Leading A Climb – Planning & Executing Your Own Climb

Being sufficiently skilled to lead a climb is probably the ultimate aim of most climbers.

Instead of following someone else’s lead, you can plan and execute your own climb, in your own way, in your own time – just you, your partner(s) and the rock. Leading can be done in two ways: by using fixed gear, such as pre-placed, solid bolts and pegs; or by using natural or trad gear, namely gear that the leader places into rock cracks or fissures while climbing the route. The latter constitutes the sharp end of the sport and, as such, it presents the biggest challenge, and the most danger. Using pre-placed gear is the accepted way of sport climbing. Although this is potentially less dangerous, it is no less strenuous, nor less demanding, of technique than trad climbing.

Leading For The First Time

There are a number of ways in which you can make your first attempts at leading easier:

  1. Be less ambitious to begin with, and start leading on routes with much lower grades than those you normally follow or top-rope.
  2. On routes that are new to you, ask people who have done the climb where the problem areas are, and how best to overcome them.
  3. Plan your moves before you begin: study the route, and decide how you are going to tackle it, bearing in mind which piece of protection gear you will place where, when, and how. Even if you only succeed in following your plan for the first few metres (or feet), seeing your moves working will boost your confidence.
  4. For longer pitches or even multi-pitch routes, break the climb down into manageable sections – the psychological advantage of facing a few manageable sections rather than one long, amorphous horror will help a good deal.
  5. Take time to organise your gear properly before you begin – rack your quickdraws and/or protection pieces carefully, in an order that you know, to avoid fumbling and consequent loss of strength and confidence.
  6. Explain to your belayer exactly what your plan is, for instance, when you are likely to want slack, and make sure that you agree on a clear system of communication signals.
A leader has a responsibility to his, or her, party to provide safe leading and good belaying. The experience of leading is very different to seconding or top-roping.

On lead, the pitch that you floated up on top-rope seems to have lost half its holds and become twice as steep. The ‘rock devils’ of fear have gripped you, adding kilograms of doubt to your load, weakening your muscles and clouding your mind.

Leading Sport Routes

Sport (or bolted) routes are not necessarily limited to single-pitch climbs there are many routes in France, Italy, Spain, America and elsewhere which are technically sport routes, relying on bolted gear only, and which are many pitches long. If you are attempting any of these, make sure that most of the techniques used in leading traditional routes such as what to do on intermediate stances on a multi-pitch climb, rappelling (abseiling) off, and rescue skills are part of your repertoire.

Leading a tried and tested sport route is one of the most satisfying things you can do – climbing, clipping, and climbing further. If you fall, you have the security of good, solid bolts placed by an expert to catch you. If you are climbing a route you don’t know, however, don’t make the mistake of assuming that every piece of protection gear you come across is secure – always test it first.

Clipping Skills

On quickdraws, climbers usually use one straight-gate carabiner, which is used to clip the bolt hanger, and one bent-gate carabiner, into which the rope is clipped. This arrangement has the advantage of enabling you to easily identify which carabiner should go into the hanger this carabiner will get chipped and burred by the metal hangers, and could damage the rope, so check it regularly. The bent gate allows for easier location and clipping in of the rope an important factor when a fraction of a second could make the difference between your completing the move or falling off.

When clipping, ensure that the rope follows the anticipated direction of travel, and is clipped in from behind the quickdraw (against the rock). It should not go across the gate, where it could unclip itself.

When clipping the rope, warn your belayer (for instance, by shouting ‘Clipping’ or ‘Slack’) so that he or she can give you the slack you need. Pull up just enough rope (experience will help here!) and clip with your free hand. If you are able to, clip whilst on a rest, or with your holding arm straight, as this uses less energy.

Topping Out (Lowering Off)

As said previously, most sport routes although not all of them are a single pitch long, and it is usual for the leader to be lowered off by the belayer. Some routes have convenient, neat in situ carabiners at the top, and you can just clip in, and ask to be lowered. Most routes don’t have this, however. To avoid leaving gear behind, you have to untie from your rope, thread it through chains or shackles, tie on again, and then lower off. This process can be hazardous if you don’t have the sequence down pat.

