AMC Outdoors, April 2001
By Michael Lanza
The guidebook said to climb the hemlock tree. Rick and I stood on a ledge, scratching our heads. We’d just ascended the first pitch of an easy rock-climbing route named Refuse, on New Hampshire’s Cathedral Ledge. This was the debut for both of us lead-climbing on rock; the previous weekend, we’d taken a course with a professional guide. We’d chosen Refuse because of its easy rating — we didn’t want actually to test our dubious, beginner’s gear placements by falling.
But there wasn’t any tree. Then we noticed the stump at the far end of our ledge, checked the guidebook’s publication year, and deduced that we’d encountered an example of the bane of guidebook publishers: outdated information.
The alternative to the vanished tree was an awkward crack-and-squeeze chimney that effectively bumped up Refuse’s difficulty rating a whopping three number grades (explaining why we’d found Refuse conveniently devoid of climbers when every other easy route at Cathedral had queues on that sunny Saturday). Rick suggested we could rappel off. It was my lead. I swallowed hard and looked up at the crack.
Beginning climbers who have been top-roping, following other leaders up cliffs, or honing their technique in a gym may decide at some point they want to learn how to lead — that is, climb on the “sharp end” of the rope, placing gear intermittently as you ascend while a partner below belays your rope in case you fall. Leading brings emotional rewards that are far greater than hanging from a top-rope, but it also raises your bet in a game with already high stakes. The following is a basic primer on lead-climbing. But before you actually try leading, get some real instruction. (See also our suggested resources.)
If you’re thinking about learning how to lead, let’s assume you already have a helmet and climbing harness. If you don’t already wear a helmet, get one. There’s no reason for climbers to neglect protecting their brain — except the inadequate reason of fashion. Lead-climb long enough and you will both fall and be hit by something falling from above. Shield your noggin.
Manufacturers keep making lighter, thinner ropes with the strength of their thicker ancestors. But fatter is still stronger. For most cragging, lead on a rope that’s 10.5mm or 11mm thick. A standard 50-meter rope generally provides adequate length, though a 55- or 60-meter cord is mighty welcome on long pitches. In the soggy Northeast, a dry (waterproof) rope is a good investment.
At most Northeast climbing areas, the following standard leader’s rack of hardware will get you up most routes: one complete set of passive chocks (like Stoppers), perhaps with doubles in the mid-range sizes; three to five Tri-cams, small to midsize; a few midsize to large Hexes; six to 10 spring-loaded camming devices (SLCDs), ranging in size from 3/8 inch to three inches; 10 to 12 quickdraws and/or runners; six to eight free carabiners; two to four locking carabiners; six shoulder-length sewn slings and one or two four-foot sewn slings; and one 18-foot cordellette.
Climbers will debate the merits of different types of gear, such as Hexes (cheap and indestructible) versus SLCDs (versatile and easy to place). Learn how to use them all, then decide for yourself what you prefer, which will depend largely on the routes you choose. What you carry on any route will vary — some routes require lots of small gear, some require big gear, still others accept a limited range of gear sizes. Check your guidebook to see whether the author recommends specific gear for certain routes or suggests a standard rack for the area.
Choosing a Route
When you begin leading, choose routes rated at least three number grades below the limit of what you can climb — especially if most of your climbing has been indoors. It will be plenty scary thinking about whether your gear will hold a fall, and you’ll want to feel secure when you stop every few moves to spend eternal minutes trying to find the right piece of gear. Preferably, lead a route you’ve followed someone up.
Whether beginner or expert, finding out as much as you can about a route beforehand — from a guidebook and other climbers — will make the attempt safer. The rating only begins to tell the story. Ratings are subjective, and the perceived difficulty of routes carrying identical ratings can vary greatly between climbing areas and regions. In addition, a route rated, say, 5.8, may have just one move of that difficulty while the rest of the route is much easier, or it may be sustained throughout at that difficulty.
Some routes protect well; others do not. Find out whether the route presents many or few cracks and features that accept gear; and whether there exist frequent, secure stances for placing gear, or the stances are awkward and tenuous. There may be sections that require a specialized climbing skill, like an off-width crack, or the crux moves may be poorly protected. Sport routes may be frequently or infrequently bolted. Different types of rock demand different climbing skills and styles. Know what you’re getting into.
Play It Safe
The art of placing various types of gear in rock, deciding when and where to place gear, maintaining a straight rope line, tying knots, equalizing belay anchors, etc., is too complex to cover here. Most important is that you learn those skills from an experienced climber, whether a guide or a friend who’s been leading for years. Practice placing gear by standing at the base of a cliff and stuffing gear into cracks. Even expert leaders should avoid unnecessarily running out long stretches between gear placements, but it’s especially important that beginning leaders place gear frequently, because some of a beginner’s placements are bound to be bad ones. Besides, it’s good practice.
While sport climbing does not require the skills of placing gear and building belay anchors, there are still many ways to get into trouble. One of the most common causes of climbing accidents, for instance, is sport climbers erroneously assuming their rope is long enough for a belayer on the ground to lower the leader from the anchors at the top of the route — sounds dumb, but it happens alarmingly often. Sport climbers need to acquire a set of skills not typically needed in a gym. Learn from someone with experience.
Choose your climbing partners wisely, and don’t assume that someone who knows more than you actually knows as much as he purports to know. Ask questions, make sure your partner has the skills necessary for the route you’re considering. Be wary of anyone who seems to throw caution to the wind. Check one another’s harness belt and tie-in knot, always use standard belay commands, and discuss decisions when appropriate.
Ultimately, only years of experience climbing hundreds of routes on all types of rock will make you a solid and safe leader. Take baby steps. Overconfidence can be very costly.
So what did Rick and I do on Refuse? I made an ill-advised decision: to lead a pitch at the limit of my ability, about which I knew very little, on my very first lead. I kicked and clawed and sweated my way up it, and placed gear I couldn’t be certain would hold me. Fortunately, luck was on my side that day. I didn’t fall.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.