By its very nature lead climbing has inherently more risks to it than top roping, the potential to fall a great distance is vastily increased, as are the forces exerted on not only the climber but belayer as well. Meaning that there is a greater chance of failures within the belay system. Despite the added risk, for many climbers leading is the only way to climb.
There are a few consdierations that you need to take before you launch yourself head long into lead climbing. The first is are you really willing to accept that added risk, if the answer is no then you should not feel pressured into doing so. The next thing to think about is are you ready physically, lead climbing is more strenuous as you have to hang on with one hand as you pull the rope up and clip the rope through the running belays. At the same time many climb walls only have lead climbing on steeper routes.
Thirdly before you throw yourself in at the deep end, do you have the skills to do it safely. If you can’t answer that question the answer is probably no. This article is going to point out those added skills, techniques and equipment that lead climbing involves. Teaching you a safe way to progress these skills until you are ready for your first lead, an expereince that many climbers remember for a long, long time, often for all the wrong reasons.
Up until the point that you feel that you are ready to learn to lead indoors, all you would have needed was a harness, rock boots, chalk bag, carabiner and belay device. Dependant on which climbing wall you use there are one or two things that you will need to purchase in order to make the next step. These items are a rope and possibly some quickdraws, although most indoor climbing walls now have them in-situ.
The choice of ropes is going to be unfathomable as rock boots to be honest, probably even more so as there are some technical requirements that you need to consider in your purchase. These choice come down to thickness, length and the type of rope. A specialist shop would be able to help guide you through the choices, but it helps to have a little knowledge and to ask the right question.
Ropes are an expensive initial outlay, and climbing walls simply do not hire them out, due to the need to track the use and abuse. Initially you need to decide on thickness and type of rope. For indoor climbing you need to get what is refered to as a ‘full’ or ‘Single’ rope, which means that the rope can be used on its own. The other main type of rope is a half rope, and is used mainly outdoors in conjunction with another half rope.
A full rope was originally 11mm in diameter, however the advances in construction and polymers mean you can now get a full rope that is only 9mm thick. These ultra thin ropes have their place in high end sports climbing where every once of weight counts. They do however have a tendency to wear quicker than there thicker counter parts. A new rope is extremely ‘slick’ and therefore harder to hold a fall, with this in mind it is better to buy a rope that is at the thicker end of the spectrum of 10.5mm to 11mm. This will be easier to hold a fall with, and be more resistant to wear. Some ropes have stronger sheaths, others are dry treated, something which is pointless if you are initially to use the rope indoors.
Length is the next option, most walls are between 10 and 20 metres in length, so to climb to the top and lower off you need a rope that is at least 40 metres in length. However some newer walls feature routes that are 30 metres requiring a 60 metre rope. So dependant on where you climb, a 50 metre rope is recommended, however if it is a short wall, you can get away with a 30 metre rope.
Ropes are sold in 50, 60 or 70 metres lengths, so you can either buy a fifty metre rope for most wall, or even split the cost of a 60 metre rope with a friend and cut the rope in half for shorter climbing walls. You can get the shop to cut the rope for you with a specialist rope cutter, essential a ‘red hot knife’ that cuts and seals the rope at the same time.
If your climbing wall has these in situ you won’t need to pruchase any, however if it doesn’t, you will need to buy the neccessary number, to clip all the bolts to the top of the wall. To start off short quick draws of around 15cm will suffice, and ideally, having a way to decipher which end clips into the bolt, and which the the rope, this is because as you fall the carabiner attached to the bolt will become ‘nicked’ and if you subsiquently clip that damaged carabiner into the rope, you can damage the rope.
This is typically achieved by either having a carabiner captivated at one end for the rope, colour coded carabiners (red for rope) or by having a bent gate carabiner to aid the clipping of a rope into the quickdraw.
In order to progress into lead climbing you need to build on the skills you already have in order to not only get the most from your climbing, but also do it safety. Those skills come down to learning to belay a lead climber, and learning to clip the rope into the quickdraws. You can of course jump straight in at the deep end and go for it, the big question is whether your belayer ‘winging’ it as well. If so could they hold a fall, and if not what are the consequences?
