Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What Does It Take To Become A Competent Trad Leader?

This year, more than ever before, I've been working with lots of climbers that want to be self-sufficient. They have learned to climb indoors and want the ability to climb outdoors on their own. The climbers I've trained,
both in the Gunks and in western Massachusetts, have varied from nearly new gym climbers wanting to learn how to toprope outside to experienced outdoor climbers looking to become solid traditional leaders. I've cautiously given some folks the go-ahead to climb on their own, while others I would confidently swing leads with at most crags. I often wonder how this will affect our business as guides, as many of these climbers will not become regular guests. Mostly, however, I'm glad that people want to learn how to do things in the safest possible manner.

Recently, I've had the big realization that climbing, as many long-time climbers know it, is really changing. I think much of this has to do with the way many new climbers are introduced to climbing (in climbing gyms) and with how movement skills can quickly surpass one's ability to make good decisions while outdoor climbing (climbing is now viewed as a "sport"). How to manage these changes is the topic for another discussion (coming soon).

Working with so many new climbers who are eager to learn has helped shape my thoughts about how much experience one should have before they begin leading. So, what should one do in preparation for becoming a traditional leader? Below are a few things you can do to make the transition from gym climbing or toproping to leading trad routes as smooth and safe as possible.

What should I do to start becoming a traditional leader?

You should probably start by toproping at traditionally protected toprope crags (you build your own natural and gear anchors to toprope with) before you lead. This season I've had one or two individuals interested in trad leading who've never climbed outside before. This is highly unrealistic and I generally try to steer the objectives for the day(s) towards toproping in situations like this. You need to learn about a lot - things like foot placement, different climbing materials and their respective behavioral properties, rock quality and route finding. Getting a feel for different crags will help you understand risk management, what the objective and subjective hazards are at each place and how to operate safely in a variety of environments. Climbing different types of rock will help you improve your movement skills.

Climb outdoors a lot before starting to lead

Understanding gear placements, as a result of following
other leaders, is an important step toward becoming
a leader
How many days should one climb before considering leading? This is a hard question to answer. It would be challenging, and potentially hypocritical of me to give a concrete figure. Many folks I know began leading almost right away. They were also young, had a high aptitude for the sport, and had relatively low perception of risk (thanks to testosterone and a lack of frontal brain lobe development). This isn't the route I'd suggest. The most successful new leaders I've worked with have already climbed outdoors a lot - they have somewhere in the vicinity of 50-75 days of outdoor trad climbing experience. Think about that number. That's a full year of being a weekend warrior climbing 25-35 weekends, or it's a bunch of weekends plus a few climbing trips. If that seems like a lot, that's because it is, but that's also what it's going to take to be successful. Most new leaders that find success are committed to the sport and find themselves outside climbing at least 2-4 times a month and also get to a gym during the week to maintain their movement skills.

Find Good Partners

It's hard to find people to climb with outdoors. What do I do? It is hard to find good outdoor partners. This is reality. After 18 years of climbing I have only a handful of partners I'd trust in any situation. This is one of the biggest challenges as a climber.

Honestly, the process of meeting trustworthy partners slows your progress and that's OK. It will allow you to process and digest what you're learning, meet new people and become part of a great community. When you do meet partners you trust they'll mentor you and you'll begin to learn a lot and grow as a climber. Mentorship is probably the single most valuable way to make gains as a trad climber. Find a mentor and learn. Don't forget to become a mentor and give back when you're able.

Carry A Lot of the Right Gear

When you first start out buying all the gear seems daunting and costly. Many people do it one piece at a time. This is fine, but don't skimp on gear. Do some research and spend the extra cash (a few really experienced climbers have scoffed at me for telling people to buy top of the line gear) and you won't be disappointed.

As a new leader you need more gear, not less. The east coast standard, a single rack of cams and nuts, only works when you are comfortable on the terrain you're leading. It's probably better to have a double rack of cams, especially the most popular sizes. It's also useful to have a lot of long runners, not quickdraws. Quickdraws work very well once you can manage rope drag, but it's easy to absolutely hose yourself if you're not careful.

As a new leader, a 70-meter rope is useless. Focus on short pitches that allow you to place lots of gear and communicate easily with your partner. Save long pitches for later on, once you're comfortable on the terrain you're leading.

Do Your Homework

How do I get to the climbs? How do I get down? Are there any belay/pitch-length strategies? Any special crux gear? 

There's nothing I dislike more than a beta spraydown at the cliff. I can't stand it when people shout information at me or others at the crag. Beforehand though, I do as much research as possible. Check the internet and ask locals/friends about the routes you want to do. There are multiple guidebooks available for many crags in the East. There's information all over the internet, and there are even pretty good apps, like Mountain Project, available for smartphones.

Seek Qualified Instruction

Last, but not least, consider hiring a professionally trained guide to help you. Hiring a guide can help you learn more quickly. Look for AMGA trained, certified guides, and have them guide you for a few days of outdoor instruction to set you on the right path. 

Ryan Stefiuk is an AMGA Certified Rock Guide living in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is the only AMGA Certified Rock Guide offering guiding and instruction in Massachusetts.