Lowering Off

The method of topping out or lowering off works well when you are tying on to chains or to large bolt hangers with rounded eyes. Some hangers, however – especially those made of aluminium – have sharp edges. Lowering off by having your rope run through these could, in fact, cause the rope to be cut through, resulting in a fatal injury.

The only alternatives here are:

  • To leave a carabiner or carabiners at the top.
  • To carry cheap shackles you can leave at the top.
  • To thread a piece of accessory cord – no thinner than 6mm (3/8inch) – through both hangers, pull half your rope up, feed it through the cord, and rappel very carefully using both ropes. Do not attempt to lower off through accessory cord – the rope-on-rope friction will cut through it like butter!

Cleaning The Route

If you are cleaning the route (that is, removing the quickdraws you clipped on the way up), then clip a quickdraw onto your harness and onto the rope before lowering off. This enables you to follow the rope even if it goes sideways, or under an overhang. Watch out when unclipping the last quickdraw (the one closest to the ground) if the route overhangs, you could end up accidentally ‘meeting’ some nearby trees, rocks or even other people.

Special Hints For Sport Belayers

In sport climbing, if the pitch starts on level ground and the belayer can’t fall off, down or into anything, then it is not usual for him or her to tie on to ground anchors. The belayer can then make the leader’s life easier, by moving to the left or right as the leader starts climbing, keeping the rope clear. The belayer can also move forward and back to give slack or tight rope, as required. Great care must be taken not to carry this movement too far back, however, as in the event of a fall, the belayer can be dragged forward into the cliff – a frequent occurrence, and not without danger to the leader, as the belayer’s natural reaction is to let go of the rope to protect his or her face.

Bolts – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Always assume the worst about bolts along a route you don’t know check the bolt, see how new or old it looks, look at the diameter of the shaft (10mm or 0.4in is the accepted standard), and check that the hangers are secure, not loose. Bolts that have been part of a route for a number of years are highly suspect, so be doubly careful. The best motto may be: ‘If in doubt, opt out!’ Climbers use mainly three types of bolt.

Bolts Are Not Perfect

Bolts are not infallible – under the influence of temperature changes they expand and contract, and may work loose from the rock or epoxy holding them. Never trust only one bolt, however good it may look, for use during rappels or lowering off. Always use back-ups.

Composite Units In Hand-Drilled Holes

Nowadays this kind of bolt is rare, but it may still be in use on some older routes, and can be invaluable if you are doing a big-wall route and simply can’t find any other gear! It is worth remembering that the holes were hand-drilled by a tired, possibly frightened climber, who wanted to get the procedure over and done with drilling by hand is hard work. Many bolts in hand-drilled holes simply do not go in deep enough.

The bolt shafts are usually only 5mm or 6mm (0.25in) in diameter and only 2 3cm (0.8 1.2in) long.

These bolts are seldom, if ever, made of stainless steel. In many environments iron rusts surprisingly quickly so take care!

Expansion Bolts

For the following two types of bolt, the hole can be hand drilled, but it seldom is. It is more usual for climbers to use a battery-powered or petrol-driven portable drill.

Expansion bolts are also called sleeved anchors and are usually 10mm (0.4in) in diameter, 80mm (3.2in) or more in length, and made of stainless steel. (In some very dry areas galvanized mild steel is used.) A hole is drilled, cleaned out, and the bolt is hammered in. When tightened, the sleeve pulls back over a wedgeshaped taper, locking the bolt into place. A hanger is then attached. When properly placed in sound rock, this kind of anchor is both strong and durable, and can usually hold up to 30kN or 3000kgf.

Glue-In Anchors

Any suitable piece of metal can be glued into a hole using hi-tech epoxy resins, such as Hilti C60 or C100. Instead of an expansion bolt, you can use a threaded rod or a special staple with an eye at the outside end. Staples are becoming very popular, as they are inexpensive and offer a rounded eye for lowering off. (The rounded rod Is also more carabiner-friendly than the sharp-edged hanger.)

