A Beginner’s Guide to Lead Climbing
Learning to lead climb involves memorizing various systems—how to tie in, how to clip quickdraws, how to clean anchors—AND accumulating fluency and trust in those systems.
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Part I. “Constantly adjust your modeling”
My first lead climb was a 5.8 in Rumney, New Hampshire, called Little Angler. I wish I could say it was a rope-stretching classic, but it was in truth a runty little route, 30 feet of traversing jugs and small knobby feet. When I led it in November 2004, I’d been climbing for just a few weeks, and my learning process was supervised and directed by a far-more-experienced friend. Calm as any 5.12 climber is on a 5.8 jug haul, he danced up the route, hanging the draws, explaining why he was clipping from this hold instead of that hold, and giving me belay pointers. He told me when I had too much slack out and when I had too little. He told me why if he fell right now I ought to jump but if he fell a few moves farther out from his draw, I’d want to give a harder catch so he didn’t deck. And, most importantly, he told me that, when leading and lead belaying, the situation was always changing; “You have to constantly adjust your modeling,” he said. “Ask yourself what will happen if I fall here? What happens if I fall there? How do I keep myself safe while also climbing efficiently?”
When he was done, I toproped the climb, unclipping from the draws and getting a sense for the moves. Then I went for the lead, and it was easy. I didn’t fumble any clips. I didn’t mess up my foot beta. I climbed the route, lowered, and—because I was a lead climber now—went off to take some practice falls. No big deal.
It was only years later, when I started introducing others to the sharp end, that I realized I’d had a great teacher—that my friend had taken a few very subtle steps to demystify the process and help me trust the systems. So I thought I’d share them here.Section divider
Part II. The basics
For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume you’re starting out on a bolted climb—either in the gym or outside. If you’re planning on starting out by trad climbing, know that trad climbing involves a greater learning curve and that some of the techniques outlined below might not apply. (You can read our How to Trad Climb series, or take our Intro to Trad Climbing course on Outside Learn.)
Here are the basic things you need to know about lead climbing:
1. The difference between lead climbing and toproping
It’s only marginally ridiculous to declare that toproping is to lead climbing as plastic tricycles are to carbon fiber racing bikes. Sure, the same fundamental factors are at play—rope, carabiner, gravity—wheels, pedals, legs—but the interactions between those factors are pretty different.
When you’re toproping, the rope runs up from the belayer’s belay device to the anchor at the top of the climb, then back down to where it’s tied into the climber’s harness. As the climber climbs, the belayer reels in the slack. And since they’re protected from above, the climber doesn’t need to worry much about falling, since fall distance is a function of slack in the system and rope stretch. If the system is rigged correctly, and if your belayer knows what they’re doing, and if you’ve tied your knot right, and if there are directionals to avoid sideways swings on wandering routes, toproping is generally quite safe.
Lead climbing, however, entails dragging the rope up with you as you climb. To keep safe, you periodically clip into protection—maybe a bolt, maybe a nut, maybe a cam—as you progress upwards. But for every foot that you climb above that piece of protection, you increase your potential free-fall distance by two feet. Fall five feet above your last bolt and you’ll travel back down to that bolt, then five feet below it, at which point system slack and rope stretch make their additions. So it’s far scarier than toproping—and far more consequential.
2. How to clip a quickdraw
There are a number of ways to clip a quickdraw, but these two common methods are a great place to start since they’re simple and cover each of the four possible clipping configurations.
Method 1: same-side clipping. For use when clipping a left-facing draw with your left hand or a right-facing draw with your right hand. Reach down with your palm up and pinch the rope between your thumb and index finger. Pull the rope up to the draw. Loosen your grip on the rope so it’s either draped loosely over your pointer finger or pinched between your pointer and middle finger (try both: some people prefer one, some prefer the other). Next, wrap your thumb around the spine of the carabiner and position the rope in front of the carabiner’s gate. Then push the rope through the gate with your pointer finger. (See Figure A.)
Method 2: opposite-side clipping. For use when clipping a right-facing draw with your left hand or a left-facing draw with your right hand. Pinch the rope between your thumb and pointer finger, then lay your middle finger inside the carabiner. Using your middle finger to hold the draw in place, push the rope through the gate with your thumb and forefinger. (Figure B)
This excellent video by Outdoor Research, in concert with the American Mountain Guides Association, does a good job of walking you through clipping methods.
