Lead climbing is a very fun and rewarding type of climbing, when done properly. As like every other type of climbing and ascending (steep) routes, it can involve certain risks and dangers when done with the necessary precautions, training or focus.
The following article will explore what lead climbing is and how to do it properly.
What is Lead Climbing?
Lead climbing is mostly used in rock climbing and relies on one climber taking a lead position, while all other climbers follow behind. The lead climber has their harness attached to a climbing rope, below which are the other climbers attached to the same rope.
The lead climber connects the sharp end of the rope to protection devices such as bolts, quickdraws, or cams while ascending a route. One of the climbers below also belays by giving out slack rope and pulling in slack when necessary.
The lead climber is the person responsible for finding places to clip onto, while making sure that they are safely protected at all times.
Besides lead climbing, a style you might’ve heard of is top-roping. In this style, the rope is preattached to an anchor at the top of a route before the climber starts their ascent.
Lead climbing, Top Roping, and Trad climbing are all forms of free climbing, in which a climber climbs by their own force, using the rope and harness solely as a protection from falling. This not to be confused with Free Soloing, where a person climbs without using any ropes or other safety devices.
Lead Climbing Technique: How do Lead Climb Properly
The lead climber is the one who takes a lead position, following what often called lead climbing technique. Lead climbing technique involves learning how to clip bolts, balance oneself while weighting the protection devices that are attached to the lead rope, and how (not) to fall.
If you’re completely new to lead climbing techniques, you should first practice leading indoors in a gym and hire an instructor. As we will later mention below, there are some risks involved in lead climbing, and not knowing them could be fatal.
Once you completely get a hang of leading, you can move it outdoors, preferably still with an instructor or guide to show you the ropes (pun intended).
Climbing outdoors requires some additional techniques, such as knowing how to work with anchors, (re)threading ties and assess the specific route or problem safety.Once you get to the top, knowing how to lower yourself or rappel is also an essential lead climbing technique you should learn to master.
Understanding how to build an anchor using slings and carabiners is a critical skill for lead climbers. Safely cleaning anchors and perform bolt and anchor assessments are equally important as well.
Just always remember: If you feel unsafe because of dodgy bolts, a nervuous belayer or an old anchor – then don’t climb.
Here are a few additional tips to help you get started more easily:
- Preparing yourself by top roping with some more slack in the system, followed by a few falls will make you more comfortable;
- Learning lead climbing at a gym will allow you to try it without having any fear of falling;
- If you are leading on a new route, take someone experienced with you who is familiar with the route or problem; they will help you figure out where it’s safe to lead climb;
- Practive some mock leads on routes you have already climbed clean. One persons belays you on Top Rope, while you have another rope tied into your harness to use for clipping training.
- Once you practiced this a few times, you can then start having someone belay on the Lead rope at the same time. The person belaying Lead then becomes the primary belayer and Top Rope belayer should give you a safe amount of slack.
- Now slowly work your way up to Leading routes that you could always climb without a problem. Start slow and get experience clipping on and falling when you are nervous before advancing the grade.
Safety Considerations for Lead Climbers
Lead climbing comes with its own risks and lead climbers need to adopt safety measures in order to minimize the risk of a climbing accident. Although it might look unsafe when lead climbers are constantly pulling up rope and giving slack, lead climbing is actually a very safe and fun method of climbing.
When lead climbers ascend the route, they protect themselves by placing protection for safety. The type of protection depends on the type of climbing.
In traditional (“trad”) climbing, protection is only temporarily attached to the wall. Nuts and spring-loaded camming devices are placed in cracks of the rock face, slings can be tied around rock spikes and hooks can be placed on ledges for small knobs. These devices usually have a carabiner that attaches to one end for clipping into ropes.
On the other hand, you have sport climbing. In this style of climbing, the lead climber often ascends alone while their partner remains on the ground belaying him. Bolts or chains attached to the wall will sometimes be used for protection, and quickdraws are either placed by your partner or already fastened in advance — they provide a direct line for you to clip onto using safety carabiners.
To prevent falls, lead climbers must make sure that they securely clip into protection devices along the route. Before ascending, one should also ensure that their harness is properly tightened.
The Risks of Lead Climbing
As we mentioned above, lead climbing is a safe type of climbing. It should be noted, however, that it does have some inherent dangers. The lead climber is always connected to the rope by a carabiner at their harness, but he or she can still fall down a from significant height.
This is also the most prominent safety risk involved when lead climbing: you may fall, hard and often.
