LEARNING TO LEAD
Over the years climbing in the Ontario area, I have witnessed or heard of accidents or near misses that were the result of situations in which leaders made mistakes in gear placement. Even more alarming, experienced climbers including some local instructors make gear placement errors. These situations led me to reflect on how climbers, who have become proficient at top-roping, can learn to lead in a reasonably safe manner. I have heard many climbers say that leading traditional style is far more dangerous than leading sport. I disagree with this position. At least with gear routes with a gear rating of "G" should be as safe or safer than a bolt route, if the gear placed is reliable. "X" or "R" rated routes are obviously dangerous since insufficient gear placement possibilities are available.
Obviously, the best method to learn to lead is to call a climbing school or a certified instructor and ask for instruction on lead climbing. In the old days (pre sport routes and gyms), we went out to a local crag and watched the hard men climb. Everyone climbed with gear then so it was easy to find someone who appeared to know what he or she was doing. If we were lucky and/or worthy, we were invited to follow one of them. I donít recall any formal courses that were offered at the time on leading. It was an apprentice system that worked surprisingly well. By the time a climber reached the 5.10 level, he knew pro (or had been killed off or quit).
At a time when I thought that I knew gear, I was at the Gunks on a rainy day. Hardly anyone was around. Richard Gottlieb arrived without a partner and invited me to climb Fat City with him. I learned an incredible amount about placing gear from following Richard on that one climb. He treated protection as an art form and seemed to be more proud of how he protected the route than how he climbed it.
To day, it is not so easy to find anyone climbing in traditional style and even more difficult to find someone who really knows what they are doing, even though there seems to be no shortage of people who profess to be experts. Donít listen to self-professed experts, I profess.
Learning to lead competently takes a long time /getting experience and practice.
The following tips might be helpful.
To lead a climb, you will need a rack of protection devices. When I first started leading, I asked Rick Clark, a knowledgeable local, for his opinion on what to buy. Rick advised me to buy a full set of nuts, the four largest hexes about 8 quickdraws and some slings. I fully endorse this rack to start with. Initially, forget about friends, technical friends, Rock and Rollers, Sliders, Big Bros, balls, etc. They are expensive, not required on most routes under 5.10 and more importantly are not reliable unless placed efficiently. Furthermore, it is essential that a leader learn to place nuts efficiently as the bulk of placements on most routes will be nuts. I see inexperienced leaders at local crags with huge racks. Often their first choice of placement is Friends rather than nuts. They never learn to place nuts properly.
Later, when competent at placing nuts, a set of camming devices will be necessary. For some corner routes, an oval carabiner is necessary to clip pitons in a corner.
Initially, walk around the base of the crag and practice placing your nuts and hexes. Get to the point where you can look at potential placements and identify the appropriate nut visually. Placing gear quickly is critical. Ask experienced climbers about placements to verify if they are safe. It is also beneficial to second experienced leaders whenever possible. This enables you to learn proper placements and develop endurance when removing protection.
The truth is that while they may not admit it, most experienced climbers do not know for sure the limits of their gear. They havenít tested it. Many leaders give a tug on their gear as a test. A tug on the gear is no test since only a few pounds of force is applied compared to the huge forces that are applied in a fall. This tells nothing.
Before making the first lead, most climbing schools simulate lead climbing by using 2 ropes, one the lead rope, and a second top-rope. This is a worthwhile exercise. The top-rope is given more slack to simulate a leader fall as the climber gains confidence and skill. The top-rope provides a backup in case the protection pops in a fall. However Iíve never seen a school have students test their placements. This system also allows a leader to test a questionable piece of protection by falling on it with the top-rope backup in place. For all of us there are placements that we know are bomber and placements that we know to be useless. It is the gray area in between that causes problems. Most climbers are not sure if their gear will hold unless they have had the misfortune to fall on a piece. Place a bunch of pieces that you are not sure are good. Fall on them with a Top rope backup. Its probably not a good idea to take 100foot screamers to test your gear. Repeat this with slightly worse placements, so that you narrow the gray area in which you are not sure that the placements are any good. When I first tried this exercise, I was surprised to find that many pieces that I thought might be good, actually failed. It will give you a lot of confidence to know that a piece is good or not. You are responsible for the gear you place. Donít depend on someone else who may or may not know about gear. I believe that it is crucial for each leader to test his placements.
