How Scary Is Lead Climbing, Really?
Mar 19, 2016
I fell in love with bouldering when I started climbing a year and a half ago. Enchanted by the gymnastic-like movement of bouldering and too lazy to find a belay partner, rope climbing was just something that happened in the background of the boulders. Bouldering was dynamic, in your face, more amenable to socializing and accessible.
Of course, I wasn’t oblivious to the jaw-dropping photos of climbers sport climbing in scenic, elevated dreamscapes. So when I had an opportunity to go climbing at Shelf Road in Colorado, I took it. To me, climbing is climbing, with or without ropes. I bought my first harness and decided to take a Learn to Lead class to prep myself for the adventure.
The one sentence I heard repeatedly uttered around the subject of lead climbing was always this: “it’s so scary“. Back then, I just nodded my head and smiled because I was so psyched on bouldering and just assumed that it must be. But I didn’t really know exactly why.
Lead climbing is a type of climbing in which the climber has a rope attached to their harness and is putting up the protection (quickdraws) and clipping in while climbing upwards, with a belay partner that is giving them rope as needed. It’s more dangerous than normal rope climbing because it involves more risks.
The biggest risk involved with lead climbing is falling. And you can fall far more than 6 inches. Somehow before I did my first lead climb I completely blocked out all the dangerous possibilities: back clipping, z-clipping, whippers… not to mention finger amputation and teabagging (thanks, Internet). My excitement to try something new also made me completely miss the fact that when you fall lead climbing, you can fall at least twice the length between you and the last clip.
Stupidly, I just climbed up with more or less no fear because I wasn’t really aware of what there was to be scared of. Which in hindsight, I think was the best thing for my first lead climb. I was able to focus purely on the route, clipping in, and my body on the wall.
And just like anything in life, one is more likely to perform better when you don’t focus on the potential risks and dangers.
Danger and risk are always possibilities in life, but it doesn’t always help to have them at the forefront of your mind. My first lead climb was a smooth sail up a 5.8, with no taking and no falls. It was a rush to have this completely new element of climbing and to climb up far higher than fifteen feet off the ground.
After my climbing buddies congratulated me on a job well done, I asked – what’s the big deal? What are people so afraid of? And then all the dangers were explicitly outlined to me: you can fall – and take really, really big falls.
Oh. The reality and practicality of leading hit me. The fear people spoke of now made complete sense.
But I had a ton of fun, and still hadn’t taken a fall. It seemed like a good idea to test it out, to get some familiarity with fear. Falling on overhung walls tends to be better on the climber since there’s less of a chance of hitting the wall on the way down, so I headed to Brooklyn Boulders Somerville to lead on their big Tongue wall.
My nerves kicked in and I started to feel apprehension over falling. I picked a 5.9 to test out, hard enough for me so that I would possibly take a real fall. On the way up, I started to appreciate the nuances of lead climbing versus top roping. It’s almost like being an entrepreneur or anyone who pursues a road less traveled – you’re setting your own path, clipping yourself in and leading your own way.
Leading forces you to be more aware, to climb smarter, harder, and to try really hard – because the risks are greater.
Top-roping is a bit less risky – the rope is already strung up for you, you can almost be a bit lazier because you know that the most you’ll ever fall is six inches. Lead climbing has opened up a whole new world of what climbing means – using basic technology like ropes, grigris, bolts and clips to climb much higher than the average boulder – but also trusting others, communicating and pushing your limits.
I was three quarters of the way up to the top of the fifty-foot wall in Somerville, when I looked back for a second. I had been trying hard, my forearms were pumped even harder, and it was my eighth day on of climbing. There were a few jump moves I did where I could’ve fallen, but I didn’t. I was hanging on a fairly decent jug and when I looked down at James, my belayer and Ops Manager of BKBS, I yelled “Should I fall?” He nodded, and I let go. I screamed, pretty loudly (I think half of the people turned to look), falling about fifteen feet.
It was incredible, exhilarating like a rollercoaster but without the headache of going up and down. I had a huge smile on my face, was out of breath and a bit sweaty, but once again the fear had disappeared because I – quite literally – leapt into it. I’d finally fallen – I’d fallen in love for lead climbing.
Ready to take the leap? Take our Learn to Lead class, which is a comprehensive and in-depth course on lead climbing for climbers looking to increase their knowledge and skill in this advanced climbing style.