I often reflect on my first experience lead climbing. To back track, the first time I ever climbed was indoors and as many, I was sold. However, I was not satisfied with just indoor wall climbing, in fact, I told my friend who introduced me to climbing that I wanted to train so I could go to the mountains and climb, kind of like the folks in the movie ‘Cliffhanger’. Little did I know then that the things done in that movie, well….just don’t happen! Immediately, I noticed folks leading and I wanted so badly to try it out. Partly because I sensed I would get an adrenaline rush, but also, it would be the one thing that would allow me to be independent outdoors. Thus, while most of the new folks that started at the same time I did were focusing on learning how to climb and taking their time on leading, I was rushing to lead and learning to lead and climb as I progressed.
Looking back, one major issue I observe in taking this approach is that I never allowed myself to set a solid foundation. One that would equip me to make good judgment calls while leading or better yet, when things go wrong. Looking back, I am so grateful I came out of my lead fest addiction unharmed.
Nevertheless, when many start climbing, I observe the same eagerness and obsession with leading. There is nothing wrong with setting future goals to look forward to achieving, but it is not smart to allow one’s eagerness or ego to get in the way like it did for me.
In effort to promote universal giving, I reflected on my personal sport leading experience, and my observation of more experienced and not so experienced leaders and came up with a top 10 list of key skills or considerations a new or fairly new sport leader should take.
(1) #1 Rule, Safety Comes First. Most climbers understand they are taking some level of risk. Therefore, learning things that promote overall safety is key.
- Getting Good….Top Roping (TR) – There is a huge difference between how we climb on TR and on lead. On TR, we do not pause every 10 or so feet to make clipping stances, we do not have to follow the bolt line, we are protected in the sense that we can always weight the rope, we can mindlessly climb without fear of taking a big fall, and so forth. Try not to rush getting into sport leading, and become a proficient climber under TR conditions.
- Bouldering – This is not a must do, in fact, bouldering is not for everyone. The cool thing about bouldering is that one cannot rely on a rope to help execute a move. Further, the act of bouldering alone builds strength, refines footwork, and improves one’s ability to figure out a climbing sequence.
Personally, I visualize leading as bouldering bolt to bolt. This is not for everyone, but I feel bouldering changed how I climbed and led.
- Practice Makes Perfect! – Practice leading in mock conditions. That is when one is technically climbing on TR, but also have a second rope tied in so one can practice clipping in and simulating the feeling of leading. I was an elite gymnast and what you see on TV are dangerous tricks that were once rehearsed over and over again in mock conditions before being practiced let alone performed before an audience. Similar with climbing, there is no shame in trying practicing leading climbing and belaying in mock conditions.
- Clipping the Quick draw by Nature – When I first started leading, I noticed I exhausted energy trying to clip. One day I observed an experienced leader clipping so quick and smooth, so I took the opportunity to ask her for advice. Her response was simple. Set up a beaner on the rear view mirror of my car practice clipping with a cordellette on my commute to and from work. Before no time the act of clipping became second nature to me.
- Learn from Others – When at your local climbing gym, observe experienced and safe climbers lead, their clipping stances, how they keep the rope in relationship to their feet, legs, arms, etc., the choices they make when they are challenged at a crux and so forth. Do the same with experienced lead belayers. Watch how folks start, how they feed out and manage the rope, how they catch lead falls and so forth. Observation is a great way part of learning, be sure to take advantage.
- Bring it Down a Notch or Two – More sound and experienced leaders always advised I should lead a couple grades down from my climbing ability and obtain plenty of mileage there. Why is this good advice? It allows one to become proficient at a lot of sport leading skill sets (e.g., finding the right clipping stances, finding the right lead head, etc). One can always use TR for endurance climbing and harder climbing while climbing at a lower grade on lead. Obviously, the goal for many is for that TR skill level to meet the sport lead skill level. There is nothing wrong with slowly and safely building one’s lead skill level.
- Understand & Be Able to Spot the Dos & Don’ts – There are certain things that are a big ‘no no’. Make sure to learn what is and how to spot a back clip and z-clip as a leader and a lead belayer. Also it is critical to understand where the rope should be and not in relationship to one’s extremities.
(2) To Lead or Not to Lead? That is the Question. Sport leading is not for everyone. I often see new climbers putting pressure on themselves or others to lead. I was that new climber eager to lead quick, and boy I am not proud of it. How could I think to jump into leading without even being fabulous at climbing the grade I was leading? Many lead for numerous reasons. To climb independently outdoors, to get an adrenaline rush, to add more challenge to one’s climbing experience, to ‘pave’ one’s own way to the top, and so on and so on. Whatever it is, everyone should ask oneself, “Why do I want to lead?”, and “What do I want to get out of leading?”. Climbers should take the time to assess what is driving them to lead. It helps put things in perspective for me. I first wanted to lead because all my friends led, I liked the challenge and I wanted to be independent, but I needed to realize they had been climbing longer than me. Taking this into perspective helped me re-evaluate my goals, knowledge and plan out how to improve on my leading.
