Allowing you to push yourself mentally and physically while charting a new course up a cliff face, lead climbing is both challenging and exhilarating. You will be responsible for protecting yourself and as you climb higher – say, above your protection – the possibility of falling becomes even more real.
Though extremely thrilling, lead climbing is not always safe – when you do not know what you need to do to avoid dangerous falls, you could end up with fatal injuries while trying to enjoy nature. In this article, we will focus on showing you how to lead climb – this should introduce you to all the technical aspects that you need to master to stay 100% safe.
What is Lead Climbing?
Leading climbing is a climbing style in which the climber takes the rope with him/her, clipping into the rock or wall as he/she goes up. In most instances, lead climbers climb in pairs, with the first “lead” climber clipping his rope at certain points on the climbing route to give himself a degree of safety until he reaches the top. On reaching the top, the leader will anchor himself so the second climber can follow up the climbing route, unclipping the leader’s rope while moving up.
When you decide to lead climb, you will have to pack all the gear you will need to protect yourself from falling in your climbing backpack. This generally differs from top-roping where a rope will already be running through the anchor at the top of your chosen route. When top-roping, you do not fall; you merely dangle on the rope.
As a lead climber, you will need to wear a climbing harness to tie into your climbing rope. The rope will then run through the belay device which will be responsible for catching you if you happen to fall. The actual gear you need, however, does vary depending on whether the lead climb is a traditional (trad) climb or a bolted sport climb.
This is the most common form of climbing. A sport climb is generally a line of bolts up the rock face, usually placed a couple of meters part, put up by developers who like to help people enjoy the benefits of climbing by establishing new climbs. If you intend to go sport climbing when on one of your backpacking trips, you will only need to pack quickdraws – 2 carabiners attached via a sling or a piece of webbing – to lead climb.
As you climb, you will need to clip the top carabiner to the bolt and then clip your rope through the bottom carabiner. If you fall, the belayer should be able to catch you since your rope will weight the highest bolt that you have clipped. You will need the same number of quickdraws as the bolts, as well as 2 extra to help you clip the 2 anchor bolts.
Trad climbing refers to the process of carrying and placing the necessary protective gear as you continue climbing. There are various types of trad climbing protection gear, but the 2 main devices are cams (or camming devices) and wires.
Cams are generally spring-loaded devices featuring a trigger and 4 lobes. They are usually placed inside parallel cracks. Falls on the cam attempt to open the lobes. However, if placed ideally, the rock should be able to keep the lobes closed and hold your fall. Wires, which are also referred to as stoppers or nuts, are trapezoid-shaped devices that are usually wedged inside the natural crevices and nooks in the rock.
Similar to sport climbing, you will also need quickdraws, clipping your top carabiner into every trad gear you place and the rope through your bottom carabiner.
It is important to note that the security of your trad placement is largely dependent on the rock solidity and the placement itself. In most cases, trad climbing is considered a bolder form of climbing because relying on the security of pre-placed bolts is generally not a good idea. However, properly placed traditional climbing gear in solid rock should be as secure as the protection bolts in sport climbing.
How to Lead Climb – Everything You Need to Know
Clipping Bolts – Trad Protection
When hanging on for dear life, clipping a piece of trad gear or bolt can be extremely daunting. However, clipping both quickly and efficiently will help your lead climb immensely.
Be sure to check the holds and stances around the bolt. In some cases, the most ideal place to clip is with the bolt at the waist, rather than at the top of the reach. Although not always possible, clipping with a straight arm will use significantly less energy.
There are 2 ways of clipping – snap-clipping and pinch-clipping. What you decide to use will largely depend on which hand can be freed easily and which way the carabiner’s gate is facing.
If you are learning how to lead climb for the first time, pinch-clipping may appear complicated. However, it gets easier with practice.
For pinch-clipping, you will need to reach down and take your rope between the forefinger and thumb, pulling it up the quickdraw. As you go to clip your rope into your lower carabiner, take the thumb to the side of the carabiner, opposite the gate.
This should steady the quickdraw while your rope is draped over the forefinger. As you pinch the carabiner, push the rope into the carabiner using the forefinger.
To use this option after donning your climbing shoes and climbing pants, simply reach down and grab your rope between the thumb and forefinger. While pulling the rope up to your quickdraw, but the middle finger in your carabiner to steady it. Now push the rope into the carabiner with the thumb, rolling it over while you snap the rope into your quickdraw.
Things to Avoid When Clipping
When clipping, there are 2 things that you need to try as much as possible to avoid. These are:
After you clip the rope through your quickdraw, the rope is supposed to run up through the quickdraw from the carabiner’s backside, rather than the side that is facing you. Clipping the rope the other way will potentially lead to falling where the climbing rope will unclip itself from the quickdraw.
If you happen to grab the rope from below one of your protection pieces and clip it into a higher protection piece, you will end up creating a “Z” with the rope, running from your top piece, down to the bottom piece, and then up to the harness. This will create such a forceful drag that you will not be able to move higher. Z-Clipping is common if your protections are placed too close to each other and you grab the rope from below the last clipped pieces by accident.
