How to Lead Climb
The day will come when you want to get on the sharp end and go first up the climb. Here’s how.
Leading means being the first up the rock, trailing the rope, which is held by a belayer on the ground. You ascend a pitch, and at intervals attach the rope to protection (bolts, nuts or cams). Learning to lead, especially traditional climbs, is, next to rappelling, the most dangerous stage for a novice climber. Start by getting on sport climbs with fixed bolts. Before you begin to lead, you must be proficient in knot tying, rope handling, belaying, and rappelling—and once you transition to doing gear routes, constructing and threading belay and rappel anchors.
HOW TO LEARN
Start in the gym by practicing with a “monkey-tail” a short length of rope tied into your harness as if you are leading. But instead of leading, you toprope the climb and practice clipping the monkey-tail through each fixed draw. When your monkey game is solid, take your gym’s lead class, then pass the lead test. Practice efficient clipping, commands, resting, staying calm, and taking whippers—all of these are much scarier outside. Climb routes that have lots of crimps, slopers, sidepulls, and other funky holds—there are relatively few all-jug climbs outside. On your first sport and trad leads outside, it’s smart to toprope the route and practice your monkey-tail skills—if it’s a trad route, also rehearse placing the gear.
For your first outdoor leads choose routes a couple of grades below your toproping limit. Better yet, choose a climb you have toproped several times, realizing that just because you floated a pitch on toprope doesn’t mean you can lead it with equal grace, or at all.
As you get up to speed, stick to sport routes with closely placed bolts. On bolted routes, your line is clear and your pro already placed. Your job is to eyeball the wall and connect the dots.
Using your guidebook or phone, check how many bolts the route has and arm yourself with that many quickdraws, plus a couple of extras just in case you under-estimated or your source is incorrect. If you don’t have a reference to consult, count the bolts and bring a few extra draws.
If the route wanders, carry a few long runners or extra-long quickdraws in case you need to reduce rope drag. When the bolts are far apart, or the climbing is extreme, remember that bolts are usually placed right at difficult moves and that runouts are often on easier sections. Also, the holds by bolts are typically positive: otherwise you wouldn’t be able to clip them.
SPORT VS. TRAD
The biggest mistake gym climbers make is assuming that because they can onsight 5.13 sport, they can send 5.10 trad. No. These styles are completely different. The mental and physical toll of placing gear will test the endurance and fortitude of everyone. To make the jump between sport and trad, practice climbing in the gym with a full rack. Every time you clip a draw, take a piece of gear off your belt and simulate placing it.
For gear routes, before you think about tying into the sharp end, be perfect at placing protection and arranging belays. Learn by seconding, and cleaning, lots of trad climbs. Inspect the placements before you remove them, and also study how often the leader places protection, and where and how she builds anchors.
Before you place gear for real, scout around at the base of a cliff and practice placing every style of piece, from nuts to cams, of every size. Ask a guide or mentor to critique your placements. When you can set and judge protection well, practice placing them quickly (as you would on a climb), then move on to combining pieces to create an anchor. Constructing solid belay anchors is the leader’s responsibility. Your partner should never follow a pitch in less than perfect safety. Never set up a half-ass station, even on easy ground atop a multipitch route. Anchors are everything. Always place excellent, redundant anchors, using three or more bomber pieces. If you can’t find a good belay position, downclimb to the last good spot or traverse to a tree (as long as it’s thick, deeply rooted and alive). Even if you think the pitch you just led was a breeze, your second could slip, break a hold, or pop off leading the next pitch.
Placing protection on lead is often strenuous. Again, you can’t pick too easy a climb when you start. You’ll want a route you can do handily, or even downclimb if things go wrong, such as when a piece of pro falls out.
Guidebook descriptions don’t always describe pro, either.
For most people, the fear of falling or injury is inhibiting. Give yourself good odds: sew the climb up (i.e., place lots of pro).
Have you plotted the route? If so, check that your knot is perfect, your gear racked, and you are on belay. Then go.
It seems inglorious to slam in protection right off the ground or belay, but that’s exactly what to do, even if the climbing is easy. That first piece is the one between you and the ledge or ground. It backs up the belay and alleviates impact forces (highest at the start of a route when you only have a few feet of rope out).
This first piece should be multidirectional, such as a cam in a horizontal crack, where it won’t rotate upward and out, or chocks set in opposition to each other and tied off as one piece. Otherwise, a fall by a leader above could case the rope to lift the gear out as it pulls taut.
