By Aubrey Wingo
Many people, when they first walk into the gym get to witness lead climbing for the first time. They see the attentive belaying, the active communication and of course the thrilling whippers. In our facility, if you enjoy rope climbing, many of you make it a goal to get better as quickly as possible just so you can join the "rope elite" and learn to lead as well. However, lead climbing shouldn't be just rushed into; sure, you can probably elvis-leg your way through the route, but wouldn't you enjoy being able to walk up to a route and the difficulty of the climb wasn't a factor? You have enough to worry about in between clipping, leg placement, and those wonderful falls. This article is to teach and prepare you for taking your first lead class, or possibly, making you take a second look at yourself and your climbing to ask yourself if you are prepared. I spoke to our three lead instructors, Dean, Doug, and Alex, to get their insights on the subject as well.
Making the Decision
The lead class itself is a 3+ hour, two day course, at $60 for both days ($90 for private instruction) which for most of us isn’t the smallest investment, and that’s not including the harness, the rope, or any other equipment that you might need. Choosing whether or not to take the class based on the assessment of your skills, and of your mind, is the first step. There are no refunds if you fail this class, so make sure you take that time and ask yourself these questions!
Why Should I Learn To Lead?
Lead climbing can be an amazing experience, and is a requirement to learn if you want to climb efficiently and independently outside. Sure, someone can step up a top rope for you, but it can be inconvenient if you are climbing on a busy day or at a busy crag; if you are leading, you can pull your rope for others to try but a top rope will occupy a wall until you are finished. However, even in a gym, if you are ready for “the more dangerous and exciting” part of climbing, then becoming lead certified is “the next logical step.” Certified Lead Instructor Doug Lutz, and an active lead climber finds that “becoming lead certified means a whole new world is open to you.New routes, new challenges, and gaining knowledge that someone who just walks into the facility to climb will not receive.” If not for anything else, lead climbing adds another 20-25 routes to try at Aiguille alone.
Who Should Not Learn To Lead?
“Those that just want to impress someone or are doing it because someone told them they should are not good lead climbers.” One of the biggest flaws that I see when it comes to decision to take the lead class is when a climber has a friend become a member, climb for a month or two, and then get them to take the lead class solely because they need a partner. Becoming lead certified can certainly be takenfor granted, maybe because you’ve seen enough people do it, you understand the concept of taking in slack and feeding it out. While that it is part of the basic procedure, there are obviously other factors to consider. “But Aubrey, I only started climbing a couple months ago, but I’m really athletic and I’ve climbed tons of 5.9s!” Well, polite new climber, according to our instructors, you need a little more time on the wall. “Someone who hasn’t been climbing for long won’t benefit from the course from someone who has.” There is a respect that should be given in climbing; the fact is when climbing in a gym or climbing outside, you could die or be seriously injured. People who haven’t learned and embraced this fact are less likely to appreciate their mortality and the “squishy-body breakablity” of humans but experience and respect can be learned through climbing and preparation. There are factors of lead climbing that are going to be far more dangerous than top roping in the gym: bigger falls, bigger risks. “If you are not ready to accept the risk that come with lead climbing (i.e. the chance of decking or taking large falls), you are not ready period.” In other words, be humble and be honest with yourself. “You shouldn’t be asking us if you are ready for the class. That is a question you can really only answer for yourself.”
Do I Meet the Gym’s Requirements?
The gym’s standard requirement in order to take the lead class is having the ability to ONSIGHT 5.9 on top rope. Onsighting means that you can walk up to a route without ever doing it or seeing anyone do it, and finishing it. The more effortlessly that you can climb a 5.9, the better your learning experience is going to be. However, this is just a base level; many of our instructors believe that you should be climbing much stronger than that. Alex Velandia, experienced Lead Instructor and climber, is definitely one of them. “I know the minimum requirement for the class is the ability to onsight any 5.9 but if you think just because you've gotten a few 5.9s in your pocket that you're ready to go, you're wrong. Just barely meeting the minimum requirement for the class is like saying you know how to play chess just because you know how the pieces move. I waited until I was a strong 5.10 climber on top rope and I feel as though that should be the minimum requirement.” We also require that you are a member of the facility to take the regularly monthly lead class, but you can contact Dean in order to make other arrangements if possible. You will need to have your own harness and have access to a rope for the lead class.
Prepare Before the Class
Now that you have made the decision to take the lead class, preparation will certainly help you pass the test! This advice comes straight from our instructors, so take notes and study up, students!