Quickdraw orientation. A quickdraw’s gate orientation only really matters if your route wanders left or right of the draw. In these cases, you should make sure to orient each quickdraw such that the gate of the lower carabiner is facing away from the direction you’re moving. If your route angles up and left, for instance, the gate should face to the right. Orienting your quickdraw correctly helps minimize two things: (1) the chance that the quickdraw’s gate comes into contact with some rock protuberance and unclips itself from the rope, and (2) that when you fall the weighted rope won’t cross-load onto the gate—a far weaker part of the carabiner than the basket. That said, you should also factor in ease of clipping to orientation; sometimes, based on the moves, it’s easier to clip a quickdraw if it’s facing one way rather than the other—which is something that more advanced climbers, working on projects, certainly consider when hanging their draws on a hard climb.
To bite or not to bite. Often, when we’re clipping draws far above us, we need more than a single armful of slack in order to have enough rope. A common technique therefore is to pull up an armful of rope, bite it, then reach back down to your harness and pull the rest up. While this is a long-established practice, it’s worth noting that falling with the rope in between your teeth is a terrible idea. Numerous climbers have lost teeth or dislocated their jaws. A good alternative is to capture the rope with your lips.
3. How NOT to clip a quickdraw.
Back clipping: You want to clip the rope so that it comes out of the carabiner from behind, i.e. from the wall toward you: The climber’s side of the rope should be on top, the belayer’s on bottom. When you clip so that the belayer’s side is on top, you have “back-clipped.” Back clipping is a terrible idea because, if you fall, the rope can come unclipped from the twisted quickdraw. Don’t do it, but know how to recognize it. If you’re belaying and you see a climber back clip, let them know and insist that they fix it.
Z-clipping. Z-clipping is when the climber pulls the rope from below the last clipped quickdraw and then clips it through a higher quickdraw. The resulting z-shape in the rope will create an impossible level of rope drag. It also makes the higher draw useless. One way to avoid this on tightly bolted routes is to pull the rope up right from your tie-in knot.
4. The difference between lead belaying and toprope belaying
To really know how to lead climb, it helps to understand how the system works from a belayer’s perspective. (It’s also pretty likely that your partners will want you to know this skill, too.) For more information on belaying—both toproping and leading—check out the American Alpine Club’s excellent Universal Belay Standard videos:
Part III.Section divider
Part III. Getting started
There are many ways to acquire the necessary skills to do your first lead climb—the most obvious being that you can take a lead climbing clinic at the gym. Gyms are a great place to start because they’re controlled environments. The bolts are closely spaced. The floor is padded. Holds rarely break. And you’ll be learning under the watchful eye of someone who has serious vested interest in making sure you don’t hurt yourself.
But regardless of whether you decide to start in the gym or outside, it’s important to note that learning to lead climb requires not just memorizing the system—how to tie in, how to clip quickdraws, how to clean anchors, and so on—but accumulating fluency and trust in that system. And one way to become comfortable in this respect is to compartmentalize the process—to break it into discrete pieces that can be rehearsed into fluency. You can, for instance, practice clipping while on the ground. You can take intentional practice falls to get used to the process rather than waiting until that frightening moment when you take a fall by accident.
1. Practice clipping off the wall
By the time I started up Little Angler, in November 2004, I had already clipped a rope into a quickdraw several hundred times. Yep, you read that right. My friend had a hangboard setup in his bedroom, and beneath the hangboard were two eye bolts to which my friend attached pulleys and trained assisted one-arms. But after informing me that “there’s nothing worse than being pumped and fumbling a clip,” my friend hung a quickdraw from one of these eyebolts, tied an old six-foot length of rope around my waist (sometimes called a “monkey tail”), and had me practice clipping while I hung from the hangboard with my feet perched on a small kickboard. It was both endurance training and clipping training. I hung there for 10 or 20 minutes at a stretch, clipping the quickdraw, sliding the rope free, clipping it again.
Boring? Absolutely. But after just a few hours over a day or two, I was comfortable with all the different clipping angles and techniques—and in the process ensured that I didn’t desperately fumble with any quickdraws on Little Angler, or any of my subsequent climbs. Indeed, I was probably better at clipping draws than I was at any other aspect of the sport at that point.
2. Do a mock lead.
Mock leading involves using two ropes: the climber climbs the climb on toprope while clipping a second rope (or a “monkey-tail”) into quickdraws on the way up the wall. I rarely actually use mock-leads as a teaching device—largely because I think it’s inefficient: You shouldn’t be practicing clipping techniques while on the wall; you should practice on the ground where you can accomplish several hundred practice clips in a few minutes. Still, though, mock leads are a popular method and certainly a great way for climbers to get used to leading’s on-the-wall logistics without actually risking the falls. They’re also great for helping fearful or younger climbers become yet more comfortable with the system before they commit to it.
