Leading on traditional climbs

Leading on traditional climbs

Most climbers have vivid memories of their first lead; it is an intense experience and one to be savoured. This article aims to prepare you for just that occasion by pointing out what you need to know, how to choose the first route and how to progress safely beyond it.

Leading involves climbing from the bottom to the top of a pitch without the support of a rope from above. For security you'll be tied into a rope and a belayer will feed it out as you gain height. At intervals you'll place runners and clip the rope to them so the distance of any fall can be reduced.

Learning to lead

It's a big step-up from indoor climbing, seconding or even leading on bolts to leading your first trad route and placing gear as you go. It's a step well worth taking for the fantastic buzz you get from being up there, above a few runners that you have placed and making all the decisions for yourself. It is, however, a serious business and you should be aware of this and feel comfortable with the situation.

Before you lead, think:


Choose a route that is well within your climbing grade, at least 2-3 grades easier than your seconding grade
  • Do you really want to lead, knowing that there is always the possibility you could fall and injure yourself?
  • Practise the various elements in isolation first. Place runners while standing on the ground or while seconding - it can be very strenuous hanging on while you fiddle in a piece of gear. Test them by carefully applying your body weight. Run through tying into anchors somewhere safe too.
  • Try seconding on a slack top rope to get the feeling of being less secure.
  • Do this with your friends or get some assistance from a qualified instructor or guide.
  • Don't underestimate the psychological difference of leading.
To ensure success think about:
  • Route choice - Choose one that is well within your climbing grade, at least 2-3 grades easier than your seconding grade. Make sure it is well protected and doesn't have nasty ledges to land on just below the crux moves. Consider choosing one that you have climbed before and enjoyed, so that you have a psychological advantage.
  • Belayer - Do you trust your belayer? Are you certain they can hold a fall and know what to do if you should fall? It's wise to choose someone who is patient and will empathise with you.
  • Gear - Carry an appropriate amount of gear so that you can definitely place all the runners and anchors you need but are not weighed down by unnecessary gear. Look at the route carefully, for example, if there are no obvious wide cracks, leave the big cams behind.
  • Support - Having a friend coaxing you on from a safe position above or alongside you may give that needed moral support. They can also point out holds and runner placements to you. 
  • Mental preparation - This does not have to be anything sophisticated, just get yourself into a positive mind set so that you feel confident of success.
  • Ambition - Avoid biting off more than you can chew for your first few leads. Even if you've been climbing hard routes indoors or on bolts, this is a whole new world, so don't blow it by rushing onto something too hard.
Progression

So you survived the first lead - well done! No doubt you felt elated, and rightly so

So you survived the first lead - well done! No doubt you felt elated, and rightly so. Consolidate your experience by getting leading mileage on routes of the same grade and consider this as progression. Only increase only one aspect at a time of the following:
  • Grade of route
  • Length of pitch
  • Length of route
  • Seriousness (mountain crag versus single pitch or nature of protection)
In other words, if you've just led a few single pitch severes and felt good, try a long multi pitch severe next. It'll feel quite different when you're half way up an eight-pitch route with no easy escape. The commitment involved adds quite a new dimension.

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