Use this guide to gain a basic understanding of lead climbing. But remember, learning about rock climbing online serves as a tool, but in no way are written articles a substitute for hands-on instruction. Failure to follow appropriate safety measures could result in serious injury or death. If just getting started, seek professional climbing courses offered by AMGA-certified guiding services. Be smart, and climb safe.
For most climbers, learning how to lead climb is the natural progression after top roping. Whereas top roping provides added security to the climber, lead climbers must maintain composure in a variety of adverse situations. Further, learning how to lead climb requires a greater understanding of rock climbing fundamentals and an ability to make quick decisions upon assessing risk.
Introduction to lead climbing
While top roping has a slingshot setup (the rope goes from the belayer, up through an anchor, and then back down to the climber), lead climbing has no pre-threaded upper anchor point and requires the climber to attach to protection points as he or she ascends. In sport climbing, the leader will use quickdraws to clip into pre-drilled bolts/hangers along the route to limit falling distances. In trad climbing, however, the leader must place various pieces of protection (such as nuts and cams) in cracks to protect against a fall. Bolts, cams, and nuts all serve the same essential purpose of providing an anchor point that attaches the climber to the rock, but trad climbing is often viewed as the cleanest style due to its minimal impact (no drilling into the rock).
Free eBook: 7 Mistakes to Avoid as a New Climber
One skill new lead climbers must master is the mental composure necessary for fluid and confident moves when facing high fall potential. Although some modern sport areas may be heavily bolted for safety, others will have significant run-outs between bolts and falls could be 10, 20, or 30+ feet. When a lead climber falls, he or she will fall over twice the distance from their last piece of protection (i.e. if a lead climber is 5 feet above a bolt, he or she will fall 10 feet plus additional rope stretch):
When taking the lead, do…
Ensure you have enough equipment
Count the number of bolts or placement options prior to climbing.
Place quickdraws in the correct orientation
Generally, quickdraws have a bolt-end and rope-end; the rope-end will usually be the end with a bent gate and/or a rubber keeper around the carabiner to limit movement (this provides easier clipping and helps prevent cross-loading—when a carabiner is loaded in its incorrect orientation). It’s also important to place the quickdraws so that the carabiner gates face away from the line of climbing. That is, if placing a quickdraw by reaching far out to the right, the gates on the quickdraw should generally be facing out and to the right as well.
Do establish alternative communication techniques
On longer routes, verbal communication may be impossible between the belayer and climber. This can be avoided by establishing a backup system for communication prior to climbing. A simple rope-tug technique works well, and some climbers choose to use two-way radios.
Related: Communication for Rock Climbing
When taking the lead, don’t…
Place your leg behind the rope
To avoid this mistake, always place your legs over the rope (on the side of the rope opposite the wall) when your legs must cross the line of the rope while leading. You never want to place a leg behind/between the rope and the wall, as failure do so will result in the leading climber being flipped upside down upon falling.
Quickdraws must be clipped so that the rope comes up through the rope-end carabiner on the front side (near the climber, not against the rock). Failure to do so could cause unclipping in the case of a fall.
This mistake is possible when multiple bolts—or gear placements, if trad climbing—are situated very close together, such as in a climbing gym or at a heavily-bolted sport climbing area.
Z-clipping means to clip a quickdraw by grabbing the rope from below your previous clip/protection point, thus not appropriately securing yourself into the upper piece of protection. To avoid this mistake, place your clipping hand on your rope near your tie-in knot, then slide it outward and clip.
Underestimate the necessary safety precautions
Lead rock climbing isn’t just a walk in the park, and we strongly encourage new climbers to seek thorough instruction before taking the lead. Most gyms offer courses, and you can also explore class offerings through certified guiding courses in your area.
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If you’re interested in learning more about transitioning to lead, explore these articles: