Lead Climbing - top tips for starting out
Leading traditional (trad) rock climbs involves placing your own trad gear (nuts, cams, slings, etc) in the rock for protection as you climb. It is an intense experience, requiring high-level judgment skills, and often takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions as you fluctuate between enjoyment and anxiety, fear and excitement, and then pure relief culminating in a well-earned sense of pride as you top out having overcome both the physical and psychological battles of lead climbing.
I’d like to emphasise that leading rock climbs isn’t just for strong climbers. Age, gender and grade is irrelevant, and brains are often more important than bravado. Mind trumps matter. I’ve had the privilege of teaching a wide variety of people to lead climb, and one of the best things about it is seeing those that have often viewed themselves as less ‘experienced’ or ‘confident’ than others, develop a great sense of ownership and confidence as they become competent and independent rock climbers. One of the huge attractions of climbing is that there is something for everyone. You might end up seeking out the most physically demanding routes or prefer a low-grade mountain journey with good friends. You might start climbing with new found time once retired, or use it as an escape from a busy city job. Whatever your journey, climbing takes you to incredible places and is rewarding in so many ways.
Choosing the right routes for your first few lead climbs is really important. Merely choosing a route based on its perceived ‘easy’ grade may leave you high up on a poorly protected line, out of sight of your belayer or on a dirty, rarely climbed route.
Consider your background and the experience of your partner when choosing leads early on; there’s no harm in taking your time. If you are a strong indoor climber, you will progress quickly through the grades but will need to make sure to build up a great base of easy routes with an emphasis on practicing placing good protection. You will be surprised how long you need to hang around, and getting pumped on a route, unable to quickly place good gear, is not a nice feeling! With the Lake District being a mountainous area, most crags have multi-pitch routes. New lead climbers often seek out single pitch climbs at first, but there are less easy graded, well protected single pitch crags than is common in places such as the Peak District. If your partner is a competent multi-pitch climber, don’t be afraid to choose pitches of a bigger climb for some of your first leads, just choose easy routes with big belay ledges and good protection.
Good, easy graded venues and routes in the Lake District.
Brown Slabs, Shepherds Crag, Borrowdale A popular venue, but for a reason. Long single pitch or short multi-pitch routes, easier grades and brilliant gear.
Glaciated Slabs, Borrowdale A quieter location with a longer walk in, and in stunning surroundings. Great Diff and VDiff climbs with good gear and belays which make you think more. Note: the Severe and Hard Severe routes are not well protected.
Long Scar, Wrynose Pass Good selection of low- to mid-grade single pitch routes, and on a warm, sunny day is a great location. Making belays at the top does require some experience.
Middlefell Buttress (Diff), Raven Crag, Langdale A justifiably popular multi-pitch route, which is very accessible, has great gear and big belay ledges.
Jackdaw Ridge (Diff), Shepherds Crag, Borrowdale Another ideal first multi-pitch climb, which gets easier the higher you go. You could easily finish with the harder final pitch of Donkeys Ears (Severe).
Corvus (Diff), Raven Crag, Combe Ghyll, Borrowdale A brilliant, easy, but big and remote feeling mountain multi-pitch. There is one awesome crux traverse crack, but everything else feels very comfortable and straightforward climbing. Some people climb with a small bag and walk off straight to the car afterward.
Wallowbarrow Crag, Duddon Valley Great valley multi-pitch climbs with large belay ledges.
The Lakes is best known for its mountain routes. If you are just starting out leading, but are comfortable on exposed rock and have an experienced partner, then seek out the high mountain crags in good weather. Crags such as Dow, Napes Needle and Gimmer, all of which have a brilliant selection of easy graded routes.
Alongside choosing appropriate routes, there are many ways to build up fundamental lead climbing skills before jumping on the ‘sharp end’.
Become a competent second before you do your first leads. This should involve seconding a variety of grades, route lengths and rock types, becoming confident on exposed terrain and developing your ability to be efficient and relaxed when climbing.
Practise lead belaying. Watch, listen and ask your leader lots of questions. Why have they put the gear in those places? How have they responded to a difficult or seemingly blank section of the climb? How have they built their belays?
Once you have seconded some routes and have an understanding of good gear placements, use the time while seconding to practice. As you climb up to each piece of gear, take a good look at it, decide what the pros and cons are, and then re-place it as well as you can before then removing and continuing up to the next piece. Physically placing the gear accelerates your skill development much more than simply looking at good placements. Make sure you tell your belayer you are going to do this though, otherwise they may wonder why you are taking so long to climb!
As you second, practice finding hands-off rests at each gear placement. Finding restful positions is crucial for placing good gear without losing unnecessary energy on lead.
Shadow roping is a term used to describe practice leads while being belayed on a top or bottom rope. A second rope is trailed for the climber to clip into the gear he or she places. The climber could then build a belay at the top and bring an experienced partner up who can check and remove the gear. This is a very safe way to manage the transition into lead climbing.
Recce routes. Abseil down the route to have a look at it first, climb it on second before you lead it, or check out the comments on websites such as UKClimbing; often people will have commented on the climbing and protection on a route.
Practice placing gear at the bottom of the crag, but make sure you have someone with you who is experienced enough to give you proper, critical feedback.
Hire an instructor! This will really fast track your development, giving you expert tuition, confidence, and a high level of safety as you venture in to lead climbing. An instructor will ascend next to you on a separate rope, coaching you up the climb and ensuring you place good gear. You could attend an advertised course, or request bespoke dates.