Climbing Safety for Traditional Lead Climbers
Lead climbers take on lots of responsibility, not only for their safety but also for the safety of their second. Here are some key principles to consider.
In contrast to sport climbing where pre-fixed bolts provide clip-in points and serve as protection in case of a fall, traditional climbing requires skills in gear placement, route finding, and anchor building. On multi-pitch traditional routes, the leader must constantly assess the most feasible line to follow and make judgments as to how to best protect the route. Nothing short of fail-proof protection is a must, so the learning process for a new leader should be approached with patience and lots of practice. This article discusses some key safety considerations for the traditional lead climber, but in no way does it pose to be instructional or replace the guidance of an accredited climbing instructor.
Wear a Helmet
Any traditional climbing safety article would be remiss to omit mentioning the value of a helmet. Beyond its obvious protection in case of a fall, climbing helmets are designed primarily to protect against the impact of a falling object. Objective hazards at the cliff can include everything from gear dropped or stones kicked by climbers above to clifftop debris dislodged by a scurrying animal or a strong breeze. A good helmet should be comfortable and barely noticeable while protecting you against unforeseen hazards.
Anchor the Belayer for Pitch One
Of course, the belayer is anchored throughout a multi-pitch route, but pitch one belays are notoriously cavalier. Look around the next time you’re at the crag and notice how many belayers are securely anchored at their ground stance. Chances are, you’ll see many untethered, relaxed belayers feeding out yards of slack while standing or sitting some distance from the cliff. The problem is, once the first piece of protection is placed on the route, the direction of pull should the leader fall, will be toward that piece of gear. Rope slack and the distance an unanchored belayer is jettisoned up and toward the cliff face will quickly feed rope to a falling leader. This is a scenario for a potential ground fall. When it comes to belaying a leader fall, the start of pitch one tolerates no margin of error. Start your route with a securely anchored belayer who is well positioned near the start of the route.
Place Gear Before It Gets Difficult
One of the principle strategies in any style of climbing, whether it’s sport, traditional, or bouldering, is to conserve energy. In traditional climbing, conserving energy translates to placing gear protection when in a comfortable, or at least, tolerable stance. Don’t wait till you’re in precarious positions or at the crux of the route to place gear; this will tap precious energy that you’ll need to make the moves and will cause you to rush and make sloppy placements. It makes no sense to place gear if it’s done haphazardly and is unreliable. You should feel secure enough in your stance to be able to hold your position and test the placement. Give the piece a few snaps and make sure it won’t pull due to angled forces caused by the rope as you continue on the route. Place gear before the hard stuff, and move quickly through the crux knowing your protection is bombproof.
Be Aware of Your Fall Zone
Granted, falling isn’t a pleasant thought, but if there were ever an occasion to consider the consequences of a miscalculation, leading a traditional route would be it. Gear placements must not only be fail-proof, but in the event of a fall, they must protect the leader from taking a dangerous swing or striking features on the cliff. As you climb, consider what would happen if you fell from where you are. How far would you fall? Would you strike anything? These are daunting questions, but as you gain experience on routes within your comfort level, you’ll begin to process this information subconsciously. It’s like driving a car: on a subconscious level we’re aware of the consequences of crossing the yellow line, but we’re not paralyzed by that knowledge – we simply drive.
Always Consider Your Second
By definition, you’re a “leader”. You’re responsible for getting your second up the cliff safely and efficiently. Always remember that someone will be making the same moves you are. If your next piece of gear is fifteen feet up and to the right, you’re putting your second at risk of taking a significant whipper. Protect traverses by placing an adequate amount of gear.
Climb Within Your Ability
The value of patience and practice can’t be emphasized enough. We all want to move up the grades, but as alluded to earlier, put in lots of lead-hours on routes within your comfort level. The best way to strengthen your traditional lead climbing skills is to practice the techniques in good style, and you’ll be able to achieve good style on routes that are within your abilities. Target your workouts to train for stamina and control. You don’t want to reinforce sketchy, or stopgap habits that might just eke you by on routes that are over your head. Traditional leading is all about maintaining control, using good judgment, and having confidence in your mental and physical ability to keep yourself and your second safe. You can’t do that if you’re gripped on routes that are over your head. With practice, and as your skills improve, you’ll move up the grades.
Think Like a Leader When Seconding
Try to follow good leaders on as many challenging routes as possible. Examine each gear placement. Are they sound? If they’re not, why not? In order to build your skills, work on finding comfortable stances while removing gear, and take a few seconds to replace the piece. Seconding is the road to leading, and seconding on challenging routes, will make you a stronger climber and better leader.