Both expansion bolts and glue-in anchors can hold huge loads if correctly placed.

Bolt-Placing Techniques

Drilling A Hole

  • Firstly, check that you are not contravening any bolting regulations – written or unwritten.
  • Check that the rock is sound by tapping it firmly with a hammer.
  • Position the hole (and bolt) at least 10cm (4in) away from any rock edge, and the same distance from any other bolt on top belays or lowering stations.
  • Ensure that your drill bit is exactly the right size.
  • Measure the length of the bolt, threaded rod or staple to be secured in the rock, and mark the drill bit to this length with a piece of insulation tape or similar.
  • Drill the hole at right angles to the rock (with glue-in anchors, you could drill it slightly off horizontal at a downward angle) keeping the bit at a consistent angle.
  • Brush the drilled hole out with a toothbrush or rifle-cleaning brush to remove all loose pieces of rock.
  • Insert a short piece of flexible pipe to the back of the hole, and blow down it to clean the hole (keep your face out of the way of the dust and dirt blown outl).
  • For expansion bolts: Tap these firmly into the hole with a hammer, until just sufficient thread is showing to take the nuts and hanger. Place the hanger and nut on the bolt and tighten. (Placing the hanger and nut on before hammering the bolt in helps prevent any thread damage, and driving the bolt in too far.) Beware of overtightening, particularly on stainless steel bolts, which can shear with over-torqueing.
  • For threaded rods and staples (glue-In anchors): Fill one third of the hole with newly mixed epoxy (most now come in auto-mixing glue guns), and insert the rod or staple. With a threaded rod or a straight anchor, twist very slowly in the epoxy to help distribute the glue evenly and avoid bubbles.
  • Glued-in anchors should not be loaded for at least 12 hours.

Leading Traditional Gear Routes

Traditional (trad) leading has the potential of far more risk attached to it than sport leading. This is not to say that it has to be more dangerous it all depends on the climber(s) involved.

The Gear

‘There is no shortcut to experience’ this motto should be engraved on each and every piece of protection gear sold to a climber. Practice and experience are the only ways to ensure safe leading.

Trad climbing uses much of the same equipment, and many of the techniques, of sport climbing. You have a belayer, a rope, harnesses, quickdraws and belay devices. The difference between trad climbing and sport climbing lies in the ‘widgets’ you place in the rock. In trad climbing, protection can be broadly divided into natural anchors (like flakes of rock, trees and thread holes), ‘passive’ or protection devices (like nuts, wedges, pitons and bongs), and ‘active’ protection devices, called camming devices.

It is usual to hang your collection of devices on a bandolier, which is slung around your neck and one arm, although many climbers prefer to clip the gear directly onto the harness. The latter becomes a bit clumsy, however, if you are carrying a large amount of gear!

Natural Protection

The usual way of making use of a natural protection point is to wrap a sling or piece of accessory cord around it, so look for suitable flakes, knobs or solid trees. Trees, which are often found on ledges, make useful belay anchors.

Tips

  • Simply draping the sling around the natural feature is not always the best answer. Ensure that the sling is as low down the feature as possible.
  • Girth hitch the sling if it looks like it might pull off as the rope moves past it.
  • Use other gear to weight the sling if necessary.
  • Chockstones and ‘touch points’ (two rock projections touching) can also be valuable – keep an eye open for these when using cracks.

Placed Protection

When discussing various forms of placed protection (both active and passive), it is useful to consider the use of pitons, nuts, active camming devices (ACDs) and spring-loaded camming devices (SLCDs).

Pitons

Although seldom used today, a wide array of pitons (metal pins that can be driven into cracks to form an anchor) is available, each style having a specific use: the popular lost arrow is good in horizontal cracks; angles are used in larger cracks; leepers work well stacked in bottoming cracks; and bongs double as large Chocks in wide or off-width cracks.