There are numerous ways to learn to lead, the most effective is to do it in a group of three or more. The reason for this will become apparent when I start to work through some of the progression to making you first lead. As well as some of the other exercises that will help you pick the skills up quicker, whilst practicing in a safe environment.
Practicing clipping a quickdraw on the ground or just off will help you to do it quickly and efficiently whilst hanging off one arm, at the top of the wall looking at a long fall. The most important thing is not to ‘backclip’ the rope. If you see the two photos, the correct way is to have the rope coming from behind the carabiner to infront of it, not the other way rope, as there is a greater chance of the rope unclipping in a fall.
Put your harness on and tie into the rope and put a quickdraw within reach of the ground. Try clipping with your left and right hand, both to your side and then across your body. Now turn the carabiner around so the gate faces in the opposite direction and repeat the exercise. Remember to check your not backclipping the rope, becoming aware of it now, will mean it will become second nature in the future.
Now repeat the same exercise as above, but move the quickdraw up until you have to step just off the ground to clip it. Find a position that is in balance before you clip the carabiner, and repeat all the possible variations in the first exercise. Can you adopt a more restful positions?
Move the carabiner a bit higher and clip the bolt at an extreme stretch? How easy was it? Now try it by your face, shoulder, waist and feet. Which were easier?
Then try clipping a quickdraw across your body, by crossing through to clip?
Lead belay progressions
Now add a few more quickdraws to clip a mini route along a traverse, but this time get your climbing partner to try and belay you, as you traverse. This exercise is really for the belayers benefit, but helps the climber try and clip quickdraws as well.
The belayer should be trying to pay the rope out, whilst still keeping a hand on the ‘dead rope’. In essence it is the reversing the method of belaying a top rope climber, but instead of taking the rope in you are paying it out.
In essence simulated leading is leading but with the safety of being on top rope, it allows someone to practice leading whilst another practices belaying a leader. A third person is needed to operate the top rope. This exercise allows you work on all the skill neccessary for leading.
After a repeating the excerise of simulated leading until everyone is happy that both ‘leader’ is not backclipping carabiners and the belayer is doing everything right, and one hand is always on the dead rope, the time has come to move onto ‘real’ leading.
By this time you will have completed a few simulated leads on several routes, for your first lead you are best to climb a route that you have already practised simulated leading on. This means there won’t be any unwanted surprises, and you have the added confidence of knowing that you can climb the route ‘easily’.
Before you leave the ground check and double check everything, make sure your tied in correctly, the harness are on right and the belay plate attached correctly, and the screwgate is done up. It is easy to become complacent in an indoor wall, and there have been several incidents in the past of people not tying in correctly, harnesses not being fasten correctly, belay plates being attached to gear loops and screwgates not being secured. Some of these have led to some very serious accidents. You will probably be nervous, which may lead you to forget something that would otherwise be second nature. This checking and double checking is something that climbers of all levels should do, and is a very good habit to get into as one day it may save a live.
When you leave the ground, wait for the belayer to acknowledge they are ready to belay. Usually done by them saying ‘climb when ready’.
The climber replies with ‘climbing’ and the belayer confirms by saying ‘OK’. Only then do you leave the ground. Again this is a habit that will serve you well throughout you climbing career.
Now for the first few times someone belays a lead climber they need someone to tail the rope so that, should they have a momentary lapse in concentration or struggle with the belaying, then there is someone backing up the belayer by having both hands on the dead rope, and only keeping a minimal amount of slack in the system. The gauge for how much slack is enough to stop a fall quickly, but not too little as to interfere with the belayer paying out the rope.
The rope should go up to the climber, not to the floor, along the floor and then up to the climber! The belayer should also be within a reasonable distance of the base of the wall. If they are 5 metres away, that is potentially around 5 metres of ‘slack’!
