My husband and I started our journey of climbing at a rock climbing gym in St. Louis, MO. My father-in-law had invited us to go climb with him during our Christmas visit in 2016. My husband and I are both athletic and love challenging ourselves, so we were excited to try indoor rock climbing. We were instantly addicted! Climbing gives you a physical and mental challenge. You have to build your strength and endurance, and find your way to complete the route.
We had soon moved to Louisiana and were happy to learn that a rock climbing gym had been recently setup near us. We were getting stronger and making friends, eventually joining our new friends on outdoor climbing trips. We learned some lead climbing techniques from the experienced climbers we were with, but knew eventually we should be taking climbing courses to ensure safety. And because we wanted to be able to lead a route, not just top rope outdoor routes.
There is an awesome rock climbing gym in Tyler, TX that is about a 3 hour drive from where we live in Louisiana. Tyler Rock Gym was the closest gym to us to get lead climbing certified. We had been climbing at that gym a few times, and decided before the next outdoor climbing trip we took we would get certified. We drove up on a Sunday to take the course. The course covered the essentials of lead climbing: effective communication, checking gear, proper clipping techniques, practicing falls, cleaning the routes, and setting up and cleaning anchors. I learned there were some gaps in what I had picked up from climbing with friends, so I highly recommend taking a lead climbing course if you decide to take your climbing adventurous to the outdoors.
Lead climbing falls can be longer and harden than when top roping. Do not take lead climbing lightly: I highly recommend you seek out expert instruction to learn the proper skills, practice and then practice some more!
With that being said, here are what I consider to be key steps for lead climbing:
- Get proper training on lead techniques and using your gear.
- Practice lead climbing in a rock climbing gym before attempting outdoor routes.
- Assess your metal readiness.
- Start easy.
- Know how to manage risk.
Step One: Proper Training
The friends we made at our rock climbing gym were all seasoned rock climbers. One with previous teaching experience, and a couple of them had done multi-pitch climbs. We felt safe climbing with them, and knew they were giving us solid advice. Still, we sought out a certification course. The course ensured we were comfortable with our climbing gear, knew how to clip quickdraws and the proper way to clip them, had the proper form for lead belaying, practiced good communication skills, and could build and clean anchors.
Step Two: Practice
My husband and I started our climbing adventure in the rock gym. Here we practiced our technique and built strength and flexibility. We were invited to join an outdoor rock climbing trip, and practiced with the group several times before going. It’s during this time we informally learned lead climbing techniques, and we were practicing several times per week.
One way we practiced lead climbing was a mock lead. This is where you climb a route on top rope while also leading up with another rope. This allows you to focus on placing your quickdraws and clipping in the proper way. You do need two belayers to run a mock lead.
Step Three: Mental Readiness
Rock climbing can be a dangerous hobby. Lead climbing comes with additional risks to top roping. Before attempting to lead, ask yourself if you are mentally ready for it. Lead climbing can be scary, and there is no shame in admitting that. If your head is not ready for it, continue to work on your skills and practice in the gym until you feel confidant to try harder routes.
Don’t feel pressure to lead climb a route simple because you can top rope the same route. Lead climbing presents the real possibility for taking a fall. When lead climbing, you have to climb above your last clip – this means you are sometimes doubling the distance of the fall. Some falls can be harmless, but a bad one can also result in scrapes, rope burn, broken bones or worse. Safety is proactive, not reactive.
Step Four: Start Easy
It’s best to start lead climbing routes that are lower than the level you can top rope at. This way you can ensure you have the proper techniques in place for safety. Your lead climbing level will be different than your top roping level.
Step Five: Managing Risks
Before you begin climbing, its essential to check your gear. Ensure the rope is in good condition, take a close look at bolts and gear placement, and ensure the belay device is locked and the rope is tied in correctly to the climber.
A belayer plays an active role during lead climbing. I suggest making sure you climb with someone you trust and know is skilled in lead-belaying technique. This should also be someone you can effectively communicate with. The belayer and climber need to discuss the route layout and identify any problems areas, such as a large ledge in the climbers fall line.
Speaking of falls, you should also have practiced taking falls in the gym setting as part of your lead climbing courses. As a lead-belayer, it’s important to know the proper technique for catching a climber to reduce risk of injury and wear on the rope.
It’s impossible to remove all risk from climbing. That’s why it’s important to identify your comfort level with lead climbing and to climb with people who are experienced and practice safe techniques. There is more to cover on lead climbing etiquette and safety, so (again) I highly recommend taking a course to learn how to safely lead climb.
I know every climber and belayer will vary in technique and preference. Rock climbers, have any additional tips? Leave them in the comments below.
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