A Guide to Lead Climbing

Whichever type of climb one chooses to do (besides free climbing), lead climbing is necessary in most cases for bringing the rope to the top of the climb. A lead climber can set up a top rope at the apex of the climb by securing the rope, which can be helpful for climbers who wish to follow the route. Skill and trust in oneself, as well as trust in the belayer, are essential in lead climbing, but if prepared for, it can be a gratifying experience and a real test of endurance and skill.

Lead climber securing the rope at the topHow Lead Climbing Works

When lead climbing, the climber will first tie-in to the rope using their harness. Then, they must climb to the first bolt or first area on the route where they can place gear. Until this point, they are not attached to anything, and if they fall, they will fall to the ground. Consequently, it is important to be an experienced and confident climber before attempting a lead climb, especially on a more dangerous climb with rocks below or bolts that are spread many feet apart and start far off the ground.

If a climber is sports climbing, there would be bolts on the rock as they climb the route. Once the climber reaches the first bolt, they must remove a quick draw (two carabiners linked by webbing) from their harness and clip it to the bolt. They then clip the rope into the draw. Clipping in requires strength and poise as it requires one hand, and it can be stressful until safely attached.

The climber would then proceed to the next bolt and the next, clipping into each. If the climber falls during a lead climb, they will fall past the last bolt they cut into until the rope catches on that draw. With enough experience, lead climbing can be very rewarding. Start on more accessible routes to build the confidence to move on to more challenging climbs. Trying a fall or two to see what it feels like can also be helpful. Fear of falling can be the scariest part, but getting a feel for the method of lead climbing can be helpful and will ease nerves.

Belaying a Lead Climber

Also, it’s important to learn how to lead belay. Belaying a lead climber is very different from belaying a top roper in the climbing gym. The belayer must feed the rope through their belay device as the climber goes up the rock and must allow enough slack in the rope so the climber can move freely and not be pulled downward. The belayer must also feed rope to the climber when they are clipping in. Communication between the climber and belayer in this situation is critical, especially during points in a climb when the climber might be out of sight. In all situations, the climber should announce that they are clipping, so the belayer knows to feed extra rope.

There are many sources in print or online that detail routes in a given area or region, and often climbing gyms or outdoor retailers will have guides available to spend a day in the great outdoors teaching the basics of climbing. Always keep in mind that climbing is dangerous and being outfitted with the proper protective gear is critically important. Climb with others and become familiar with the difficulty level of a climb before taking it on. With the proper gear and experience, lead climbing is fun and a great way to use and build rock climbing skills and strength.