At the top of the climbing wall you will often face a choice of what to clip into. Whether you are simply lowering off to then pull the ropes, or leading to set up a top rope for your friends the safest thing to do is to take the time to clip the rope through the lower off. Most walls have a combination of screwgate and snap gates at the top of every route. This means that you should be easily able to clip the rope into both, and do the screwgate up, giving a belts and braces approach. Other belays are simpler back to back snap links.
The other concern is if setting up a top rope, the climber should climb on the rope that they have to unclip on to prevent nasty pendulums.
Whilst there is a slim chance that you might fall off when you go for your first lead, hopefully you would have reduced the odds by choose an easy route you have done before. There will be a time eventually when you can’t go up or down and a fall is inevitable. In the first instance you should be concentrating on routes well within your capabilities, so to avoid falling.
However starting to develop the instant reactions needed to hold a fall are crucial skills for being safe. In the first instance it comes down to communication. If your leading and your being pushed by the climbing warn the belayer by shouting ‘watch me’ and maybe add an explainantion ‘watch me, this is a tricky move/I’m pumped/I am gonna fall’.
The belayer should be watch at all time anyway, but to add confidence to the climber on those difficult sections reply with ‘OK, I am watching you’ or ‘Go for it, I’ve got you’. This will allow the climber to know you as the belayer are on alert. Get the dead rope in a position where it is locked off already, but also be ready to pay out some slack if they make the move.
You might want to practice this on an easy route, by having someone back the belayer up again, and on one of the penultimate bolt warn the belayer you are going to fall and then drop off the wall. I am not talking about taking a 20ft screaming lob down the wall, have the last bolt above your waist and a just a little slack in the system before you move onto larger falls.
Just like anything really, you need to build up from the tiniest fall, and let both the belayer and the climber get used to the sensation. All the while with someone tailing the dead rope. It is also better if you must practice falling to do so on steeper routes, as you are less likely to hit the wall or any large holds on your descent.
How do I progress?
From your first leads you need to start slowly working up through the grades, to start with try and tackle routes that are easy for you, this will help give you added confidence, as well as start addressing the need to stay relaxed when you are lead climbing.
The goal for any climber is to start from the ground and get to the top of the wall without falling off. The routes will be graded according to this. So doing a F6a with two rests simply isn’t climbing that grade. It is better to initially climb routes you can succeed on before trying to breach new grades. Think of a pryamid of grades, where by you need to succeed on ten or sometimes many more routes of a given grade before moving onto the next grade.
Further work can be done on your technique, so after having lead a route try top roping it, remember to do this on the end of rope that goes through the quickdraws other wise you might pendulum out across the wall potentially hitting other wall users, or even the ground if you fall off low down. This time see if you can find better places to unclip the quickdraws as you top rope the route. Look for more stable position, that means that you are better in balance.
Alternatively you can try and find better ways to grasp the handholds, often when starting out you may initial take the hold where you first touch then, and often this will not be the best way to hold the hold. Try three different ways to hold onto any grip and then choose the best.
If you over reached, or clipped a quickdraw at stretch could you have clipped it from a better position. Even if it meant climbing a move or two higher?
In the light of a few accidents that have involved a climber becoming detached from the rope through not tying in correctly there is very little that anyone can do for you in the time you might take to reach failure. In order to help yourself should you fail to tie in correctly and your belayer fails to spot it, it is worth taking a spare quickdraw or two. This would allow you to easy and quickly clip into an insitu bolt or quickdraw on a route. The added extension of a long quickdraw makes it easier to clip in…
… Or better still ALWAYS CHECK HARNESS AND KNOT
There are many centres, walls and companies that offer this type of learning to lead indoor courses, that last for one or two session with a total contact time of around four hours. These courses are often staffed by SPA holders, who should have completed and logged specific additional training/assessment with a more qualified instructor, in order to prepare them for the demands of managing lead climbing sessions on indoor walls.
Alternatively courses can often be run by MIA/MIC/Guides who are all trained and assessed in how to teach lead climbing in any environment.