(3) What’s My Cozy Climbing Meter? I observed a lot of folks put value in themselves or fellow climbers based on how hard they climbed. I sadly adapted that attitude, but then learned quickly to appreciate aesthetics, the full journey, and the mental challenge. A combination of a lot of things is now what truly attracts me to climbing, and leading is one of them, except I just do it smarter and safer than before. A big piece of advice is to assess what grades one is climbing and how one feels at those grades.
I made up three climbing meters that might be helpful:
- (1) COZY – These are grades that are generally below one’s ability where the chances of struggling are almost none.
- (2) RIGHT ON – These are grades that define almost one’s highest grade. One will struggle and may not always onsight (e.g., climb clean with no falls, mistakes or stops on the first go) this grade.
- (3) MAX IT – These are grades that are typically beyond one’s climbing ability. Chances of climbing up clean the first time are low and chances of taking a lead fall are higher. This is what more advanced climbers call a ‘project.’
None of these approaches are necessarily wrong, as it is up to each climber to accept their own risk and identify their own climbing experience, but a new leader should be realistic and stay within the COZY category to start to allow proficiency in climbing and leading while staying safe.
(4) Where is My ‘Fear Meter’ and How to Manage It? I was an elite gymnast, and feared very little, but I too even was nervous on my first sport lead. It is good, if you can, identify what scares one about leading. When I was a gymnast, I always transformed fear into what my coach would call “performance energy”. Then I strategically found ways to overcome those fears. For instance, my fellow teammate would count “1, 2, 3, go!” and when she said “go”, she went for the trick and it worked every time for her. When I lead, I picture X amount of boulder problems, when I clip the carabiner, I tell myself “one boulder problem to go, X more to go.” For whatever reason, that helps me. Bottom line, as one experiences his or her journey through sport leading, always be aware of one’s fears and how one might be able to overcome it. I met a climber from Portland who told me for many years she tried so hard to overcome her fear of leading and just struggled with it. She realized until she could live with some of her fears, she had no business leading. She and her fiancé this past fall reported a successful trip to Smith Rock where she led almost all of her climbs. Her secret? She was petrified of lead falling. Thus she only leads climbs below her ability and learned everything she could about lead falling so that she understood what to do in the event of a fall.
(5) How Do I Climb? Can I Multitask? How focused are you when you climb? If you get angry, stressed or scared, does the output affect your performance? I used to curse up a storm and get angry when I struggled in a crux. As soon as I started leading, I realized that needed to change because my emotional outbursts were affecting my climbing performance. I realized I needed to maintain calm composure to help make smarter climbing choices and be able to multitask while I led (e.g., clipping, sequencing, looking for clipping stances, assessing a potential fall prior to a crux, etc.). As a gymnast growing up, I learned how to work through my emotions and keep it all together. The same is required when sport leading.
(6) Stances, Rest Spots, Stances, Rest Spots! A person I know recently took a bad fall, and one simple thing that did not help was the clipping stance. I am very confident that a more efficient clipping stance would have significantly decreased the chances of that fall. As she approached clipping the first bolt in an overhung climb, her feet were positioned on higher footholds producing a lot of tension on the upper skeleton. It was challenging and scary to release one hand to clip the first bolt because the force/gravity pulling down was great. Was there a better way to handle this? Yes. There were lower feet, and having positioned them lower would have not taken away the tension, but would have alleviated significant tension to allow making the act of releasing one hand to clip much easier and less scary. In summary, neither is wrong, but in that scenario, the lower feet were there (plus a bomber knee drop potential), making that a more efficient choice.
Thus, below are two points I observe proficient and experienced leaders practice:
- Establishing good clipping stances – My friend and I last year each had a minor finger injury. Thus while recuperating, we read some of Eric Horst’s training books and climbed many moderates on TR, but had to find three clipping stances. We defined a clipping stance as a position where we could release one hand freely and count for about 3-5 seconds. Why is this important? Finding good clipping stances almost became second nature.
- Finding good rest spots – My friend and I also alternated with climbing moderates on TR where we climbed and had to find 2-3 rest spots. We defined a rest spot being fully hands free (we considered this the jackpot) or being in a position where significant tension is off the hands to shake off one at a time. This exercise made us more aware of how to look for opportune moments to rest and also served as a reminder of where we could down climb when needed.