If the line zigzags, place long runners or longer quickdraws to soften the sharpest bends. Longer draws increase your fall potential, but reduce rope drag, which drains you, and reduces how high you can climb. Always use long runners on cams and chocks that aren’t placed in a direct line.
As you climb, stay in control, down climbing when necessary, and make sure that you always have more than one piece between you and the ground. Climbing is about backups: if one piece pops, you need another that is also high enough to stop you from decking. Remember: less rope means a higher fall factor, which can pop bomber pieces of pro.
Keep your protection closely spaced; a piece every four or five feet for the first 20 feet is usually about right. Higher up, you may choose to run it out a bit more on straightforward sections from which you couldn’t deck. Runouts of a body length or so are standard—on easy climbing you might run out 10 to 15 feet between placements. Don’t place gear hastily, but get it in there quickly and efficiently. The longer you fiddle with your placement, the more tired you’ll become.
If you are heading up a climb you haven’t done, consult a guidebook, research the route online, or ask around among friends, local guides or climbing-shop workers. Remember, ratings can vary—a 5.9 established in 1970 is probably more difficult than a 5.9 from 2016—and topos don’t usually cover protection possibilities.
Think ahead. If the crux above looks like it takes a #4 cam, reserve it. Need the #4 now? You can use it, but later you may need to reach down, or downclimb, and retrieve it after you get in another good piece—retrieving gear from below, to place above, is called “back cleaning.”
Always be aware of the consequences of falling. Keep your feet outside your rope. If you fall when the rope is behind your leg, you’ll flip upside-down. Five feet above a piece, you’d fall more than 10 feet. Could you smash onto a ledge or drop off an overlap onto a slab? Put in another piece. Would the angle of the taut rope lift out your protection? Place another multidirectional piece.
About to launch into a crux? A good strategy is to place two or three good pieces, side by side. Then you may feel comfortable climbing the section without stopping in the middle to place more gear.
Conserve your strength: don’t overgrip, and keep your weight on your feet. Enjoy the process rather than looking ahead to the destination. Think positive and climb quickly through difficult sections—you’ll get pumped if you dawdle. Excess chalking will wear you out, so don’t dip your wigglers unless you need to.
If you climb into trouble, grow tired or gripped, breathe and consider your options. Perhaps you can set protection and hang on it—just stay safe. Maybe you should downclimb to a rest. Alternatively, climb a few feet higher—do you see a good ledge?
Sometimes a runout is unavoidable—the bolts or good cracks are far apart, or a section of the route is too rotten to hold pro. First, consider whether this climb is for you. When in doubt, back off while you have protection nearby. If you decide to go for it, double up your last placement.
MAKE A PLAN
Scope the route in advance: where it goes, the amount and type of protection needed, spots to place gear (if it’s a gear climb), rest spots, cruxes, anchor situation, the descent and what to do if something goes wrong.
Break a climb into sections and develop a strategy. For a sport route, “bolt to bolt” or “good hold to good hold” are obvious segments. A pitch can seem daunting until you treat it as consecutive short sections.
Clipping correctly is always a concern. You always want the rope-clipping carabiner oriented so the gate faces away from your direction of travel. If you are climbing to the right, for example, the gate should face to the left.
Also clip so the rope comes out of the carabiner from behind, toward you. When you accidentally clip so the rope runs toward the rock you have “back- clipped,” and the rope could come unclipped.
Also watch that the rope can’t track across bent-gate carabiners, or it could unclip itself. Face carabiner’s gates away from your line of ascent (i.e., if your line runs to the right, orient the gate to the left). Study the direction of the line—if it looks like you’ll be clipping most draws with a left hand, put them on the left side of your harness. If your draws are varying lengths, organize them so that they are identifiable by where they are on your harness.
JUST SAY NO
Retreating when you get in over your head is smart—“What Would Honnold Do” shouldn’t be your motto. Listen to your gut, especially if your pro is sketchy. Don’t let ego or impatience influence you. You can always come back.
Gym walls are smooth—real stone is not. Whenever you fall in the gym, practice catching yourself with your legs bent as you swing into the wall. Was the impact rough? Practice more. Did you hit your head? Put on a helmet and try again. Whipping under the fluorescents is fun—and looks rad when your posse is watching—but it’s serious stuff when you’re outside. Repetition, repetition, repetition, will make you a safer leader.
Then again, if you are nearly past the difficulties, it may be worth continuing. Weigh the consequences of continuing against those of falling. If the protection is solid and the fall safe, you may decide to try.
Visualize the moves ahead. Calm down. Don’t panic and resort to blind lunges or grabbing loose holds. Breathe and climb steadily. You may find that with concentration those moves aren’t hard after all.
