Leading is the privilege in climbing, the rich, thoughtful, problem-solving side. Leading means being the first up the rock, trailing the rope, which is held by a belayer on the ground. You ascend a pitch, a distance of up to the length of a 70-meter rope, and at intervals attach the rope to protection (bolts, nuts or cams), limiting the distance you can fall.
Learning to lead, especially traditional climbs, is, next to rappelling, the most dangerous stage for an emergent climber. The easiest way to start is to get on sport climbs, which have bolts fixed for you, although many climbers learn on trad routes. Before you start, make sure that you are proficient in knot-tying, rope handling, belaying, rappelling and constructing and threading belay and rappel anchors.
How to Learn
Start out on routes you feel certain you can do, routes a couple of grades (or more) below your following ability. Many people choose climbs they have followed or toproped without falling. Keep in mind, however, that just because you floated a pitch on toprope doesn’t mean you can lead it with equal grace, or at all.
With bolted routes, your line is clear and your pro already in. Your job is simply to eyeball the wall and connect the dots. You will need to keep it together physically to climb the moves and hang on long enough for each clip.
From the ground, count the number of bolts, and arm yourself with that many quickdraws, plus at least two for the anchors and a couple of extras just in case you under-estimated. If the route wanders, carry a few longer runners in case you need to reduce rope drag. When the bolts seem far apart, or the climbing appears extreme, remember that bolts are usually placed just below the hardest moves, and that runouts are often on easier sections. Also, the holds by bolts are usually very positive: if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to let go and clip the things.
With trad routes, before you even think about tying into the sharp end, be solid at placing protection and arranging belays. Learn by seconding lots of trad routes. Instead of mindlessly yanking gear out, inspect the placements. Also observe how often your friend or guide places protection, and where and how she builds anchors.
Before you place gear for real, dink around at the base of a cliff and practice placing every piece, from nuts to cams, of every size. Ask a guide or mentor to tell you which pieces are safe. When you feel you can set and judge protection well, practice combining pieces to create an anchor. Constructing solid belay anchors is the leader’s imperative. 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 muti-pitch route. Anchors are everything. Always place excellent, redundant anchors, with three or more good pieces. If you can’t find a good belay where you are, downclimb to the last good spot or traverse to a tree. Even if you think the pitch you just led was ridiculously easy, your second could still slip or break a hold. Or he might pop off leading the next pitch.
In the process of leading, you have to stop and hang on while putting in protection, which is often strenuous. Again, you can’t pick too easy a climb when you start. You’ll want one you can do handily or even downclimb, especially if things go wrong, such as a piece of pro falling out.
If you are heading up a climb you haven’t done, consult a guidebook or ask around among friends, local guides or climbing-shop workers. Remember that ratings can vary and topos don’t cover protection possibilities. Guidebook descriptions don’t always describe pro, either.
For most people, the fear of falling or injury is inhibiting, though it also leads to good concentration and good protection. Give yourself good odds: sew the climb up (i.e., place lots of pro).
Make a Plan
Scope the route in advance: where it goes, how you will descend and what to do if something goes wrong.
Break a climb into sections and use these to develop a strategy. For a sport route, “bolt to bolt” or “good hold to good hold” are obvious segments. A pitch can seem a daunting continuum until you learn to treat it as many short sections.
With cracks and other kinds of trad routes, survey potential resting spots—ledges, stems, and good, solid hand jams—and the sections that will take good protection. With luck, the two will coincide.
For a sport route, your main concern is clipping correctly. You will place a quickdraw on each bolt and clip into the bottom carabiner, with the rope coming out of the carabiner from behind, as opposed to running outside-in. Watch that the rope can’t track across bent-gate carabiners, or it could unclip itself. Face carabiners away from your line of ascent (i.e., if your line runs to the right, place the carabiner gate to the left).
On trad routes, struggling to find and place the right piece of gear can waste you. Before leaving the ground, rack the gear on your sling or harness loops according to size. Group the smallest pieces on one carabiner, mid-size ones on another, and so on. Most climbers like to put the smaller pro up front and the larger cams and nuts to the back of the rack or harness, out of the way. Using gear slings is usually good for multi-pitch routes when you are swapping leads and the rack, but for single-pitch routes you might only want to clip gear into your harness. For sport routes, climbers just rack quickdraws on their harness loops.