To make up for uncertainty in the reliability of their placements, many climbers are in the habit of placing many more pieces than are necessary. Their racks are huge and consist of every piece of gear ever devised. Placing and removing all of this takes a lot of time. This is not a problem on short routes but on longer routes, too much time is lost. Also too much energy is used and possibility of failure is increased.
You will find from testing cams that small cams are not very reliable placements. Experiment with these as a surprising number of climberís think that these hold and rely on them even though there are other placements such as nut placements nearby. Small cams have to be placed with great precision to be counted on and should be a last choice after nuts and larger cams.
Pete Reilly, a retired local hard man, told me to do a few aid climbs, especially early in the year. This helps to learn to look for placements, increases practice and improves the ability to judge the correct size of the piece required. I believe this to be a useful practice. However the fact that a placement holds a hang doesnít mean it will hold a fall. This is not a test of a placement.
Clipping efficiency is also important both for trad and sport climbs. Many climbers are extremely inefficient when clipping and lose huge amounts of energy. Bob Bergman, a top Canadian climber is incredibly efficient at clipping. Iíve never seen him fumble with a clip. Most of us fumble with clips when under pressure, distracted, pumped or fatigued. At home, practice clipping the rope into a quickdraw repeatedly with either hand. High skill can be quickly developed since a great number of repetitions can be practiced in a short period of time. It is beneficial to be very efficient at this skill because the length of a fall will be greater if you fall in the process of clipping. Also efficient clipping saves energy. Chris 0ates another local guru, after pre fatiguing his forearms, practiced clipping his rope repeatedly into a quick draw while hanging from a chin up bar, fingerboard or a climbing wall. Chris felt that the ability to clip a rope into a quick draw efficiently is reduced when pumped or fatigued. I believe that Chris was right. I have often noticed that when I am fatigued, I lose coĖordination, my movements become jerky and inefficient. Clipping under these circumstances becomes frantic and often I fail to do it. This is exactly opposite of what I want to happen. Training this skill under fatigued conditions will improve efficiency.
I also find that while clipping, my mind is thinking about upcoming moves and my eyes are scanning ahead to look for holds. This is when I often fumble with clips. When I concentrate on the clip and stare at what I am doing, I tend to not fumble.
Look for rests such as arm bars, knee locks and jams to clip off. When you get to a stance, take a few seconds to calm down, breath relax, look around and reposition. How many times have you arrived at a stance in a panic, strained to clip and then repositioned to find a very comfortable position to clip from?
Watching sport climbers, I noticed a preponderance to clip more on one side or the other. I observed that about an average of 80% of the clipping was done from one side or the other. In some cases left-handers clipped more using the left hand and they hold the rock with the right hand. Vice versa for righties. Other climbers reversed this. In some cases we use our hand that is best at fine motor control to clip and seek out a clipping position or stance that supports this while other climbers use the dominant hand to hang on. Either way, clipping more often on one side will fatigue that side. Also to get in position to clip with a preferred hand, we probably do not take the optimal and most energy efficient clipping position. This pattern will result in one side tiring quicker and may explain why we fail on some routes. To overcome this, we need to attain equal ambidexterity in both hands in regard to clipping skill and balance out the clipping. Repeatedly practicing clipping can improve this. At one time, I practiced hundreds of repetitions while sitting on my couch watching TV.
A few minutes spent planning the placement of protection and clip position before climbing can help to reduce problems. It is easy to get caught up in planning to overcome the problems of the climb and forget about planning for the placement of protection and clip position. Include gear placement and clipping in your pre climb visualization routine. Try to clip off good footholds as opposed to handholds. Two good handholds donít do you much good since you will be using one hand for other things.