Climbing decisions should be cold hard math: If the pro is solid, the belayer trustworthy, and the surrounding rock isn’t rotten, you’ll probably be O.K.; fear is good, but getting gripped is irrational.
You can, and should, still return to the gym after you’ve become an outdoor-lead master. Indoor climbing allows you to hone your technique and build endurance without fear—if you have a project under the sun, hop on indoor climbs that feature the same types of holds and are similarly angled.
The leader is responsible for stringing the rope, but also for the safety of the second. If placing gear, try not to bury it. Protect a pitch to keep your second safe. A common scenario is for a leader to protect a crux well, then lead it and scamper off to the next moves or the anchor, instead of placing a piece just above the difficulties. In this situation, if your second falls off the crux and the wall overhangs, she could swing out and get stuck in midair. Similarily, if you finish a traverse and place pro at the end of it and on the same level as the beginning of the traverse, your partner will take a nasty pendulum if she falls. The farther up you can safely climb before placing that piece the better. Treat your second well: that’s your belayer.
It’s also the leader’s job to scope out the hardware at the end of a sport climb. If the bolts are suspect, downclimb to the last solid bolt, rig your bail biner, and lower. If the anchor bolts are solid but the fixed hardware (biners, hooks, etc.) on them are sketchy, rappel off the bolts, or lower off your own gear, and let your group know the situation. Remember: For trad routes, building a bomber anchor station is your responsibility—this can’t be overemphasized.
START IN THE GYM
Begin your lead career in the gym. Start off monkey-tailing easy toprope routes, and then repeat this process on difficult routes. When you’re a confident clipper, take your gym’s lead test and start leading easy climbs. Focus on your technique: Clipping, resting, managing your fear, and whipping are easiest above the mats. Once you are a fearless leader, try harder routes that have crimps, slopers, sidepulls, and smears, or are overhung—real rock is more strenuous and finicky than plastic, and nature tends to carve holds that aren’t 10-gallon jugs. Practice with your outdoor-climbing partner. When you get outside you’ll already be comfortable together.
When you get to the top of the climb you will either belay your partner up, which is typical of a multipitch route, and continue with the next pitch. You can also top out, belay your partner up, and walk off if the route is a single pitch.
Typically, though, on one-pitch climbs you will either lower from a fixed anchor station, or rappel from a station. On most routes equipped with a top anchor, the anchor will be two bolts with steel chains and fixed carabiners. But, the station might also have rounded lowering hangers, called “rap hangers,” chains with steel “quicklinks,” or just open hooks (not great, and falling out of popularity).
Faced with any of the above, you will either simply clip the carabiners (or hooks) and lower, or anchor, untie, re-thread the rope, and either then lower or rappel.
If you are lowering from a climb, never run the rope through nylon webbing—slings burn through very easily. Inspect the anchor you are lowering from to make sure it is trustworthy.
Each year serious accidents occur when the climber botches a step at the anchor, and falls to the ground. Accidents also occur when the climbers expects to be lowered, but the belayer has taken him off belay, and the climber falls to the ground. Clear communication between the climber and the belayer is paramount for preventing accidents—review the section on communications and commands in the “Belaying” chapter.
ON YOUR WAY DOWN
To clean the quickdraws or other gear as you lower, “tram” into the side of the rope running through the protection by clipping it with a quickdraw clipped to the belay loop on your harness. Tramming will keep you closer to the rock, helping you to reach the draws when the rock is steep.
Watch out when you approach the first piece above the ground. Unclip from that piece, and you might, if the route overhangs or traverses, swing out and into trees, boulders or even the ground. Climbers have broken ankles and even backs this way.
Instead of unclipping from that first piece, keep it clipped and lower to the ground. You can then climb on toprope with a spotter watching your back, remove the first piece, and reverse to the ground.
Alternately, if the opening moves are too stout to boulder, keep the second piece clipped, then pivot around so you an unclip the first piece. Then, get back on the rock, clean the second piece and climb up a few moves so when you swing off you’ll clear any ground obstacles.
RIGGING A STATION FOR A LOWER
Many climbs won’t have fixed lowering carabiners. You will then have to anchor, untie, re- thread the rope, and either rappel or lower. The steps for transitioning to a rappel or a lower are essentially the same—except when you rappel you will find the rope’s midpoint, and place it at the anchor so both ends of the rope are on the ground. The following six steps in the photo illustrations are for rigging the rope for a lower.
[STEP 5] Confirm with your belayer that he/she has you “on belay.” Then, have your belayer “take” your weight on the rope. Test this.
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