For hard trad routes, you may want to rack each piece separately so that you don’t use extra seconds fishing different ones on and off the rack. For general use, though, most people want several pieces on each carabiner, so that you can easily try out a couple of different sizes in a given placement. Just don’t overload the gear carabiner, or it becomes harder to remove individual pieces.
With either sport or trad climbing, keep your feet outside your rope, not stepping inside it with the rope behind your leg. In that case, a fall could flip you upside-down.
Check that your knot is tied, your gear is racked, and you are on belay. Then go.
It might seem inglorious to slam in protection right off the ground or the 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, where it won’t rotate upward and out, or chocks set in opposition to each other and tied off as one piece. (See “Protection.”) Otherwise, a fall by a leader above could upend the piece and lift it out, causing a potentially longer fall as the rope zings to center.
If your line zigzags, place long runners to soften the sharpest bends. Long slings increase your fall potential slightly, but reduce rope drag, which both drains you and, worse, can lift your gear out below you. Always use long runners on cams and chocks, which can walk or lift out.
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.
Keep your protection close enough to do some good; 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, though on easy climbing, you might run out 10 to 15 feet between placements.
Think ahead. If the crux higher up looks like it will take a #4 cam, reserve it. Need the #4 now? You may want to use it but then to reach down, or downclimb, and retrieve it after you get in another good piece.
Always be aware of the consequences of falling; manage the risks. 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 and fighting to place a piece.
Conserve your strength and try not to overgrip. Keep your weight on your feet. Enjoy the process rather than looking ahead to the destination.
If you do climb into trouble, grow tired or fearful of the exposure, breathe calmly and consider your options. Perhaps you can set some protection. Hang on it afterward if you must—just stay safe. Maybe you should downclimb and collect yourself at the last rest. Or 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 solid pro. First, consider whether this climb is for you. When in doubt, back off now, while you have protection nearby. If you decide to go for it, double up your last placement.
Just Say No
Backing off when you get in over your head is just smart. Listen to your gut feeling, especially if your pro seems sketchy. The climb isn’t going anywhere. You can always come back.
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. Just don’t let ego or impatience influence you. If you go for it, re-examine the terrain around you for possible protection, and consider whether you could downclimb, reducing your potential fall.
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 that hard after all.
You’ll usually rappel or hike down from the top of multi-pitch and even one-pitch trad climbs, but sport climbs almost always end at a fixed station. It is generally two bolts equipped with some sort of apparatus: either a large-diameter chain, fixed carabiners, rounded lowering hangers, rap links, or open hooks. (See “Toproping” for anchor setup and cleaning.)
If you will clean the quickdraws or other gear on the way down, “tram” into the side of the rope running through the protection by clipping to it with a quickdraw from your harness. This will keep you closer to the rock, helping you to reach the draws.
Watch out when you approach the first piece above the ground. If the route overhangs or traverses you may risk swinging into trees, boulders or even the ground when you unclip from the tram. Climbers have broken ankles and even backs this way. Your best bet is often to leave the rope clipped into the second bolt, then clip in and reach down, or clip through and downclimb, to the first bolt. Clean it and climb back to the second bolt. In any case, climb a few moves upward and ask your belayer to pull in the slack as hard as possible before letting go.
The leader is responsible for stringing the rope, but also for the safety and comfort of the second. Try not to bury gear, place it to be solid but reasonably removable.
Often the leader is the stronger climber of the two. While your first inclination is rightly to protect yourself from bad leader falls, do your best not to place pieces right in the middle of roofs or other cruxes, where your partner may become exhausted trying to remove them.
Protect a pitch to also protect your second. A common scenario is for a leader to protect a crux well, then lead it and, jubilant, scamper off sideways to the next moves or the anchor. Stop and place a piece first, just above the difficulties. Otherwise your second, falling off the crux, can pendulum sideways, and may even hit a wall or end up stuck in midair.
If you finish a traverse and place a piece at the end of it and on the same level, your partner will pendulum if she falls. The farther up you can safely climb before placing that piece, the better for the second.
Treat your second well: who could forget the singsong voice of the tough guy in the classic 1978 film El Capitan, tweaking the leader above: “I’m your belayer … you need me.”