The best thing that you can do is get in your climbing. If you sign up for the lead class, and then don’t climb for a month, what good is that going to do for you? Remember, specifically with lead climbing, you are going to have to work on your endurance, so put away that bouldering chalk pot and harness up; a couple of laps aren’t going to hurt you. Practice climbing 5.9s slowly, and perhaps count to ten with each move. Also, climb that 5.9 with the best technique you can; if I can hear the sound of you switching your feet on the wall, you are not climbing efficiently. The smoother the climbing, the more energy you will conserve. When lead climbing, not only are you climbing the route, but you are pausing along the way to reach down, grab your rope, and clip into the next quickdraw. Let’s make a hypothetical situation: when you begin lead climbing, you are probably going to fumble with your clipping at first, which is going to take a little longer and more time on the wall. An efficient lead climber can probably clip in 4 seconds or less, so let’s double that for our new lead climbers. With at least 6 clips, including the shuts, that is an extra 48 seconds on the wall, almost a full minute longer! With endurance also introduces the aspect of resting and conserving energy. Learning how to rest with a straight arm is going to be essential. Find a comfortable spot and straight your arm completely so that you are hanging on your bones rather than wasting your energy using your muscles. You can also clip with a straight arm, not wasting energy while simply protecting yourself at the same time! All in all, time on the wall is going to be your greatest benefit; the more you climb, the stronger and more confident you will be.
What can I do when I’m not climbing? Watch and learn, as they say! There are tons of people, usually at night, who have already gone through the course and practice their skills all the time. And as long as you’re not being a creeper, I’m sure that fellow members wouldn’t mind. “Watch several different people leading,” certified Lead Instructor Dean Pflaumer say, “but realize that not everyone will do things the same or correctly.” Not everyone has taken the lead class here at Aiguille, and other have been leading for ages, and different people develop different habits (if you ever see anyone doing something questionable, feel free to notify the manager to address the situation). Take these observations and bring up questions in your lead class; your instructor is going to be able to help you make good decisions regarding technique and procedure.
Thankfully, we have this wonderful thing called the Internet! There are hundreds of video and article resources to use to educate yourself about lead climbing before you even take the class. The first videos that Dean suggests to look up is “how to clip a rope into a quickdraw”. Why this one? Why would I just Google, “How to Lead Climb?”. There is one appropriate way that a rope should be clipped into a quickdraw; any other way will put you in harm’s way (which you will learn all about!). Other “online forums and videos can help, but take everything with a grain of salt. There is a lot of bad info online,” Dean adds. In addition to that, know your equipment, and know it well. Remember that piece of paper folded like a treasure map that was attached to your harness, or rope, or belay device when you first got it? Now how many of you immediately threw that away? That WAS your product manual. You can absolutely fail the lead class if you do not know how to use your equipment properly. Fortunately, this information is also available on your manufacturer’s website. Your lead instructors, and even the gym employees, are always available for furthering your education by answering any questions at any time.
You might ask, how can I practice lead climbing when I obviously can’t lead climb? One of the most recommended ways to practice lead climbing is by mock leading. This is simply the practice of climbing on top rope with an extra rope tied to you and used to clip in as you ascend. You are creating a simulation of what you are going to experience, but with the protection of a top rope. We have two walls in our facility which are lead/top rope hybrid walls that you are always welcome to mock lead on. Setting up top ropes in the lead area is forbidden due to the drastic wear it would have on the quick draws and shuts. It is also recommend to purchase a quickdraw in order to practice. When I was in college, I went on many climbing trips, so I would clip my quickdraw onto my rear view mirror and practice on the road when it was someone else’s turn to drive. The faster your clip, the less energy you are going to waste so why not have a have an upper hand?
If there was any time in your life to make a change in your climbing and belaying bad habits, it’s now. The greatest cause of injury and death while climbing is human error, and with higher risk of injury in lead climbing, there is no room for error. Dean states it clearly: “Observe a top rope belay class by our staff. If you belay different, change.” There are many different ways to belay, as most of you know, but in our facility, you have to abide by our policies, and those will be taught and enforced in your class. If you tie in differently, you will be required to fix it. Ask yourself too, when’s the last time you tied a single figure 8 knot? Might want to fix that!
Taking The Class
The day has come, you are going to learn to lead climb. If you have done all the things above, you have already taken the first steps into not only being a prepared climber, but a climber that respects the dangers and the importance of risk management. I always recommend getting there early to warm up and mentally prepare yourself. You’re not going to be focused if you are running through the gym after being stuck in traffic and jumping right in. I also wouldn’t recommend hard climbing the night before; you will need to be well rested with fresh skin.
So what can I expect? I’ll let the experts explain with their own words:
“You can expect the first day to be of instruction and less climbing but with the second day of the class, make sure you are thoroughly hydrated and fed because you are going to be climbing and belaying a lot.”
“Students taking the class can expect a serious yet laid back attitude. Lead climbing is a much more dangerous activity but we try not to stress everyone out, because at the end of the day climbing is fun and that's why we do it. While taking the class students should be open minded and be ready to take constructive criticism. The instructors are there to help you out, so do not take offense if your climbing abilities are not as amazing as you think.”
“Expect to have fun, work hard, pay attention, and that things will come gradually with practice.”
Good luck to all future leaders, and to refer to both Sir Francis Bacon and the extremely overplayed words of Stan Lee, “knowledge is power,” and “with great power comes great responsibility.”