Another useful skill to practice on top-rope is down climbing. Down climbing is essential because it enables a leader to climb back to the last piece protection and possibly eliminate or reduce the length of a fall. Sport climbing takes a different philosophy, climb until you canít and fall. This is the wrong philosophy for trad climbing and in my mind a poor philosophy for any climbing. Down climbing requires different muscles and movements than climbing up. Therefore it must be trained. Peter Croft was in my opinion one of the greatest trad leaders ever. When he visited Toronto many years ago, I found him on a rainy day at the pump house, a local building which was popular for training by traversing. Peter did many laps of the wall, one lap with his hands high above his shoulders and one with his hands below his shoulders. This training with his hands low trained some of the down climbing muscles. Peter is also well known for his repetitions of climbing one route and down climbing an adjacent route.
First leads should be done at a much lower grade than normally climbed. Select a route that you have done before and that you know had good protection possibilities. On sight leading is far harder than repeating a route done previously. Put in lots of protection at first since the major goal is to learn proper placement. Don't pick run out routes. Gradually increase the grade difficulty. Work through the grades gradually. Even if you climb 5.11 in the gym, climb lots of routes at a lower grade that allow you to place a lot of gear.
Some climberís place gear that they refer to as psychological pro. This is gear that they know or suspect is unreliable but serves to fool them into trying moves that they do not have the courage to do without it. I think that this is utterly stupid. I agree that placing questionable pro is ok when nothing else is available. After all it may hold a fall. But the climber should climb with the belief that it will not hold rather than the belief that it will hold.
Be careful of fixed pitons and bolts especially on older routes. Many pitons in the Toronto area and other trad areas such as the Gunks are very old and unreliable. For example, the pitons on "Amphitheatre" at Rattlesnake near Toronto were placed in 1950ís and probably wouldn't hold a fall. Yet I rarely see leaders backing these up. Some of these were aid pitons in the first place and probably never would have held a fall.
A piece of protection against an upward force must be placed near the bottom of the climb to guard against all the protection zippering out in a fall. This is a very common error even with experienced climbers.
Also be careful of traverses which are often very dangerous because of the pendulum falls. A good leader must consider the safety of the second, who is often a less experienced climber. Traverses tend to be more dangerous for the second, especially if the leader does not protect the traverse. Pendulum falls can send the second smashing onto a ledge or into a pillar. To shorten the length of a potential fall for the second, the leader must add gear regularly along the traverse, especially in the first half of the traverse.
Rope drag can often be a problem on traverses and overhangs. Extend protection pieces with slings to reduce rope drag.
Further training of endurance is necessary because lead climbing requires far more endurance than top roping. This is because on lead, you have to be able to hang on and place and clip your protection.
The quality of rock must also be considered. Rock can vary in ability to hold gear. Softer rock requires more rock in front of the piece. Friends can slide on loose sand and dust. Flakes may not be stable. A friend fell to the ground after placing a nut in a one-inch crack formed by a flake on a route in Ontario. The flake shifted and the piece popped. At least 4 other experienced climbers placed in this spot and saw no danger. The force required to shift this flake was very high since the flake was about six feet high and two feet thick and seemed to be firmly wedged in the crack. Also sharp rock is problematic as it can cut a rope in a fall. Runners need to be used to ensure that the rope does not snap over sharp edges in a fall.
A final consideration, if after having started on a route, you have serious doubts about your ability to safely lead it, or you consider the protection inadequate for your level of ability, don't be afraid to back down and leave the route for another day. Gear can usually be retrieved by setting up a top rope or rapping the route. Better to lose a bit of gear and your pride than your life.
Lead climbing traditional routes can be a very gratifying experience that can be as safe or safer than sport routes if you have taken the time to learn how to place reliable gear.
May 1, 2000
Back to top