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How To

Five Mistakes Beginner and Intermediate Trad Climbers Make

We recently talked with Sam Magro, owner of Montana Alpine Guides (MAG), to find out a few common errors he sees made by beginner trad climbers and intermediate trad climbers.

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Got some downtown? Then it’s a perfect time to study up on climbing skills: read educational materials, consider future mentors, commit knots to muscle memory. Bulk up on areas of your climbing knowledge you’ve neglected!

Sam Magro. Photo: Courtesy of Sam Magro.

We recently talked with Sam Magro, owner of Montana Alpine Guides (MAG), a company based out of Bozeman, Montana, to find out what errors he sees beginner trad climbers and intermediate trad climbers make most frequently. Magro outlined several key areas.

Magro began his climbing career in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, clambering unroped up exposed gullies. His biggest achievement is climbing Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy’s North Pillar in a 10-day period. He went on to found Montana Alpine Guides, which offers an El Capitan training course, eight technical rock-climbing courses and companion self-rescue clinics.

Without further ado, five common mistakes that newer trad climbers often make.

1. Being Overly Complacent

“Complacency kills. It may sound simplistic, but this is the biggest error I see on all levels of climbing,” says Magro. “You get lazy. You don’t check your knot, your anchors. You skip saying, ‘On belay,’ because you’re just out for a casual lap. If you read Accidents in North American Mountaineering, it’s rarely on some epic,” he says. “It’s people not sticking to their checks. Simple things.”

When Magro looks back at what he’s done, he recognizes that he’s gotten lucky on several occasions.

When he was 18, he and his friends climbed the Steck-Salathé, a 2,500-foot 5.9 (now usually listed as 5.10b) route on Sentinel Rock, Yosemite, and one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.  It was their first Yosemite trip, and Magro blames what happened on pure overconfidence. “We’d already climbed 5.11 trad in Yosemite. We expected to cruise it and didn’t leave camp 4 until 10 am.”

They hadn’t anticipated the difficulty of the off-width sections, and were far slower than they expected.

“We had awful headlamps, got benighted and finished the route in the dark,” says Magro. “We could have bailed earlier on, but we didn’t, and instead we were faced with a descent in the dark, where we couldn’t see the downclimb, whether there were cliffs or not. We did a forced bivy. At first light we went down.”

2. Progressing to multipitch climbing too quickly

Magro has seen intermediate trad climbers attempting El Cap without solidifying their knowledge beforehand. “If your goal is to climb a 10-pitch, 5.12 trad route, take steps to get there,” he says.

When strong gym climbers try to take their basic cragging skills into the mountains without recognizing that those skills don’t transfer perfectly, bad things can happen. It’s all too common to see a new trad climber attempting a committing 5.8 in the Grand Tetons or some other alpine environment, and grossly underestimating the route. Multi-pitch trad climbing is a totally different skillset, Magro notes, where there’s unmarked run-out terrain, and the ability to improvise is paramount.

“In the Tetons you see a lot of epics. Groups not moving fast enough, a thunderstorm coming. They’re just getting hosed,” he says.

There are variables that come into play that might not even cross one’s mind when going out to the crag, e.g. the solar aspect—you don’t want to climb a south-facing pitch in June in Yosemite, for example. Magro has seen people cooked through, fingertips sweating. His suggestion: Work on alpine tactics, and to learn how to terrain-belay, before applying your bedrock traditional rock climbing skills to bigger objectives.

Mount Cowen, in the Beartooths, is another place where Magro has seen a lot of people struggling. “There’s 2,000 feet of 5.6 ridge line. I always hear about people going over there and trying to pitch it out. That’s not how you climb big mountains like these,” he says.

Magro recommends setting incremental goals you can accomplish from home. “That’s it. Writing it down, learning from each one, and savoring your progress.”

3. Unfamiliarity with companion rescue

“A lot of people go to their physical therapist because they’re not disciplined enough to do it on their own. People take companion rescue clinics for the same reason,” says Magro.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t start studying independently about how to get yourself out of a bad situation. Read a self-rescue and companion-rescue guidebook, and go over the systems with a friend. Practice in a safe, controlled setting.

[Also Read Master Class: One-on-One Crevasse Rescue]

Not having the materials to extricate yourself from a tricky situation is a related issue—some cord and a knife are crucial, at the very least, if you end up having to build your own anchor unexpectedly, suggests Magro. Now is a great time to get your safety gear in order.

4. Moving too hastily in a partnership

Sport climb with a partner first on single-pitch stuff, and see how they belay. “Maybe assume they’re trying to kill you,” suggests Magro, tongue-in-cheek.

Take the time necessary to feel out each others’ strengths and weaknesses; make sure you are on the same page in terms of what you want to accomplish and how you want to accomplish it; and ensure you can each step in to rescue the other if things go south.

5. Pushing too far beyond your comfort zone, too fast

“People get all tweaked out on lead,” Magro explains—that goes for experienced climbers, too. “That’s fine. But, ideally, when learning to place good gear, you’re not freaking out.”

Something he always stresses to climbers in trad courses is to stay in your comfort zone when learning to place gear. That way you have the time to calm yourself down. “If you can only just hang on a 5.10 sport climb, try placing gear on a 5.8 or even easier, so you’re not pumped silly and trying to get gear in,” he says.

Magro appreciates people who jump right in with the ambition and optimism of youth, as he believes we  learn a lot from our own errors and epics. That being said, if you’re going to take this approach and forego formal education, he suggests looking at the endeavor as though you’re holding two buckets: one you’re trying to fill up with knowledge and skills, the other you’re trying to keep as full of luck as possible. You just have to hope your luck doesn’t run out before your skillset bucket fills up.

Cat in the Hat (5.6) in Red Rocks was Magro’s first trad lead. He was climbing 5.10 single-pitch trad and 5.12 sport routes. “I was just going at it. My friends and I were savvy enough to climb something easy, so we could figure out how to deal. That’s a conservative approach. Some people jump right into it and figure it out, and sometimes that works fine. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Maria Anderson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Sewanee Review, Alpinist, Climbing, and Best American Short Stories 2018. She lives in Bozeman, Montana. You can find her online here.

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