Whether you are a new climber or a seasoned gym rat, a lot of climbers lack the self confidence to lead climb outside. As soon as you step above your bolt potential falls get bigger, elements like back stepping are introduced and let’s face it, it can be really frightening. No matter how strong you get, the only way to overcome your fear of leading is by getting above your bolt.
A few days ago as I sat atop the final pitch of Humanality overlooking Ton Sai I felt elated. I was happy to have accomplished the climb and was seriously digging the beautiful view. Despite the fact that I was hanging in my harness 100 meters above the ocean with nothing but slippery foot holds, my weight angled outwards, I felt comfortable. I reflected on how much one’s faith in their protection can change a climbing experience. The average (non-climber) person would probably be scared out of their mind hanging from that itty bitty anchor made out of a few bolts, slung features and old climbing rope. Our bodies instinctually flood with adrenaline when we perceive a potential danger. What separated me from an adrenaline fear-fest was knowledge that I was safe.
When I began to lead climb outside I took it very very slowly. In fact I took it so slow that I feared I would never improve my climbing because I was too timid to challenge myself on lead. I stuck to 5.9’s despite the fact that I was cruising up 5.11’s in the gym. What held me back was the intense fear that flooded my veins every time I made a committing move above my bolt. My brain would be much more focused on the consequences of falling than it would be on completing the moves and keeping myself safe. So how did I finally get better? I fell.
Your first substantial lead fall is always a significant one. For me it felt like an accomplishment on par with onsighting a hard climb. As soon as I realized what had happened and that everything had worked perfectly a barrier was broken. Now all it would take was more practice.
The Golden Rule
When we came to Ton Sai I was pretty comfortable leading moderate routes but anything that I thought I would fall on still scared me. Some days I would feel more bold about leading, other days I’d shirk away and top rope Kyle’s routes. Despite climbing every day I still didn’t feel like I was getting any better, that’s when I decided to make a rule for myself: I HAD to lead SOMETHING every day. It didn’t matter if it was a 10 meter class 5 or a 30 meter 6c, I had to give myself the mental practice of being above my bolt, clipping well, and watching the backstep every time we left the bungalow to climb.
Soon enough this exercise brought comfort and I increased the difficulty of my leads. Of course I also got stronger in the process and was able to climb even harder grades. As a personal accomplishment yesterday I led my first 7a (5.11d), something I wouldn’t have thought possible when we arrived.
Tips for Beginning Leaders
1. Lead something every day (or every day spent climbing): Start with easy grades to get your brain used to the sensation of leading, improve your clipping and communication. Be careful not to stagnate. Find a challenging climb with clean falls and just go for it every once in a while.
2. Take it bolt by bolt: If you are feeling timid be more concerned with completing the climb than with redpointing it. Rest on your protection as necessary to keep your mental and physical stamina. After you get to the top you can lower off and try the redpoint.
3. Learn to down-climb: If you are a few feet above your bolt and feeling unsure or unstable you can always down-climb to a more comfortable position or down-climb to rest at your bolt. Not only will this save your equipment, it will improve your mental composure on a climb. If you boulder in the gym or outside ALWAYS make a point of down-climbing where you can. You will quickly see the results next time you are face to face with a scary crux and feeling a bit wobbly in the knees.
All in all climbing is an exhilarating experience, and lead climbing especially taps the chords which get your heart pumping. It’s important to recognize where your comfort level is and ensure you continue to enjoy climbing. We’ve met a few people who don’t lead over 6a, but top rope 7a. I guarantee that if they committed themselves they could be leading 7a in a matter of weeks. Learning to be comfortable on lead will open up a whole new world of routes for you and your partner. So try to lead something every day. Most importantly have fun, enjoy your surroundings and be safe.