Learning to Lead Traditional Rock Climbs. Part 2: The lectures and practice sessions

The Mazamas Advanced Rock class is designed to keep you off the rock for as long as possible. Leading rock climbs is serious business, and safety is the Mazamas’ (as well as my own) number one concern. Week after week, I would sit through lectures on topics such as: gear placement, building anchors, rock rescue, considerations for alpine climbing, and so on. I would read books during the week like “Traditional Rock Climbing: Surviving the Learning Years.” SURVIVING. Yikes, this truly is serious. As a rock climber, you are trusting your life to the systems you construct. That takes a great deal of knowledge as well as confidence. Coming into this class, I lacked both.

In order to beef up my skills, I attended each one of the weekend practice sessions geared towards learning or reviewing certain aspects of lead climbing. Since the class was made up of some very experienced as well as very inexperienced people, attendance was usually optional. We practiced things like placing gear, of which I’d never done before, as well as building anchors, aid climbing and rigging rescue pulley systems. I slowly made my way through each of the exercises as if my body and brain were made of molasses. This made me feel completely incompetent. As I compared myself to my peers, I wondered why every assignment was a struggle. My mind took a very long time to envision and understand the scenarios and I became frustrated each and every weekend.

Looking back, I think I absorbed more than I initially realized. A few lessons stood out as being really important.

1. Aid climbing taught me to trust my placements. Bouncing up and down on an aider clipped into a tiny BD nut or a cam helped me realize that the protection I’d put into the rock would actually hold me if I needed it to. From the start, I’d distrusted cams and their sketchy moving parts. But after weighting them and watching them stick into the rock, I was able to fear them a little less.

2. Rescuing a stuck partner sucks. If I ever had to rig a pulley to raise an injured partner I think I’d cut the rope instead. A real life rescue scenario is truly stressful and challenging to manage alone. I did learn to escape the belay, which I think would come in very handy in a situation where I would be able to go off for help. Of course, many rescue scenarios are not really worst-case, and there are many creative ways to hack out of a sticky situation. I learned that knowing the systems really well and being able to think on your feet are important skills to have and engage in a rescue scenario.

3. Stick to one gear-racking system. In the practice leading and placement sessions, I was always using other people’s gear. I would switch from using one person’s set of gear to another. It took so long for me to find something I wanted that I would get stressed out and tired standing on the rock. As a leader, your stuff needs to be easily accessible. Time spent searching for gear is time wasted. Efficiency is key so you don’t have to spend all day just trying to plug gear into a route. Once I got my own gear sling and protection, I could establish a system and rack everything the same way every time. Since I still don’t have all the gear I would like, I usually end up borrowing from others. But when I place it on my gear sling, it goes in the same spot every time.

As a supplement to the class, most of us attended a three-session lead clinic at Club Sport. Since I’d been leading in the gym already, much of the clinic was review. But, the instructors had some helpful tips and it was a good opportunity to practice skills like clipping over and over again. We also got the opportunity to take a lot of lead falls so that we would learn how to fall safely. As fabulous as taking a lead fall in the gym is, I’m really not that tempted to try that out on a trad lead.

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