Learning to Lead Traditional Rock Climbs. Part 3: Rock Climbing Defined

All the tedious lectures and meticulous preparation came down to this: three weekends of climbing at Smith Rock, a climber’s paradise. In the 6 days of climbing we were required to get three evaluations. Much to my dismay, I had to kill the first day re-testing on some of the skills that I had failed on the original test. Already feeling like some kind of idiot through the entire class so far, this was like the icing on the cake. All the lecture in the world could not have prepared me for the task of lead climbing. The one thing I really needed to do was get out there and climb. Instead, I had to be babysat on the first day at Smith. Needless to say I was furious all day and wanted nothing to do with anyone. Fortunately, I got to climb the following day.

In the course of the three weekends I climbed a number of traditional and sport routes, both as a leader and as a follower. Before I get into the climbs I did, here’s a basic primer on the various types of climbing:

Traditional (Trad) Climbing: This is, in my opinion, the purest form of technical climbing, where it is just you and the rock. The climber carries a variety of pieces of gear that can be placed for protection. Nuts, hexes, tricams and cams are typically placed into cracks in the rock where there are constrictions. The climber clips the rope into the protection (pro) as she climbs above the piece. If she falls, the pro wedges into the constriction and holds the fall. At the top, the climber builds an anchor or clips into bolts to be safe.

Sport Climbing: This is where the climber follows a bolted line on the rock. The climber uses quickdraws to clip the rope into pre-drilled bolts as she ascends. She carries far less gear, since all the protection is already placed in the rock. Generally, climbers can climb harder sport routes than trad because they don’t have to stop and place gear along the way.

Lead Climbing: This describes the first person in a team of two (or more) who climbs the route. The rope is tied into the climber’s harness, and so the climber is not protected until he clips the first bolt or places his first piece of pro. Trad leaders are responsible for making choices about where to place gear, what type of gear to place, whether or not to extend a runner off the placement, and many other things. Sport leaders usually just need to clip a quickdraw into a bolt and keep going. Trad falls are potentially more dangerous than sport falls because trad gear has the potential to fail if not placed properly. Bolts (unless very old or poorly drilled) are usually stout, and will hold tremendous forces. A leader has the potential to fall twice the distance between himself and his last piece of protection.

Toproping: The next person to climb behind the leader is on “top-rope.” The leader belays the follower from the anchor or from the ground. Either way, the climbing rope runs through the top of the route so that if the follower falls, they are caught (by a good belayer) right away. The feel of a snug toprope at your waist gives the climber a sense of security that the leader does not have.

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