Aiders and etriers are critical tools for aid climbing, and there are plenty of options to choose from. Both terms generally refer to the same piece of equipment, nylon steps that you walk up as you lead while aid climbing. The three main types are ladder-style aiders, with vertically oriented steps, etrier-style aiders, with alternating steps, and lightweight models, which are short and typically made from thin webbing. On a big wall, you are usually spending most of your time in aiders. Aiders are the key differentiator 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 climb wall routes that mostly involve free climbing and have only a few easy aid pitches, shorter aiders are preferable because they are less bulky while clipped to your harness on free pitches. For predominantly aid routes, longer aiders are nice because they are more versatile for bounce-testing pieces and leading traversing terrain.
When considering length, it is much more important to look at the overall length than the number of steps. All manufacturers count steps differently, and it is possible to find a 7-step ladder that is shorter than a 6-step one. 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 your harness and fifi so you can see if the aider steps are where you want them when resting on a piece.
Types of Aiders
There are three common types of aiders to consider:
These are the best option for more aid-intensive walls such as Zodiac, The Prow, or The Shield for three reasons:
1) They are 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; this means they are more likely to get stuck in cracks and on knobs, which is a terrible feeling, especially when you have to bust one final free move to clip the anchor after a long aid pitch.
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.
Standard Aiders AKA Etriers
These are the most common type of aider. Chris Mac prefers 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
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.
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.
Ease of Use Free Climbing
Everything that makes an aider comfortable and easy to walk up also tends 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.
Features that are Important and Not 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).
- 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 to get your feet out when you want to.