Placing a piton is relatively easy – find the size that will fit comfortably about three-quarters of the way into the crack, then give it a few solid whacks with a hammer. A ‘ringing’ sound usually indicates that it is solid, although the actual security is determined by the nature of the rock and how far you get the piton in. If the piton can’t be driven in all the way, it is wise to tie it off so as to reduce leverage.

Removing Pitons

Removing a piton is done by knocking it side-to-side until it is loose. This usually scars the rock.

Old pitons may be sound, but they may not be often there is no easy way of telling, as the important bits are hidden in the crack! Where possible, back up old pitons. In situ pitons are common in the European Alps, and still dot Yosemite fairly liberally.

Nuts

Stoppers, wedges, hexcentrics (hexes), rocks, RPs and the like are usually collectively referred to as nuts. These are really just sophisticated do-it-yourself chockstones (a natural chockstone is a rock wedged in a crack). Most are incredibly strong, and it is usually the rock that goes, not the nut or its wire or sling.

Placing Nuts

Success in placing nuts comes with plenty of practise sizing just the right nut to the right crack is an art. The best way to learn is to follow a good leader, and check his or her protection as you remove the nuts. This removal is usually done with a nutkey, or ‘nutter’.

Tips For Placing Nuts

  • When placing a nut, attach a short sling via a carabiner, and give it a firm tug. This helps to seat the nut properly.
  • Nuts can be placed in opposition to each other to hold a piece of gear in place or they can be stacked one on top of another.
  • Ensure that once placed, the nut cannot drop out of the bottom of a flaring crack.
  • Arrange a selection of nuts of different sizes to a single carabiner – this allows you to choose the correct size, seat it firmly by tugging on the set of nuts, then clip the one you have placed off the carabiner and attach your sling or quickdraw to it.

Active Camming Devices (ACDs) Or Spring-Loaded Camming Devices (SLCDs)

These hi-tech pieces of gear are suitable for use in flaring or parallel cracks, although some also work in pockets and a host of other amazing situations. Compared to placing nuts, learning to place ACDs is a complex art. Use too small a unit, and it will rock out; use a size too large, and it may jam in place forever. The ideal placement has the cams at mid-range, and is very tricky to establish.

Cleaning ACDs

ACDs all need to be cleaned periodically do this with warm water and a soft brush. Blow dry, and lubricate with a silicone spray never use oil!

Tips For Placing ACDs

  • Ensure that all the cams are solidly and fully in contact with the rock, not merely touching.
  • In vertical cracks, orientate the ACD so that the axle is pointing in the direction of the expected load.
  • In horizontal cracks, try to wedge the unit in as deeply as possible – with solid-stem ACDs it may be necessary to tie the stem off close to the rock.
  • Remember that the cams may fit better if you rotate the device by 180 degrees. In some newer ACD designs, one set of cams is smaller than the other to hold better in flaring cracks.

The Responsibilities Of The Leader

The leader is more than just a gung-ho climber he or she is responsible for the safety and comfortable climbing of the entire group. This entails:

  • Making sure that they all know how to tie on correctly, and have done so.
  • Running through any climbing commands or instructions with the group before starting off.
  • Placing gear so that it protects the second as well as the leader – this is particularly valid in long traverses where a pendulum fall may occur.
  • Constructing solid belay anchors by never relying on only one anchor; equalizing the load on all anchors by means of slings, a cordelette, or rope; ensuring that the anchors can take loads in all anticipated directions; and ensuring that the belayer is properly positioned and won’t be pulled up into an overhang, or sideways or downward and off a ledge.
  • Making sure that your second knows how to cope with any fail you may have from trivial to serious.
  • If you are climbing in the back-country or away from other climbers, ensure that someone knows your destination and intended time of return. It is also a good idea to give someone a suggested plan of action to follow if you have not returned by a certain time.
  • Making your party aware of environmental responsibilities, like conventions regarding gaining access, removing litter, making fires, removing plants, disturbing animals, and so on.

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