Thursday, August 16, 2012

Climbing Above Gear

Last night I lead another project of mine. The route was one of a few that's felt in reach this year more so than in previous years. In my 8th year of climbing I'm still learning the craft, and I've still got many places to improve. During the hike and while on the route, myself, and two other experienced leaders talked a lot about progression towards higher standards in gear-protected climbing; and the way we've got to where we are. Having had some time to digest it all I've got a few thoughts.
  1. Development in this type of thing should come slow. Time is at your side. An attitude in climbing which you'll commonly hear is that 'top-roping doesn't count'. That's horse-shit. It's a valuable process. By following and cleaning you learn a lot about climbing subtle outdoor rock. Learning proficient movement should come first. If you can't read the moves, and execute comfortably, you won't be able to protect yourself as an added burden. Cleaning an experienced leader's pitch will illustrate the secure placements and those which are marginal. I expect I cleaned 150+ pitches before I climbed above my own gear. This matches the advice Will Gadd gives for ice climbing. Moderate rock pitches tend to share some risks with ice. Ledge fall potential is there at many points on many easy routes.
  2. Are you pushing yourself mentally and physically at the same time? Are you pumping out trying to place gear. Are you placing quickly with cursory inspection? Do your legs shake? Pushing the body and the mind at the same time is a good way to get in trouble. Have you lead a variety of routes at an easier grade with good results? Have you felt comfortable? Know how to rest; either using natural features or by resting on your gear. Be able to recharge your focus and your muscles mid-pitch. If this means taking on the rope than so be it. If a clean send is really important to you the line will be there next time. I'm no expert on this subject but myself (and many others) have found good insight in Arno Ilgner's 'The Rock Warrior's Way'.
  3. Are you protected? Can you identify good gear? Is it in good rock... or will it pull? Visually good placements fail. I've pulled at least 4 nuts that I thought were good by exploding the surrounding rock. I've heard that 10% of textbook cam placements in parallel cracks will pull. Put 2 pieces in before and after run-outs. Put 2 pieces in at the crux. Can you judge where your next good piece will come? Can you judge where you will land if you fall before being able to get in another good piece. Is it safe? If not... is it an acceptable consequence to you?
  4. Falling may not be as wise and common as internet video suggests. I realize there are several schools of thought on this. However, I don't support the idea that you must be always falling in order to progress. I often yell 'take' to rest on gear when a pitch is at my limit. A ground-up ascent to the anchors is more valuable to me than a 'red-point'. Aid climbing has given me a great deal of knowledge about placements that will hold... and that's what's allowed me to relax and refocus while resting. In my career I expect I've led roughly 400 pitches. In that time I've perhaps taken 5 falls worth noting. It isn't a necessary or a wise way to progress. A new gear leader on the verge of falling is a signal that something's wrong. 
Leading is a valuable skill. In many areas it is absolutely required to access the best rock. Certainly that's true in Welsford. For several years new climbers taking up traditional leading was a rarity. That trend has been bucked. Many new leaders seem eager this year to push into leading pitches at respectable grades. It's great to see! Just remember... grow at a pace that suits you... and not the expectations of your friends. You've got lots of time.


  1. So well written Chris, and totally appropriate...sounds like some great conversation on the way up to the cliff last night! And looks like your progress has paid off with some awesome sends this year! Nicely done!

  2. Another great post Chris. Gotta say I've been following your blog from day 1. I enjoy the climbing especially, but your mt.biking posts have great also. Good enough that I bought a new bike. I follow nearly everything climbing, but I must say your blog I find most interesting.
    Maybe Gripped should have a NB contributor!!??

  3. Interesting writing. Well structured. I also think, you should write an article for Gripped.

  4. Thanks for the great post Chris! As a very new trad leader I found this post extremely useful. I jumped into leading pretty quick and I must say that advice like this is what I need to be hearing. After only leading for 2 months I attempted to onsight a 5.9 lead on gear and had a "wtf am I doing" moment when I was above my gear on a move that was sketchy for me. I didn't fall (thank God) but it taught me to dial it back a bit. I stick to easier stuff now and I'll take my time moving up in the grades. I've also lined up some more trad apprentiship for the near future :)

    Thanks again!

  5. Falling is part of the game, but until you're well versed (read, have led a shit tonne of routes), should not be an expected outcome when starting up a route.

    i started leading trad my first year of climbing and fortunately survived a couple unexpected falls unscathed. it could have easily been a different outcome. i've witnessed what happens when the alternative happens and it is not pretty. definitely dial it back to a place where you're confident about your gear and movement, and practice this for a while before pushing harder. personally, i want to climb the rest of my life, and taking whippers is going to reduce those chances.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to read everyone. I always appreciate commentary! Austin, I think the approach you are taking is wise. I know about your arrangement.

    The other point I forgot to mention:

    5. Do you know how to get out of trouble? Do you know how to bail, ascend a rope, and protect a 2nd? Could you get your second out of trouble if they land in a spot? Easy skills... but if you don't have them... you need them.

  7. Excellent article Norfolk!

    I think the discussion you guys had is, in an of itself, an important process in the perpetual learning of the climbing process. Open discussion on the approach, at the belays and around the camp fire are teaching moments all climbers should take advantage of. Here you get to analyse placements (What did you think of the orange cam?) learn techniques, (Had you considered equalizing opposing nuts?) and share ideas you've learned from other partners or sources. This, of course, is not news to you or anyone else who has posted on this topic as it's something we do together each time we see each other, even if it's at the pub instead of Welsford.