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What is Lead Climbing & Basics Guide for Beginners

Those familiar with rock climbing know there are many types of variations of the sport. And lead climbing, also called sport climbing, is one of the most thrilling and challenging types of rock climbing. The thing about lead climbing is that it challenges you both physically and mentally in ways you’ve probably never experienced before.

There is a lot of emphasis on technique in lead climbing. You need to know how to be skilled at placing traditional climbing gear, clipping quickdraws, as well as lead belaying. Proficiency with cleaning and building anchors will also come in handy.

The popularity of lead climbing continues to grow by the day and the sport has already made its way to the Olympics for the first time. If lead climbing appeals to you or you are just eager to learn more about the sport, you’ve come to the right place.

What is Lead Climbing?

Lead climbing is a type of rock climbing that involves climbing with a rope and clipping the ropes to fixed protections (bolts) along the route to protect from the fall. In some cases, there won’t be bolts on a rock and the climber will have to decide the best route and attach removable pieces of climb gear as he goes up.

If you’ve seen climbers on the cliff of a rock that has no way to get/hike to the top, then the climbers ‘lead climb’ their way to the top. Lead climbing is different from top-rope climbing where the rope first runs up the wall to a top anchor and then down to the climber.

There are risks of falls in lead climbing and falls aren’t to be taken lightly as they are typically longer and harder than those of top-rope climbing. For a lead climber to advance up a route, he/she must move the ‘sharp end of his rope’ above a bolt or any other protection in place. Should the lead climber fall before clipping his/her rope into the next bolt, he/she is going to gall and the fall is going to be at least twice as long as the distance above the last piece.

This means a lead climber that’s your feet above the previous bolt is expected to fall at least eight feet. In fact, the fall will be a little bit more than eight feet as a result of rope stretch.

Lead Climbing Basics

Lead climbing is based on the ability of the climber to do the following:

  • Clip a quickdraw into a bolt.
  • Knowing how to clip the rope into the quickdraw.
  • Knowing how to fall. Falls must be expected and planned for accordingly.

Lead climbing can be done indoors (at a gym) or outdoors. And the most obvious learning path for any aspiring lead climber is to start from indoor lead climbing. Take some indoor lead climbing lessons at your local gym and when you are ready to go into the wilderness, hire an experienced guide to show you the ropes. Why? Lead climbing outdoors isn’t exactly the same as doing so indoors.

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Learning to Lead Climb

Want to become a lead climber? Follow the steps below:

Step One: Get Properly Trained

As I mentioned earlier, you should ideally start lead climbing at your local gym by an experienced friend or reputable guide. There are many things to learn about lead climbing such as how to clip quickdraws, manage rope, build anchors, and so on.

You need someone to teach you how to properly do these things. Then you need to practice because practice makes perfect and there’s no substitute for practice.

Step Two: Assess Your Mental Readiness

In my introduction article to rock climbing, I talked about how there is a mental aspect to rock climbing and the mental aspect is more relevant than ever in lead climbing. Lead climbing can be scary for some people and there’s nothing shameful about that.

You have to assess your mental readiness to be sure you are ready for it. Can you keep a cool head when clipping gear, managing rope, and doing other activities involved with lead climbing? If you feel like you aren’t ready for it, continue honing your skills until you feel up for it.

Step Three: Mocks Leads Are Crucial

You need a test run or more accurately a mock lead when you are starting out in lead climbing. In a mock lead, you get to lead climb with a rope on a top-rope route.

This means you have the top rope as a backup to catch you in case of a fall while testing your lead climbing skills (placing gear, clipping ropes, and so on). Obviously, you’ll need two climbing ropes and belayers for a mock lead.

Step Four: Easy is Good

When you feel ready to lead climb without having a top rope as backup, start easy and don’t hesitate or be ashamed to use the easiest routes. Start easy. Easy is good. Just because you’ve been climbing 5.10 on the top rope doesn’t mean you should aim to achieve that on your first lead climb. Start with the easiest route and work your way up from there.

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Is Lead Climbing Dangerous?

While there’s a real possibility of a fall in lead climbing, the sport generally isn’t as dangerous as it may look to a beginner or someone who’s never done it before. As long as you are using quality climbing gear, you’ll be fine.

Climbing gear rarely fails in lead climbing. For one, climbing ropes are super strong and are specifically designed to handle repeated falls. The ropes are even designed to stretch which makes impact softer.

Bolts and other protection devices are super durable and can last for years. However, if you are lead climbing outdoors, you’ll have to determine the integrity of the bolts and make the ultimate decision of trusting them or not. Your guide will teach you how to evaluate the integrity of bolts.

Since climbing ropes are designed to stretch as the climbers fall, it means they decelerate the climber slowly and this softens impacts as I said earlier. Belayers can also reduce the impact of a fall by jumping just a little as the climber falls.

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Lead Climbing Gear

Gear for lead climbing includes a rope, harness, shoes, a helmet, quickdraws, gear for building an anchor, an assortment of removable gear if you are trad leading. Overall, the specific climb and type of anchor the climber plans to build will dictate the gear required.

Climbing ropes: These are some of the most important pieces of gear for lead climbing. And there are two basic types of climbing ropes namely Dynamic and Static ropes. Dynamic ropes are designed to be elastic and are capable of absorbing the energy of a fall which can be very massive.

Static ropes are relatively stiff and are more suitable for rappelling and rescues. At the end of the day, all climbing ropes must be certified by the UIAA which is the body that makes specifications that climbing and mountaineering gear must meet.

Climbing helmet: Helmets are usually worn when lead climbing outdoors to protect the bead from falling rocks or debris. They will also protect some form of protection should you fall. Ideally, your helmet should be comfortable and snugly fit your head.

Climbing harness: An essential tool for every climber except those into free soloing or bouldering. A harness consists of two parts which are the waist belt and leg loops. The main benefit of a climbing harness is that it allows you to tie into the rope easily, securely, and efficiently.

Climbing shoes: Yep, there are dedicated shoes for climbing and the main benefit of climbing shoes is that they protect your feet while providing adequate traction so you don’t slip. There are different types of climbing shoes and the type you go for is dependent on your climbing ability and the condition of the rock you are climbing.

Quickdraws: A quickdraw is essentially two carabiners that are connected by a textile sling and are usually used in lead climbing. The idea here is to connect one end of the quickdraw carabiner to a bolt hanger on a route while the other end is attached to your rope. Doing this provides some slack on the rope by allowing the rope to move around while remaining attached to the bolt hanger.

Final Thoughts

The appeal of lead climbing is in the physical and mental challenge as well as the art and subtlety of the sport thanks to the technical requirements. If you want to become a lead climber, follow the steps I outlined above. There’s a learning curve to lead climbing and there are no shortcuts. The most important thing is to get a reputable guide to literally show you the ropes.

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