Luckily, modern climbing equipment such as ropes and bolts are designed to last safely for many years of intense use. Climbing ropes are extremely strong and will take repeated falls, stretching to help decelerate you and soften your fall.
Belayers on the ground can also often give a “soft catch”. This is done by jumping just a little as the climber falls, making the climber fall a little further but without the hard swing.
Now, the falling itself does not typically lead to serious injury. In fact, most falls don’t cause any injury. However, the bigger risk is falling into something below your route. As you ascend the rock face, you may encounter sharp rock edges, trees or other obstacles that may cause severe injury when falling into at a high falling speed.
Another danger is falling to the side of a quickdraw. In that case, the climber can make a big swing and scrape against the wall, resulting in a higher chance of injury. This is important to keep in mind when deciding on where to attach the quickdraws during the ascent.
Here are some additional tips to help you avoid injury when climbing.
How High Can You Fall When Lead Climbing?
As mentioned above, climbing ropes are used to absorb the energy from lead climber falls. On average, different pieces of protection are between six and twelve feet apart.
protection will be placed so that the distance to the most recently placed protection will be at most, half of the length of a possible fall. For example, if a leader is ten feet above the last piece of protection, any fall should be a maximum of twenty feet. Realistically, the fall would likely include several more feet due to rope elasticity and slack.
The degree of a fall is calculated by the fall factor: the ratio of the height a person falls and the length of rope available to absorb that energy.
As rope is stretched, it absorbs the energy of the fall and slows down the climber. The more stretch in a rope caused by a falling weight (the climber), the greater force it exerts on that weight.
For example, a 20 feet-fall is much more severe if it occurs with 10 feet of rope out (a fall factor of 2) than if it occurs 100 feet above the belayer (a fall factor of 0.2, 10 times less!), in which case the stretch of the rope provides a better cushion for the falling climber.
Some Additional Lead Climbing Safety Tips
To conclude this part about lead climbing safety, here are some additional safety tips we highly recommend keeping in mind:
- Keep a close eye on the first 1 to 3 clips. When falling from a lower height, a climber can more likely hurt themselves as they can then hit the ground (a ground fall or “decking”);
- Lowering the height of bolt clipping above the climber can be less dangerous as there is less slack in the rope if they fall before making their clip;
- One side of the quickdraw always goes inside the bolt, and the other holds the rope. The metal hangar should be on one edge to avoid scratches or burrs in the carabiner that could damage a rope;
- The rope going to the climber should always be on the outside of the carabiner on their quickdraw in order to avoid back clipping;
- Placing your leg behind the rope can flip a climber upside down (also called “turtling“, like a turtle on its back), possibly causing serious injury as their head may swing into the wall;
- Ledges or other hazards may fall on the route, always pay close attention when climbing and look at the wall above you;
- And lastly, get some training; both the lead climber, as well as the other climbers (or belayer), should be properly trained before heading out.
Lead Climbing Gear
The climbing gear used for lead climbing is very similar than that of traditional (rock) climbing or top rope climbing. The lead climber is climbing with climbing shoes, rope, harness, helmet and quickdraws. As you will be using plenty of gear during your ascent, you need to make sure to have a harness with additional loops to attach gear (quickdraws) that will keep the lead climber safe while going up the rock face.
Climbers should be well trained and prepared before attempting lead climbing while carrying all that extra gear.
If you’re lead climbing in an indoor gym, there are usually already fixed quickdraws and anchors available on the routes, as well as climbing ropes.
When climbing outdoors, you will also need some removable gear such as nuts and cams. The lead climber also needs the knowledge and required gear to be able to build and clean anchors while ascending the route and at the top of the climb.
Final Thoughts on Lead Climbing
Lead climbing is a type of climbing that involves a climber taking a lead position on the rope, followed by the other climbers attached to the same rope. It’s a type of Free Climbing where one uses their own power and strength to reach the top, with the ropes acting as a safety device.
Climbers should be well trained before attempting lead climbs, as they will need to have knowledge about building anchors while going up the route and at the top of it. The lead climbing equipment for the lead climber includes: a harness with additional loops to attach gear (quickdraws), helmet, shoes, rope, carabiners and protection devices such as nuts or cams.
If you’re new to leading, always consult with an instructor or more advanced lead climber first and take some lessons, starting indoors and slowly making your way to a beginner outdoor route once your progress.
Finally, you may be wondering if and when you’re good enough to start lead climbing. As a general rule of thumb, it’s good to know that once you can comfortably top rope climb at least 5.9-5.10a, you will be able to start lead climbing properly as well.
Have fun, and be safe!