(7) Efficiency = Smart Climbing! Mastering the art of finding the right clipping stances and rest spots help a lead climber become an efficient one. However, along the way, I learned more tips from awesome climbing friends.
- Dancers aren’t the only ones that require fancy footwork and plies! Use your feet and legs and save muscling through things for the moves and sequences that require it.
I climbed using high steps every chance I got, that is, until my friend Jeremy suggested I do a lot less high steps, but rather climb inching my way to the top when possible. Why on earth would he tell me that? Because one exerts less energy and are more efficient putting one’s weight over ones toes. A high step requires more energy thus save it until it is actually required to get through a move or crux.
- Work on climbing statically. I loved to move dynamically when I first started climbing. But as a new climber, I was out of control. Now that I boulder a lot more and built a core, I can move dynamically while maintaining control when I need to. If it is not needed, I try to move statically up the wall or rock.
- Breathe likes it’s a Lamaze session. This is a very simple skill that we learned in gymnastics and also folks learn in Pilates and yoga. When I have to execute a hard or strong move, I inhale, and exhale and move at the same time. I notice doing that takes me through the challenging climbing move easier because I pick up some momentum and it helps me tighten my core. Regardless, one should find their breathing zone, and avoid holding their breath because it is likely to trigger decreased performance and energy, and eventual increased fatigue.
(8) Maximizing Sequencing & Climbing Style. When I was new to climbing, I had a dear friend graciously explained the art of holds and sequences. And it went something like this, “so if a hold is slanted to the right, it is most positive when you hold it with your right hand, and position your body in x fashion to create balance and friction”. I realized I was grabbing anything in sight and just trying to get to the top. But after that night, I saw no climbing hold the same. There are certain holds and styles of climbing that are best climbed a certain way to maximize the above listed tips (efficiency, clipping stances, rest spots, etc.). For example, there are certain climbs where a layback is most efficient, sloper holds are better approached if one stays low on them, undercling holds are most positive when one transitions above it and so forth. Learning how to best approach climbing holds and their positions will help one in their journey to master the art of leading.
(9) To Fall or Not to Fall, To Down Climb or Not to Down Climb! Backing off or Pushing it! This is probably the cause of fear for many. Most folks do not dream of lead falling, but it is part of the sharp end territory. Most indoor gym lead tests require one to lead climb and take a fall.
- Watch where the rope is in relationship to one’s extremities. This can affect how one falls and can be dangerous. If the rope is behind a leader’s feet and they fall, it can cause them to flip.
- Back off, down climb! I used to scream ‘falling’, push away, and take a lead fall. That is until my sweet friend in Spain recommended I consider down climbing more. After practicing down climbing, I will take this approach every time I can. It allows one to find a rest spot and assess how to climb through a challenging part.
- Bailing is ok! Last summer, I started leading once a climb harder than I needed to get on. I managed to lead most of it, but when I reached the most challenging part of the climb, I was not comfortable with the fall. So naturally, I set up what is called a ‘bail beaner’ and came down. At the gym, if one encounters this, there is no need to set up a bail beaner. Bottom line, there is no shame backing off a climb where the risk of getting hurt is not worth taking.
- Understand there is technique with falling. I will always recommend taking a lead class where one is taught how to take a lead fall. Bottom line, if one is ready to lead, then one should understand the concept of how to fall properly and avoid any injury.
(10) Scope Around, and Plan it Out Top roping and leading are different. When leading, plan how to get to the first your first bolt and a map out that first potential clipping stance. I usually treat each section as a boulder problem. Once I clip the rope to the carabiner, I try to find a rest spot (if possible) or get in a position where there is not as much tension on my upper skeleton, and I scope and think about how to most efficiently make it to the next bolt. Bottom line, before leading a route, take the time to scope it out, identify potential areas that will be challenging and so forth.
By no means this is the bible, or have I been climbing 20+ years. However, I cannot help sometimes reflecting back on my mistakes, bad judgment calls and want to share better practices with others. This read is meant to help folks get in the right mind-set, and plan a successful, smart, and safe sport lead journey.
Stay safe, climb smart and grow in your climbing journey!
Note: Certain pictures were obtained from the internet and they are numbered. This page format does not allow for superscript numbering. Even so, always find a way to give credit to photos that are not one’s own and found on the internet.
- Picture #1 – Retrieved from www.masterfile.com
- Picture #2 – Retrieved from www.guardian.co.uk
- Picture #3 – Retrieved from www.tumblr.com (Bad Climbing)
- Picture #4 – Retrieved from www.glenmorelodge.org.uk
- Picture #5 – Retrieved from www.tumlbr.com (Lead Climbing)
- Picture #6 – Retrieved from www.dailymail.co.uk