Falling on Lead
Just like beginning hikers make mistakes, people who are learning how to lead climb do make some mistakes too. The most common mistake, however, is underestimating how fatal the falls can be.
If you fall when lead climbing, you will fall more than 2 x the length of the distance to the last protection piece. For example, if you fall 6 feet (2 meters) above your piece, you will end up falling 12 feet before the climbing rope becomes taut, then a little bit more as your rope stretches and absorbs the force.
Beginning climbers find practicing falling extremely helpful. In addition to helping with calming the nerves, it can help you get used to both the movement and the landing. When on a steep overhang, you will probably fly through the air without hitting anything. However, when on a slab, you will need to keep your feet soft, bend the knees, and ensure that you land as softly as you possibly can on the rock.
When falling, you must be aware of potential hazards, such as the ledge systems that may end up hitting on your way down. While you should carry a first aid kit, you must do everything that you can to avoid using it.
Watch the Rope Behind Your Leg
If the rope happens to be wrapped behind your leg while you lead climb above your protection, this can be a dangerous recipe for any inverted fall. This generally happens if you step to the side while climbing, trailing the climbing rope in a way that it sits behind the ankle.
Falling this way will often see the climbing rope trip you, flipping you upside down. If the rope happens to be behind your leg, simply flip it back in front of you.
Getting Down Safely
If everyone in your group is done using his/her climbing helmet and climbing chalk, the next thing you will need to do is get down. Numerous accidents often occur due to a lack of communication/understanding between the leader and the belayer about getting down.
Typically, if you get to the top of the sport climb, you can easily clip quickdraws into the bolted anchor – generally 2 bolts – clip a rope through them both and then get lowered slowly. If, however, you are cleaning quickdraws off the route, you will need to ensure you are 100% secure once you reach the top before you rethread the rope through the anchor. You can then clean your quickdraws as you get lowered down.
If you cannot find bolted anchors, you may have to build strong and equalized trad anchors to bring up a second. Ensure that you know what the set-up of the anchor is and how to get down safely before heading up.
Tip: Start Off Easy
If you have watched a climbing movie or read a climbing book, one thing that both suggest is starting easy. You should try to lead climb on a route that you have top-roped severally, one that you are unlikely to fall on. Use the route to familiarize yourself with the clipping technics and the placement of trad protection. Being confident with clipping and placing protection will come in handy once you graduate to the harder climbs.
If your goal is to trad climb, spend time with an experienced trad climber placing and removing gear. The trad climber should explain what makes a good placement and what can make a placement potentially dangerous.
Q: Is Lead Climbing Dangerous?
Lead climbing is made dangerous by the fact that the climber can fall twice the length of the rope between them and the last piece of protection. Injuries usually range from skin abrasions to death. With proper planning, however, lead climbers can reduce the risks of falling. To avoid falling, you should seek proper training, find an attentive belayer, and examine your gear before climbing.
Q: How Does Lead Climbing Work?
Lead climbing is a method of climbing in which you have a rope attached to your harness and you put up protection (generally quickdraws) and clip in while you climb upwards. You may have a belay partner who is giving you the rope as you need it.
Q: Is Lead Climbing Free Climbing?
Free climbing and lead climbing generally refer to 2 different climbing methods. In free climbing, the climber uses his hands and feet to locate handholds and footholds to move himself/herself up. In lead climbing, the climber has a rope tied to his/her harness and a belay partner holding the other end of the rope – in the case of a fall, the rope will catch the climber.
Q: What Do You Need for Lead Climbing?
To lead climb, you will need:
- A rope
- Climbing shoes
- Nuts and cams
Q: Is Lead Climbing Harder?
Compared to top-roping, lead climbing is harder. You have to be more aware and climb smarter since the risks are greater. You will also need to attach your own protection as you move up.
Q: Is Lead Climbing Sport Climbing?
Sport climbing is a type of lead climbing. A sport climb features a line of bolts on the rock face, usually a few meters apart, put up by developers who like to establish new climbs. These bolts make climbing much easier.
Q: How Do You Fall in Lead Climbing?
To fall correctly when lead climbing, you will need to follow the steps below:
Step 1: Warn the belayer if you think you are about to fall – yell “watch me!”.
Step 2: As you peel off, shout “falling!” to let the belayer know that you are falling. The belayer should lock off the belay device.
Step 3: Look down to where you are falling – check for obstacles.
Step 4: Breath out to relax your body.
Step 5: Relax your legs. Keep the legs and your arms bent slightly, with the knees “soft” and ready to absorb any impact.
Step 6: Keep the hands up, forward, and a little out to your side, for better balance and to make sure you do not scrap them on the rock or catch them on the rope. Allow the legs to absorb the impact when you swing into the rock/wall.
Globo Surf Overview
If you have been looking for something thrilling, lead climbing should be worthy of your effort and time. This article shows you how to lead climb. If you have never attempted a lead climb before, you should start slowly. As your experience grows, you can move on to more difficult climbs.