you can make the next placement quickly and get this nonsense over with! Expect some pain.


If you are using an adjustable fifi on slippery 6mm cord, then Dr. Piton highly recommends you tie a backup slipknot in the free end of the fifi cord, right up against the fifi. Under the tensions created during topstepping, the fifi cord can sometimes invert where it passes through the hook, suddenly losing its grip on the hook, and causing you to take the big plunge backwards unexpectedly when you suddenly find an extra three feet of slack in your fifi cord! This sort of oversight can be fatal on hard aid! Don't blow it. Get in the habit of tying a backup slipknot beneath your adustable fifi. You have been warned.

OK, you're standing in balance in your second steps, the angle ain't too steep, but you still can't find a placement. Sorry, mate, time to get into the top steps.

Note: Most aiders have two second steps and two topsteps, so there are actually four progressively higher foot placements you can make, before you make the fifth which is to stand in your hero loops. You would be amazed how easy it is to topstep on a slab or low-angle face, and how incredibly quickly you can climb by extending your reach this way! Never underestimate the power of topstepping!

So now it's time to let a bit more slack into your system. Getting into your topsteps is exactly the same as getting into your second steps, except it's a little harder.

Yikes! Scary, eh?

Well, yeah, it's like supposed to be scary. I frickin' told ya you shoulda practised this stuff at home, mate! What the heck you doin' complaining?!

Shut up, and get in your frickin' topsteps!

Relax, stay cool, adjust your tension perfectly, and make the placement. You may have no other choice.

I am Dr. Piton,

and learning how to topstep may be the second-best thing you can do to succeed, apart from having the good judgement to choose a very bitchin' wall partner.

Now please excuse me whilst I journey to the "pue-el" to work on my tanlines. Being bitchin' has its price.


Apr 23, 2002, 2:04 AM
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Ask Dr. Piton: What is the Better Way to topstep? [In reply to]
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You can see here how to correctly tie off your adjustable fifi to prevent it from slipping.

Note the properly adjusted harness.

[Heh heh heh heh.....]


Aug 9, 2002, 9:49 AM
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Ask Dr. Piton: What is the Better Way to topstep? [In reply to]
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Being very new to the aid game, I still have a great deal to learn. Here on Aid Forum, however, we are fortunate enough to have some great on-line tutors, and this has propelled me some way along the learning curve. Last weekend, I did my first solo aid (using a clove hitch, backed-up of course), and far from being the trouser-soiling experience I thought it would be, it was tremendously enjoyable. I could take my time, smell the roses, and didn't have to put up with my whining belayer telling me he was bored and wanted to go home. Now admittedly this was no multi-pitch A5 horror-show, and it took me almost as long to build the anchor as it did to climb the damn thing, but Soloing aid of any description would simply never have occurred to me had it not been for Dr Pylon's various posts on the subject.

The more I do aid, the more I recognise the value of Dr Putain's teaching posts, and I think it is well worth resurrecting this one on Top-Stepping before it gets lost in the mists of time. In my short aid career, I have come truly to appreciate this seemingly mental technique. "Things always look better from the next step up!" as Dr Perlon states. How true. How very, very true.

Although I am still slow, I try to be efficient. I like to use the highest possible placement available, so I routinely Stand Tall in the Saddle, even where it's not entirely necessary. However, the very last piece of the route I was soloing appeared initially to be waaaay out of reach. This did not, in Dr Python parlance, appear to be A Very Good Thing. More like A Very Bad Thing. Luckily, a small Alec Guinness voice inside my head told me to "Use the Top Step, Luke".

I slackened my adjustable daisy, and extended my Kong Fifi (obtained thanks to Krusty), and got my feet onto the little drain-pipe at the top of my Yates aiders. Grabbing the rock, I stood-up… and guess what! A nice Friend #1 placement within easy reach.

In recognition of this very bitchin' technique I would like to suggest a new weekly award on the Aid Forum, the purpose of which is to recognise the value of a particular piece of gear or technique. I propose it should be called "The Dr Piton's "The Shit" of the Week Award", and I nominate Top-Stepping as the inaugural winner. Top-stepping is The Shit. Oh, yes, it is The Shit.

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