Learn How to Lead Climb

Lead Climbing is Risky but Fun

Lead climbing gets you wild places like jamming Separate Reality, a big roof crack in Yosemite Valley. Photograph copyright Rich Wheater/Getty Images

Learning to lead climbing routes is dangerous business. The lead climber or leader is the climber who assumes all of the risks of climbing by ascending the cliff first; hauling the climbing rope up, which is tied to his waist; placing protection like cams and nuts in cracks and clipping the rope into them; and setting up belay stations.

Lead Climbing is the Final Step to being Competent

Leading is about taking charge of your climbing.

Lead climbing is the final step in becoming a competent climber. Leading is risky because all of your decisions have consequences, sometimes disastrous. Leading also requires a serious mental commitment and is dangerous, scary, and exciting but also challenging, rewarding, and lots of fun.

Leader Puts His Neck on the Line

The leader makes the routefinding decisions as he climbs, figuring out where the route goes and where to belay at. He also makes safety decisions by placing protection at strategic places to protect the second climber if he falls and by creating secure belay anchors. The leader puts his own neck on the line because if he falls he could be injured.

Lead Climbing Requires Rock Skills and a Cool Head

To become a lead climber, especially a trad leader, is the ultimate test of a climber since it requires extensive knowledge of climbing skills; lots of experience usually gained by following more experienced climbers up routes; the ability to place protection while hanging onto handholds; using good judgment to find the correct route and to know when to retreat; and enough nerve to keep a cool head under pressure.

When you take what climbers call the "sharp end" of the rope, you are ready to accept the challenges and fears of rock climbing.

Start by Leading Bolted Sport Routes

The best way to learn to lead is to climb sport routes. These routes are usually well protected with preplaced expansion bolts so you do not have to worry about climbing, routefinding, and placing gear all at the same time.

When you are leading sport climbs you are out there on the sharp end of the rope, pushing your limits, clipping into bolts, and learning how to fall. It is best to start by leading easy routes and ones that you have already climbed so you feel safer climbing above the bolts. Remember to rack the quickdraws on gear loops on both sides of your harness so they will be readily available when you need them for clipping into bolts.

Practice Leading on a Top-Rope

You can also practice-lead a route by climbing it on top-rope but trailing a rope and clipping it and a quickdraw into the bolts as you climb. After practicing, lead the route without the safety of the top-rope. It is also good practice to lead trad routes on a top-rope, placing climbing gear as you go and clipping a trail rope into each piece. This way you are protected from above if you blow it. Ask an experienced climber to help you out by climbing the route after you and evaluating and critiquing your gear placements.

Become an Apprentice to a Better Climber

It's best to become an apprentice to an experienced climber, who can act as your trad climbing mentor. The best way to learn how to lead and place protection is to follow experienced climbers up lots of routes.

You'll learn about placing gear by watching them and then removing the gear as the second climber, and being safe by learning their systems.

Learn by Leading Easy Routes and have Fun

After you have led a bunch of sport routes and followed a more experienced climber up traditional-style routes, you will be ready to take off the training wheels and lead a traditional route, climbing from the bottom of the cliff to the top and placing gear for protection as you climb. Do lots of easy routes. When you lead trad, lower your expectations and don't climb hard. Concentrate on getting into a rhythm and understanding the systems and climbing skills. You'll be safer and have lots more fun in the long run.