How to Choose the Best Aider and Etrier for Big Wall Climbing

Buying Advice
By Chris McNamara ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief, OutdoorGearLab - Thursday October 17, 2013

Aiders are webbing ladders that are also sometimes called Etriers. This is the piece of gear mentioned first they are the most frequently used piece of gear when aid climbing. On a big wall, except in usually free free climbing pitches, you are usually spending most of your time in aiders. Aiders are the key differentiater between aid climbing and free climbing. When free climbing, the gear is just for protection. In aid climbing, you place protection, clip an aider to it, walk up the aider, reach up and place another piece of protection, repeat.

There is no one-size-fits-all aider. What you buy will depend on the type of wall you are doing. Here is a guide to helping you choose the right aider.

Length and Number of Steps
If you are doing a wall with lots of free climbing, you want a shorter aider that will be less bulky when clipped to the side of your harness. If you are doing an aid-intensive route, you want a longer aider that will give you more bounce-testing options.

When considering length, it is much more important to look at the overall length than the number of steps. All manufacturers count steps differently. For example, the Petzl WallStep 7 Step Etrier is the same length as the Metolius 5 Step Aider because Metolius has sub steps that are not counted. More important than the number of steps is where they are located. If possible, you want to try walking up a pair of aiders with you harness and fifi so you can see if the aider steps are where you want them when resting on a piece.

Click to enlarge
These aiders are all about the same length even though their names imply otherwise. From left to right: 7 Step Petzl Wallstep Etrier, Metolius 8 Step Ladder, Metolius 5 Step Aider.
Credit: Chris McNamara

Hopefully one day manufacturers will name their aiders by length rather than by step numbers. That will make it much easier for climbers to compare and contrast them.

Types of Aiders
There are three common types of aiders to consider:

Aid Ladder
Example of aid ladder: Metolius 8 Step Ladder.
Example of aid ladder: Metolius 8 Step Ladder.
Credit: Metoliusclimbing.com
This is my favorite type of aider for more aid-intensive walls such as Zodiac, The Prow, or The Shield for three reasons:
1) It is much less prone to twists and "going inside out" than standard aiders.
2) You don’t have to orient the aider step to the correct side when you are stepping into it. This is especially helpful for beginners, which makes this style aider the best for climbers learning to aid climb.
3) Because the steps are closer together at the top, you can often rest two feet in the aider at the same time.

The downside for aid ladders is that they are a little heavier than standard aiders and generally have more material, which means they are more likely to get stuck in the crack – which really sucks when moving from aid to free.

When buying a ladder-style aider, try to get one with a beefy plastic spreader bar at the top. Without a spreader bar the aider will be difficult to walk up once you weight the bottom step. As you can see in the photo below, the upper step on the aider without the spreader bar (left) gets compressed.

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This shows how the upper steps on the Metolius 8 Step Ladder (left) get squished together when weighted while the Yates Aid Ladder stays open. This makes it easier to get you feet in the upper steps of the aid ladder.
Credit: Chris McNamara

Standard Aiders AKA Etriers
Example of a standard aider or etrier: Petzl Wallstep Etrier
Example of a standard aider or etrier: Petzl Wallstep Etrier
Credit: Petzl.com
This is the most common type of aider. Chris Mac prefer it on walls with lots of free climbing (The Nose, South Face of Washington Column, Touchstone Wall) over aid ladders because it is lighter weight and less bulky when you clip it to the side of your harness and free climb. The downside is that it gets twisted, the steps get turned inside out, and you always have to orient them properly (left foot into a step oriented left of center). That means more dealing and declustering time, which adds up over the course of a wall and disrupts the “aid climbing flow.” Make sure there is a grab loop at the top. Chris prefer models where the top and second step have sub steps. The webbing should be at least one inch wide and have some type of reinforcement on the bottom of each step.

Lightweight Aiders AKA Alpine Aiders
Example of an alpine aider: Petzl Gradistep Etrier
Example of an alpine aider: Petzl Gradistep Etrier
Credit: Petzl.com
This is best for mostly-free routes where you occasionally need to use aiders. Very light weight but uncomfortable if you are standing for more than a few minutes. If Chris is doing The Nose in a day, he will usually bring one of these and one mid-weight aider such as the Petzl WallStep. This is a bad choice for learning to aid climb.

Comfort
The most comfortable aider is going to be the one with the widest webbing in steps with the most reinforcement that does not crush your feet from the side. We find aiders with urethane-like coating on the steps usually the most comfortable because the extra structure digs into the bottom and sides of your foot less.

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Showing aider step width. From top to bottom: Yates Aid Ladder, Metolius Aider, Petzl WallStep, Petzl GradiStep
Credit: Chris McNamara

Ease of use free climbing
Everything that makes an aider comfortable and easy to walk up tends also to make it cumbersome with which to free climb. This is because the features that make an aider comfortable also make it bulky and likely to get stuck in cracks. When doing a lot of free climbing, you want an aider that bunches up small on the sides of your harness.

Showing the bulk of aiders when bunch up (for clipping to the side of ...
Showing the bulk of aiders when bunch up (for clipping to the side of the harness for free climbing). From top to bottom: Petzl Gradistep, Petzl WallStep, Yates Aid Ladder, Metolius Aider
Credit: Chris McNamara

Features that are Important and Not Important
Important
  • It is important in a ladder-style aider to have a spreader bar.
  • It is important to have a grab loop up top (pretty much every aider has one).

Not Important
  • It is NOT important for there to be a loop at the bottom of the aider for clipping a weight. Many manufacturers design this for high wind situations. Chris has climbed in a lot of high winds and never felt the urge to use this feature. And even if he did feel the need, it's almost as easy to clip a weight to the bottom of the aider itself.
  • It is NOT necessary to have extra elastic to keep your feet in the aiders when cleaning. Yes, at first when cleaning your feet will come out more than you like. But over time you will learn to keep your feet in. Using the elastic takes extra time and makes it harder get your feet out when you want to.
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris’ sanity. He’s climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?” Outside Magazine has called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He’s the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 5000 dangerous anchor bolts.

Chris is a graduate of UC Berkeley and serves on the board of the ASCA, and Rowell Legacy Committee. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also runs a Lake Tahoe Vacation Rental.

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