Learning to Lead Traditional Rock Climbs. Part 4: Leading at Smith Rock

In the course of four glorious days of climbing at Smith Rock, I successfully climbed several moderate routes. I would highly recommend these routes for a beginning leader. What follows are some brief descriptions, listed by order of difficulty, as well as some lessons learned, .

Left Slab Crack (5.4 Trad)

Chris and I broke this lead into two so we could practice building trad anchors. I led the bottom half to a shady ledge, where I built my anchor using three pieces in a vertical crack. This is a great, mellow, slabby lead with plenty of good opportunities for placing gear.

Right Slab Crack (5.5 Trad)

There are so many good rest spots to place gear, it’s almost like you’re standing on the ground! Bring a long sling to tie off a big horn midway up the route. The crux is at the bottom, but it’s relatively benign compared to other Smith starts.

Spiderman Variation (5.5 Trad)

Starting from the left of the triangular slab at the base of Spiderman, this climb follows a ledgy, vertical crack to the bolts atop Spiderman’s first pitch. I found it to be more difficult than the slabby traditional start to the route. It is probably more mentally challenging than technically challenging; I also had more trouble placing gear quickly here.

Super Slab (5.6 Trad)

We climbed the first of this three-pitch classic climb. This is another slabby, ledgy crack system that takes gear well. Larger cams are particularly helpful. The crux is a small bulge more than halfway up the pitch. I had to place a 4″ cam as high as I could before mustering up the courage to climb above the bulge. I worked hard at the head game that day.

Bunny Face (5.7 Sport)

As many climbs at Smith, the crux is right off the ground. Fortunately, my climbing partner brought a stick clip to attach the rope to the first bolt. This is an enjoyable, low angle face with lots of little nubbins for hands and feet.

Friday’s Jinx (5.7 Trad)

This two-pitch climb traverses right and then up around a slight bulge to a belay anchor. From there, you follow a left-facing corner to a runout scramble. The crux comes when the corner becomes vertical and the face holds seem to disappear. This will build your confidence in stemming for sure! I led the second pitch on this climb, and the corner crux had my heart racing.

Lycopodophyta (5.7 Trad)

A right-facing corner crack, this one will build the beginner’s mental leading skills for sure! I stressed really hard over this one, and had to remind myself not to give up many, many times. Spending lots of time training in the rock gym makes one a great face climber, but it does nothing for building crack climbing skills. Cracks are different beasts altogether. The anchor is in an annoying spot if you are bringing up a second while you sit atop the route. I would suggest lowering down to the bottom to let the follower climb.

Purple Headed Warrior (5.7 Sport)

I led this one just for fun, on Jill’s recommendation. The bolts seemed to be way off to my left so I’m not sure if I cheated when I got sketched on this route.

Rabbit Stew (5.7 Trad)

This crack is in the left-facing corner opposite Lyco. It felt much easier due to the numerous giant handholds and face moves outside the crack. Trust your feet on the friction moves, especially on the start of the climb.

Spiderman (5.7 Trad)

This three-pitch climb follows a low-angled slab to a vertical crack, then follows an airy traverse to sidestep a roof. The upper part of the last pitch is slightly more than a scramble to the anchors. I led all three pitches of this climb. The bottom is quite easy (5.5) and even the second pitch is fairly straightforward, especially if you like stemming. I found the most difficult part to be coming around the roof from the left, making the transition from hand jam to face moves as you reach for holds out of your line of sight. I placed three big cams in the roof before committing to moving up! My belayer patiently nudged me along as he sat relaxing at his station.

Hop on Pop (5.8 Sport)

Similar to Bunny Face, this short sport climb ascends the Peanut. Step and grab on to doorknob to quarter size nubbins as well as lots of slopers all the way to the anchor. Don’t be fooled by the chalk marks–more good holds are out there.

Anonymity (5.9 Sport)

Perhaps not a great recommendation for a beginning lead, but if you can get your partner to lead it, this new route is really fun. It is located just right of Lion’s Jaw. This short, bolted face has a mixture of knobby feet, arete and miscellaneous shapes and sizes of hand holds. It is a challenging climb that will keep you thinking.

Moonshine Dihedral (5.9 Trad)

I aspire to lead this one by the end of the season. My climb partner led this really cool corner for me in the afternoon shade. After a tricky start, you jam and stem up the crack–but keep your mind open to finding good handholds, they are everywhere. My partner sewed it up–there’s plenty of opportunities to place gear.

Lessons learned

1. Take meticulous care when setting up a belay station. Belaying a follower from the top of a pitch is still awkward for me. I never feel like I can get into a comfortable position where I’m not leaning over and standing in some uncomfortable orientation. But it is important to consider the best place to set yourself up. Figure out where your second is going to stand once he gets up there. Make sure there is enough room for both of you to do what you need to do. Organize the rope as you bring it up.

2. Try orienting your pro in a different direction if it doesn’t fit quite right. This not only applies to nuts, which you can place in 2 or 3 different ways, but also for cams. The lobes are smaller on one side, and sometimes just flipping the cam around makes it fit better. Genius.

3. Relax and breathe. This should be lesson #1. It is so easy to get distracted and stressed while on lead. Train your brain to remain focused on the climb. Place gear when needed, and then move on to think about the climb ahead, not the fall below. Try not to tense up as you move higher above your pro JUST because you are above your pro! Think positive thoughts and allow yourself to be open to the possibilities the rock provides you.

Thanks to all the folks who made the climbing sessions really enjoyable: John for his matter-of-fact advice, Jill for her enthusiasm and encouragement, Pat for his patience and ambition, and Tom for his sense of humor. The weekends at Smith made the entire class worthwhile. Now I’ve got the skills and confidence to go out with friends and be a fully competent team member.

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