Looking for the best big wall aider? After testing for over ten years, we've researched 25+ different products. This update, we compare 9 of the latest and greatest options to test side-by-side. On our testing pilgrimage, we've ascended over 100 different big walls from El Capitan in Yosemite to remote places like Baffin Island. We've tested them while top stepping and free climbing. After months of testing each product thoroughly, we present award winners in three different categories; free-climbing, aid climbing, and budget options. Whether you're a grizzled vet or a green newbie, this review will help you find what you need.
Finding the Perfect Big Wall Aider
Best for Most Big Wall Applications
Yates Big Wall Ladder
Read review: Yates Big Wall Ladder
If You Prefer an Etrier-Style
Metolius 5 Step Aider
Read review: Metolius 5 Step Aider
Best for Free Climbing Walls
Metolius Alpine Aider
Read review: Metolius Alpine Aider
Best Budget Model
Fish Smart Aider
Read review: Fish Smart Aider
Analysis and Test Results
As Chris McNamara stresses in his How To Wall Climb chapters, it is your efficiency at aid leading that has the biggest effect on big wall success.
First off, let's get terms defined. We call an "aider" any type of webbing ladder used for aid climbing. There are two main styles: aid ladders and etriers. For a brief explanation: etrier-style models have loops on alternate sides of a main support fabric pillar, for your left or right foot, while ladder-style ones have a series of larger loops for either left or right foot with the support structures on either side, not one in the middle. This photo shows a ladder-style between two etrier-style models.
When choosing climbing gear, it's easy to get sucked into spending way too much money. Here, we help you decipher which contenders are going to give you the most functionality relative to their price point. We believe the Metolius 5 Step gives you the best value for your dollar, as it is high-performing and yet one of the most inexpensive products in our review.
The Yates Aid Ladder with a layer of 1.75" webbing on top of 1" (the widest we tested), combined with a sturdy spreader bar at the top, stood out as the most comfortable to stand in. Second was the Metolius 8 Step Ladder. The most comfortable etrier style model was the Metolius due to the extra Biothane(tm) layer in the step, which gives it more structure to stand on while lowering the squeeze on the side of the foot. The Metolius Alpine was surprisingly comfortable for being so small. The Petzl Gradistep was the only truly uncomfortable one to stand in, but that was to be expected for such a lightweight and compact model.
Ease of Walking Up
Overall, the ladder-style models were easier to walk up than etrier-style. Most noticeable was the difference when first stepping in on horizontal pitches. The etrier-style requires that you put your foot in the correctly oriented step, which is not always the step you want at the right height. Again, with its big reinforced steps, the Yates stood out for its ease of walking up. We have noticed it is especially easy for beginning big wall climbers to get the hang of them. The Metolius Ladder is easy to walk up until you get to the top steps, where a lack of a spreader bar makes it a little tricky to get your feet in the top steps. The Metolius with its reinforced steps was the easiest etrier-style model to walk up. All the products above also did well in the "fishing with your foot test" where you see how easy it is to get your foot in it the first time (without using a hand for assistance). Over time, most models without the reinforcement get harder to step into and the steps want to stay narrower. The lightweight models such as the Petzl GradiStep are the hardest to walk up because the lack of structure makes the steps harder to get your feet into once weighted. We found we often had to use a hand to get our feet in.
If you only climb a few walls, durability is not a huge issue. All the models we tested held up for at least 10 walls. However, if you are going to climb a ton of walls, you might want to consider how well reinforced the steps are. Overall, the Fish were the most bomber. After 40-plus walls, it was still going strong. The Yates after 20+ walls still does not show much sign of wear. After heavy use on 15-plus walls, the Metolius 5 Step blew out (the stitching became abraded, causing the steps to completely blow out). This could be solved with either more bar tacks or an extra piece of webbing sewed over the key stitching point or maybe using PlastiDip. We didn't blow out any other contenders, but we also did not use them as much.
Ease of Use Free Climbing
In addition to being the lightest, the Petzl GradiStep can be put in its own bag, which makes it very low profile. You almost forget it is clipped to your harness when doing free moves. In contrast, the features that make the Yates Aid Ladder so comfortable mean it is very bulky when clipped to your harness and the reinforced steps easily get caught in cracks. The Metolius 5 Step doesn't get quite as easily stuck in cracks, but the reinforcement that makes it so comfy can get really stuck. The Metolius Alpine was surprisingly comfortable for being so lightweight and not bulky. Aiders without urethane reinforcement, like the Fish Smarts, are less likely to get stuck in cracks when you bust a free move or two and want to let them dangle (as opposed to taking the time to bunch them up and clip them to the side of your harness).
Overall, the Metolius 5 Step with sub steps in the top two steps gives you the most options for top-stepping. It also has the highest step so on low angle terrain it lets you reach the highest (unless you want to put your foot in the grab loop). Of the aid ladder style, any model that does not have a spreader bar (like the Metolius Aid Ladder) is very hard to get in the top steps if you are only using two in total. The Yates was better for top-stepping but the Metolius Ladder did have a bigger grab loop so you can get your foot in for the occasional "super top-stepping" move.
The type of aider you choose will depend on the type of wall climbing you prefer. Just as important to consider is which one would best fit your technique. Almost every product we tested excelled in a certain application or was a great value.
— Chris McNamara