Steph Davis Answers: “How Do You ‘Go’ on the Big Wall?”

Renowned climber and long-time MSR ambassador Steph Davis answers your questions about climbing, fear, challenges, equipment, injuries, and other core topics that come with a living life in high and wild places.

“How do you go to the bathroom on the wall?”

For some reason this is always going to be the single most interesting issue about climbing.

My advice is to just relax about taking a leak! It’s the most discreet thing in the world for girls because you crouch down and no one can see anything, from the front. Naturally, the same does not go for REAL bathrooming. (We’ll get into that.) The good news is you’re going to know your new climbing partner a lot better after the trip.

There are two ways you can deal with these issues as a climber. The first is to be all awkward and shy. The second is to grab the bull by the horns and quit worrying about it. I was on the Zodiac once about 15 years ago with two girlfriends, which should have made everything all fine in the bathroom department—except for the fact that there was a party of guys on the route right below us for three days. On the first morning, my friend Kim just hollered down at them, “I have bad news for you guys, or maybe it’s good news I don’t know, but we need to pee!”

Peeing off the portaledge with strangers three pitches down is on my list of most awkward moments ever and fully cured me of “stage fright.” But it’s all part of climbing and life in the real world.

At a certain point, when you’re climbing long routes with your buddy, peeing is going to happen, and it doesn’t need to be a big deal. If you’re in a hanging belay, thanks to the miracle of elastic, you can just pull the back of your pants down, your harness legloop elastics will get out of the way, and you can be done with it in about 25 seconds.

Steph Davis Big Wall Climb

A few things to remember:

  1. Holding your pee for a long time is not good for you.
  2. Hydration is key on long routes: Pound water the day and night before, try to pound more the morning of and rehydrate afterward.
  3. When you’re in your sleeping bag and you need to get up and go, waiting is not going to make it any better.
  4. A full bladder will make you feel colder.
  5. No real climber in the world cares if someone pees within two feet of them—just ideally, not on them (important to note when on a wall above others or when it’s windy).
  6. When you’re a girl, you will undoubtedly pee on your shoes at some point in life and that’s just how it goes sometimes.

On the thornier topic of going to the bathroom for real:

This is a lot harder to overcome in terms of shyness, and is most certainly the most awkward part of camping or climbing big walls with your opposite-sex buddies. In the olden days, we used paper lunch bags and tossed them off and did a pickup patrol at the base later if it was El Cap. You can’t really do that anymore: too many people.

I climbed El Cap once with a very committed environmentalist, and she insisted we use paper bags (that was not hard to convince me to do—I really don’t prefer pooping in plastic). She made a daily chore of tying the bags to hang off ledges with string in order to let them mummify in the sun whilst we were on the wall. Then she packed them into a SealLine bag for hauling. They were significantly lighter to haul, and on the summit she made a fire and burned them. I agreed that this system was superior in every way possible: It kept us from pooping into plastic (mega-plus!), there was essentially no weight for hauling and carrying loads down, and definitely a lot more environmental than throwing plastic wagbags into a landfill. But personally I didn’t have the stomach for that much poop handling, so I was just thankful she was spearheading that project.

Although not wholeheartedly, I recommend using wagbags and making a simple, blunt announcement to your partner that this is going to happen when the happy moment arrives. We all have to poop, so both of you will just have to be brave and make it happen. Usually your partner will immediately get as far away from you as possible and start scanning the sky for approaching UFOs or birds or something. If you are sharing a portaledge or bivy ledge, unfortunately that’s not going to be very far away. This is one of the joys of big wall climbing and what makes being a climber so…special.

It’s hard to get over shyness about this stuff with climbing partners, but you will get over it surprisingly quickly and this is one of the great ways in which climbing builds character and helps us be a little more natural, like all the other creatures out there.


Steph Davis is one of the world’s leading women climbers. She is also an avid BASE jumper and wingsuit pilot. Among her many accomplishments, she has completed free ascents of El Capitan, first ascents in South America, the Karakorum and the Arctic, and some of the hardest climbs worldwide. Considered a rock climbing visionary, Steph lives in Moab, Utah, or sometimes out of a Honda Fit, in a tent, or in her off-the-grid octagonal cabin near Indian Creek. She is a writer, loves to cook and believes in living a simple life.