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The first time I ever climbed, it wasn’t rock that I touched, but plastic at Pseudo Rock, the first indoor climbing gym in Austin, Texas. My friend Seiji introduced me to climbing and mentored me, teaching me everything I needed to know to respect gravity while clipping bolts. I survived my early years of climbing under his guidance and eventually became a proficient sport climber.
With a few years of sport experience under my belt and my imagination fueled by Lynn Hill’s first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan, I decided I wanted to learn how to climb cracks. Unfortunately, Seiji wasn’t exactly into trad climbing—placing gear and jamming his limbs into the razor-sharp cracks at nearby Enchanted Rock, a granite dome in the Texas Hill Country, wasn’t his idea of a good time. I thus took it upon myself to read up on the subject while I hunted down someone willing to lend me their trad rack so I could learn to be like Lynn.
I started out placing gear on cracks at ground level, clipping into pieces and gingerly weighting them to see if they’d hold body weight. After I felt confident enough with that, I threw a toprope on a splitter crack and mock-led it, placing pro as I thrashed my way between the jams.
Fast-forward 25 years and I still haven’t free climbed the Nose, but I’ve been able to convert my love of climbing into a career of teaching others the tricks of the trade as a full-time AMGA Certified Rock Guide. The most requested skill that I teach folks is trad climbing, including skills like crack-climbing technique, placing gear, building anchors, multi-pitch efficiencies, and the best practices for leading single and multi-pitch climbs.
What follows is a progression to help you learn how to place gear, build anchors, and eventually learn to lead traditional climbs. To get started, you should be a competent toprope climber and lead belayer. Experience leading bolted sport climbs is also highly advised.
Do Your Homework
Start by building your intellectual understanding of the equipment and how it works. Craig Luebben’s Rock Climbing Anchors (The Mountaineers Press) is an invaluable resource. Or, watch videos on how to place gear and build anchors. The AMGA has a series of technical videos that show industry best practices, as demonstrated by certified climbing guides. This video, on how to place cams, is a great primer.
Key points to remember:
● Solid rock is imperative. If the rock is chossy, loose, wet, or dirty, it doesn’t matter how “good” a placement may appear because it is highly likely to break the rock and/or rip right out.
● Cam lobes should be compressed in the 50–90 percent range—cam lobes need to expand in the crack to have the most amount of holding power, and placing them this way allows for that. Meanwhile, the stem should be angled downward in the anticipated direction of pull. —if it were flagged straight out of the rock and you fell on it, the cam would twist in its placement and shift, possibly causing the placement to fail.
● Size up the crack using your hand so you can pick the appropriately sized piece. For example, I know that if I have a tight hand jam I will place a red #1 Camalot. I often give people a homework assignment of learning how their hand size corresponds to different types of jams. Take a cam, compress the lobes to 90 percent, and match that up with your hand so you can determine how your jam correlates to the cam at the smallest extreme of its range. Knowing this will help take the guesswork out of your placements, so you can choose the correct piece the first time and not waste time and energy while on lead.
Follow the Leader
I strongly recommend making friends with someone who already owns a trad rack and has experience leading crack climbs. This will allow you the opportunity to follow them up routes so you can remove the gear and develop an eye for the placements. When the time comes and you’re ready to take the sharp end, the more experience you have following, the better your own understanding of protection will be.
The number one piece of advice I can give, while you second your more-experienced partner, is to look before you touch—that is, use your eyes and really look at the piece before you lay a hand on it, picturing exactly how the leader placed the piece in the crack. Now, reverse-engineer that process. If it’s a cam, pull the trigger back, then gently wiggle it out of the placement toward the widest part of the crack. It only takes a gentle touch when it comes to cam removal. If you have to wrestle it like a slippery bar of soap, you’re going about it all wrong (or, perhaps your leader likes to overcam her pieces). Be surgical and use precise micro-movements to remove cams.
Passive gear, on the other hand, needs a little bit of extra effort. The first thing I recommend doing after visually evaluating the nut placement is to take the draw or runner that it’s attached to and give it a sharp, upward tug. If the nut doesn’t pop right out, take the pointy end of your nut tool and jab the body of the nut right between the wires, pushing it upward into the larger area of the crack.
