Learning to Lead

Posted Climbing

Red Rocks is just what I needed after the humbling struggle of Indian Creek. I feel like I actually know what I’m doing here. And I’m learning. So far my route climbing has consisted of toproping and following trad. I only ever led one pitch in the Gunks, and Mark had pre-placed the gear for me.

Quick vocab lesson for any non-climbers reading this:

Toproping is when the rope is already set up at the top of the route. The rope goes from you, to the anchor, to your belayer. It’s comparatively low risk because you’re attached to the anchor above and your belayer can keep good tension on the rope. So if you fall, you may come off the wall, but you’re not going to drop.

Leading is when the rope goes from you to your belayer, and you clip in to protection along the route as you climb. It’s higher risk because you’re climbing above your attachment to the wall. If you fall, you fall twice distance between you and your last piece of protection, plus any slack that your belayer has out. They can’t keep the rope as tight because it would impede your ability to advance up the route.

Sport climbing, there are bolts drilled into the wall along the route that you clip into as you go.

Trad climbing, you have to place your own removable gear (cams, nuts, tricams, etc.) into the cracks and features of the cliff and hope it’s secure enough to hold you in a fall.

Free soloing is when you climb without ropes or protection. Just you and the wall. Don’t worry, Mom. I have a very healthy fear of this and won’t be trying it anytime soon.

Climbs are rated according to difficulty, ranging from 5.1 to 5.15b.

Leading is scary. Everyone always says that you climb differently when on lead, that you’re in a different headspace. Conceptually, that made sense to me, but it’s not something you can really understand until you experience it. Mark figured that leading sport would be a good way for me to start because at least that way I wouldn’t have to worry about gear placement. The bolts are all there.

We headed out to the Amusement Park Wall, a short but stacked area with seven 5.7 routes all right next to each other. Mark led the first one and I ran two laps on toprope. He led the second climb, and after I cruised it on toprope he suggested that I try to lead it. It was short, very well protected, and the holds were all solid. Honestly, it felt pretty soft for a 5.7. At least compared to the Gunks 5.7s that I’m used to. I decided to go for it. After all, I had just climbed it clean with no problem, so the only difference would be the mental aspect.

And mentally, it was different on lead. I was calmer and more relaxed. Even when we moved over to new routes that I hadn’t tried on toprope first, my movements felt different, more deliberate. I’ve heard free soloers say that they climb better without ropes because they have to. The risks are higher, so they know that they have to be perfect. It’s pretty amazing how your brain can subconsciously make that distinction, even for a new leader. None of these climbs pushed the limits of my skill level so my chance of falling was pretty low, but even so, I felt more focused and less nervous. Well… there were definitely still nerves, but that was on the ground beforehand. Once I started climbing they went away. I led all seven climbs on that wall, onsighting five of them (meaning that it was my first attempt at the route, rather than toproping it first). Not bad for a brand new leader!

On our next day out we went to the Civilisation Crag. After warming up on an easy 5.7 I led a 5.8 and a 5.9. These juggy routes and soft grades are great for building my confidence. Even so, I wasn’t quite ready to dive right in to the next route on the wall, a 5.10a with an overhanging crux. Especially after watching the party before us struggle on it. Mark led it and I followed on toprope. Maybe it was just because we’ve been doing so many slab climbs, I think the steepness of this one got in my head. I was able to climb it clean on toprope, but it still had me a little scared. I got to the top and cleaned the anchor, ready to move on to the next wall. I think Mark really wanted me to try and lead it, but he didn’t want to push me into something I wasn’t comfortable with, so we started packing up.

After changing my shoes and staring at the crux for about 5 minutes I got the itch. I made all the moves. The holds were all there. I couldn’t walk away knowing that the fear got to me. What if I can do it? I know I can. Mark was all too happy to pull the rope back out when I told him that I wanted to go for it.

Take your time. Slow and steady moves. Pay attention to your feet. Breathe.

The fear was still there when I started to climb, but it was different this time. I was able to shut out that part of my brain and just focus on what was in front of me. When I got to the crux I slowed down and remembered the moves I had made before. Funny, the hold that felt the most secure as I pulled myself over the bulge (they call it a roof, but it isn’t really a roof), was a thumb down hand jam into a crack. And after I had just left Indian Creek, fed up with crack climbing. Maybe I did learn something there after all. The moves felt easier this time, and not just because I had done them once before. I wasn’t thinking about falling or whether or not my arms were getting pumped. I trusted myself and my body. After that, the rest of the climb was cruiser. And when I clipped in to the anchor I was on cloud nine. A 5.10a lead! And just a few days after leading my first 5.7! Finishing that climb was the highlight of my whole Red Rocks trip. I know the grades on that wall were pretty soft and it was definitely on the easier side of 10a, but feeling that fear and trusting that I could do it anyway felt pretty awesome.

I still have a whole lot to learn when it comes to leading, and climbing in general. The learning never ends. I know it will be different when I start getting on harder climbs. When the fear creeps back in because I’m pushing my physical limits. When I start leading trad and have the added complication of having to trust in my ability to place adequate protection. And as I’ve seen before, that rational part of my brain that tries to tell me to stop doing dangerous things can be very loud sometimes. It’s going to take a lot of practice to learn how to turn that off when I need to and just trust myself. Eventually I’m going to have to experience a fall. Some people say it’s best to do some practice falls in a somewhat controlled environment so your body knows what it feels like and it’s not a total freak out moment the first time you fall for real. Baby steps, though. I got a taste of the sharp end and I’m feeling good.

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Comments (6)
  1. ty chennault April 25, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    You are on your way. Sounds like you got the bug. Enjoy.

  2. ty chennault April 26, 2016 at 10:40 am

    You got the bug! Such and inspiring story. I read it to the kids
    on how to work through there fears. Keep it up. Have fun you two.

  3. Steven May 2, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Yes the sharp end of the rope is an exhilirating place to be. Your advancement in that aspect is definitely something to be excited about, both for you and those of us who admire other’s such growth. My best wishes for your contined personal success. Your partner also deserves my admiration of his devotion to you and the sport.

  4. Ann May 6, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    “…that rational part of my brain that tries to tell me to stop doing dangerous things can be very loud sometimes.” It’s not your voice saying this; it’s mine. But go ahead and ignore me. You are blowing my little mind. XXX

  5. Jack May 16, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Thanks for the primer on terms! Glad to see you’re learning and improving. You’ve inspired me to actually spend more time in the mountains around here. Thanks!

    • lindsay May 18, 2016 at 1:25 pm

      That’s great! The Catskills are pretty magical. The hike up to the top of Bonticou Crag is a short one, but it’s one of my favorites.

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