3. Pick the right route.
For your first outdoor lead, pick a sport climb—maybe one that you’ve done before—that’s closely bolted, not particularly long, and not very hard for you. If you’re placing draws, make sure that you have enough for all the bolts and for the anchors. Also make sure to analyze the route’s features. Are there ledges that you could hit if you fell from certain places? If so, strategize about where you’ll clip and inform your belayer to be extra vigilant when you’re climbing above those obstacles. Does the route tackle any small roofs or traverse notably sideways? Consider placing a few longer quickdraws to reduce rope-drag in key places. Does the climbing up to the first draw look easy? If not, stick clip the first draw (or two) or ask your belayer to spot you.
4. Practice taking.
For a lot of climbers, getting to the top of a route without falling or weighting the rope is the point. But if you’re learning to lead climb, send bravado isn’t necessarily your friend. If you keep lead climbing long enough, you are eventually going to take a lead fall, and the more comfortable you are with that fact, the less your fear of falling will inhibit your climbing. Sometimes, of course, being afraid of taking a fall is absolutely unjustified; but sometimes it’s not; and part of learning to lead climb involves knowing the difference between those scenarios. That’s why, when teaching nervous friends to lead, I try to emphasize the safety inherent in the system. I do this by having them climb up to the first or second bolt, clip it, and take. Hanging on the rope, they think “OK. I climbed up to here and stopped. If I climb up to the next one and feel uncomfortable, I can stop there too.” I also urge beginners to…
5. Practice falling.
Once you’ve climbed up to a draw and taken, a process which should emotionally convince you that the rope will indeed hold your weight, consider doing some fall progressions—intentional falls that begin small and get bigger. This will help you get comfortable falling and help you’re belayer (if they’re new belayers) get comfortable with the mechanics of catching lead falls. (We’ve got a whole online course on learning to fall and minimize fear of falling: check it out here.)
First, have your belayer give a bit of slack but fall from below the quickdraw. You’ll zip down a few feet before being caught. Next, take a fall with the draw at your waist. Third, climb above the draw—knee height is a good starting place—and then let go. Fourth, climb up to just below the next quickdraw—close enough so that you could clip it—and then fall. Step four is important because these falls—the big ones—are scary; and because they’re scary they’re common impediments to progression. If you’re afraid of taking a bigger fall, you’ll try to clip as soon as your next draw is within reach rather than climbing a bit higher and clipping from a more efficient stance. This will tire you out and make you even less solid at the next clip, and so on. The solution? Fall. Fall until you’re no longer afraid of the general act of falling… though be sure to stay afraid of hitting something, like a ledge or the ground.
Three important notes about fall progressions:
- Fall progressions should be done on an overhanging wall without obstructions or obstacles that you might hit.
- Once you start falling from above your draw, make sure you’re high enough on the wall that you have no risk of hitting the ground.
- Never fall with the rope running behind your leg.
Part IV. Safety Tips and Tricks
Know when to say “falling” and when to say “take.”
If you’re above your bolt, say “falling”; if you’re below it or at it, say “take”; and don’t mess this up. The reality is that once you pass a bolt, you really can’t safely take unless you’re on a severely overhanging wall. Why? Well, if your belayer takes slack and you fall, instead of receiving a dynamic catch you’re going to slam hard into the rock. An experienced belayer might know not to take slack in this situation even if you tell them too, but if you’ve climbed around a roof or corner and your belayer can’t see you, even an experienced belayer is likely to take when told to “take.” You’ll then experience a very hard fall—and hard falls are a common cause of ankle and head injuries. So when you’re falling, yell “falling!”
Know when to clip a quickdraw.
When you’re starting out as a leader, your instinct will probably be to clip the quickdraw the very first second that it’s within reach. But it’s important to clip from comfortable stances when possible. Sometimes this means clipping when the draw is far above your head—especially if you’ve got a good hold and stance. But generally it means climbing until the draw is closer to your midsection before clipping it. In the end, knowing when to clip is the sort of judgment call that takes experience—and it’s something that even professionals mess up.
Don’t get your foot caught behind the rope.
I’ve written about this already, so I’ll be brief: Don’t let the rope run behind your foot. It’s dangerous. Here’s why:
Use sport draws.
Quickdraws come in many shapes and sizes, but for the sake of this article I’ll make a generalization and distinguish between sport draws and alpine draws. Sport draws have a single dogbone (the webbing between the carabiners) and a “keeper” (a rubber encasement that goes over the end of the dogbone) that prevents the lower carabiner (the one that you clip your rope into) from flipping over. Alpine draws, meanwhile, are composed of longer slings that, when used at their full length, minimize rope drag on longer routes, but which can be doubled over to produce shorter, sport-length draws. The challenge with alpine draws, however, is the lower carabiner does not have a keeper and is instead just dangling freely from the sling. This makes it harder to clip since it can flip over, in which case you need to un-flip it in order to clip it. They’re also somewhat less safe, since, in flipping, they can unclip from either the rope or the webbing—or take weight while cross loaded, which makes them more likely to break.