Ground-School Placements and Anchors
When you’re learning a new skill, it’s best to take the stress out of the situation so you can focus on the task of placing bomber gear without the worry of taking a lead fall. Find a single-pitch crag that has cracks at the base and start plugging away. Place as many pieces as you can to help gain experience. Place cams in parallel-sided cracks, passive gear in constrictions/V-shaped cracks.
The next step once you’ve had some practice placing gear is learning how to build bomber anchors that are EARNEST. This is a helpful acronym to check that your anchor is set up correctly and breaks down thusly:
Equitable: Each of the pieces shares the load.
Angle: The angle formed between the two outermost pieces should be no greater than 60 to 90 degrees.
Redundant: A gear anchor should consist of a minimum of three pieces and be connected together with material such that if someone cut it with a pair of magic scissors, the whole thing wouldn’t fall apart.
No Extension: If one component of your anchor fails, be it a piece popping out or cordage/sling breaking, the load on the anchor wouldn’t drop/extend, thereby shock-loading the remaining gear placements.
Timely: You should be able to construct an anchor in a timely manner. If you’re up there for more than 15 minutes, you’re moving too slowly. Keep practicing on the ground.
Build Your Anchor
As per the EARNEST acronym above, it’s time to choose your three best pieces and incorporate them into a load-sharing anchor. Choose the largest pieces you can and make sure each piece is a textbook placement. Now you’re ready to bring it all together with a cordelette so that each piece is sharing the load. Watch this video on how to connect everything using a cordelette or a double-length sling.
Clip the cordelette into all three pieces, then take your index finger and floss the cord between each piece so that you create three loops in one hand. Floss the strands side to side to ensure that each leg is sharing the load equally. Now tie a figure eight on a bight to make a master-point loop; this knot also gives your connective material redundancy and limits extension should any single placement fail.
Check the tension on each strand by plucking it like a guitar string. Each strand should be tight. If it’s loose, then you have unequal weight distribution and you’ll need to retie your masterpoint knot.
Learn to Lead
When it’s time for you to rope up, follow this progression: Do some mock leads, then lead on pre-placed gear, and finally graduate to live leads.
A mock lead is simply the process of pretending to lead with a toprope back-up. You’re technically tied into two ropes—the toprope and your mock-lead rope, which you clip into each piece as you go, simulating a real lead. With a toprope backup, you can weight each piece to test it.
To do this, and you have a secondary belayer on the mock lead line, the mock lead belayer can take up tight on the lead rope so you essentially hang with bodyweight on the piece of gear. Meanwhile the top rope belayer leaves some slack in the toprope line so it stays slack. If the gear placement you are now weighting fails, the top rope belay kicks in and “catches” you.
If you don’t have a secondary lead belayer, the mock leader can just clip directly into the piece with a quickdraw and give the gear placement a bounce test. If the gear blows, the toprope will catch you.
You can also use this opportunity to practice rope management, figuring out the best strategies to reduce drag and/or your lead rope pulling on pieces and making them “walk” out of their placements. As a general rule, your rope should run in as straight a line as possible—you may need to clip a quickdraw or an alpine draw to your placements to ensure that this happens.
General rules for leading:
● Sew it up: The more gear between you and the ground, the better your odds of survival in a fall.
● Place gear early and often. Ideally, your first placement will be a camming device because cams can take multi-directional forces— downward, outward, and upward pulls. This is important because if your first piece fails, it can cause the remaining pieces to “zipper” due to the vector angle of the rope.
● Double down. Two pieces in close proximity also stacks the odds in your favor. If in doubt of a placement’s security or if about to head into a crux section, then double it up. The extra security will give you the peace of mind to climb with greater confidence.
● Keep your rope running in a straight line so your gear doesn’t walk.
● Place pieces roughly one body-length apart. Once your last piece is right at your feet, place your next piece.
There’s much more nuance to making the transition from being a gym climber to a full-fledged trad climber than I’ve covered here—it’s simply not possible to cover all of the things you’ll need to know in this article. What it really comes down to is gaining experience, preferably under the supervision of a reliable mentor or an AMGA Certified Instructor or Rock Guide. While learning from your friends can be helpful, no matter how well intentioned they may be, you should be wary of trusting the information they share if they’re not much more experienced than you are. In my experience, the best way to jumpstart your learning is to hire a guide.