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Learn to Climb: Clipping Basics for Sport Climbing

Learn two common techniques for clipping on lead

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This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of our print edition.

After you get comfortable toproping in the gym, you might be ready for the next step in your climbing career: leading. Lead climbing means you tie into the rope that is connected directly to your belayer and you clip into protection as you move up. There is no toprope here! Because there’s no rope above you, the falls are bigger and you must pay attention to more than just moving up the wall, including clipping the rope. Below we outline two standard methods for clipping the rope to the fixed quickdraws on the wall in a gym, as well as common mistakes to avoid. Leading in the gym is a great way to get comfortable with the systems before you go outdoors, and it will help get you dialed on everything in a more controlled environment. 

Begin Here

The techniques listed here illustrate how to clip, but knowing when to do it will differ every time. Sometimes you’ll want to reach as high as possible to clip, while other times it might be easier to clip when the quickdraw is even with your waist. It all depends on the holds and how stable you feel in your stance. Typically, as soon as you can reach the quickdraw to clip, you should be looking for a solid position to clip from, ideally when the draw is between your hips and your chest. You might need to make a few moves, take a foot off, or twist a certain way, but when the draw is within arm’s reach, start looking for a good stance to clip.

The thing to remember whenever you’re leading a climb is that however far above your last bolt you are, you’ll fall twice that distance, meaning if you’re three feet above your last bolt, you’ll fall six feet plus a bit more to account for rope stretch. Plus, if you pull up a few feet of rope to clip and then you fall, you’ve only increased the distance of your fall, so try to clip quickly every time and recognize that a high clip will not always be safer because it requires more slack. Accordingly, try to clip the first three or four quickdraws off the ground early to prevent hitting the deck in the event of a fall.

When you’re in a good clipping stance, take the appropriate hand and reach for the rope coming from your harness. Pull up as much as you think you might need, then reach up and clip. A common technique for high clips that require a lot of rope is to pull some up, put it between your teeth, then reach back down to your harness and pull the rest up. While this is an established and commonly used practice, keep in mind that falling with the rope in your mouth could be very dangerous—there are cases where climbers have lost teeth after falling with the rope clenched in their jaw. In addition, if you’re using a rope the gym has provided, it’s highly likely that many other climbers have put their mouths all over that same rope.

Common Mistakes

Back-clipping and Z-clipping are the two biggest mistakes you can make while leading in the gym; the latter is especially easy to do with bolts that are placed really close together, as is the case with most gyms.

Sport Climbing Back Clipping Rock

Back-clipping can result in the quickdraw coming unclipped during a fall, and it happens when you clip the rope so it’s running through the carabiner incorrectly. The correct way is to have the rope coming up from behind (between carabiner and wall), through the carabiner and out, away from the wall and then to your harness. A back-clipped quickdraw has the rope running up through the carabiner from the front, toward the wall, and then to your harness. Back-clipping is something that even veteran climbers do occasionally, so make sure you can identify and fix a back-clipped carabiner quickly.

Sport Climbing Z Clipping Rock

Z-clipping will create rope drag that makes it nearly impossible to move up, as well as making the highest clipped bolt useless. This scenario happens when the climber grabs the rope from below the last clipped bolt and then clips it through a higher bolt, creating a Z-shape. Avoid this by always reaching for the rope right at your tie-in knot. 

The Techniques 

Observe experienced leaders at the gym and you’ll see a variety of clipping methods, some similar to this and others completely different. All will get the job done, but the following procedures are easy to learn and master, in addition to being great starting points for refining your techniques in the future. Because you have two hands and the gate of the quickdraw can face two different ways, there are four different situations you’ll encounter when clipping, but you only need two methods to handle them all. You might need to reach across your body to employ these techniques.

Same Side

Left Hand With Left-Facing Gate, Right Hand With Right-facing gate

Rock Sport Climbing Clipping Quickdraw Lead
Photo: Elliott Natz

Reach down and pinch the rope between your thumb and index finger, which should be pointing down. Pull the rope up and just before you clip, loosen your grasp on the rope so it’s draped over your pointer finger. Open your hand and wrap your thumb around the spine of the carabiner as you position the rope in front of the gate. Then smoothly push the rope through the gate with your pointer finger, getting a little extra push from your other fingers if necessary. Once the rope is through the gate, quickly remove your hand. 

Opposite Side

Left Hand With Right-Facing Gate, Right Hand With Left-Facing Gate

Rock Sport Climbing Clipping Quickdraw Lead
Photo: Elliott Natz

Reach down the same as above, with rope pinched between thumb and index finger (inside or outside hand). Pull rope up and as you get close to the carabiner, reach out with your middle finger and place it in the bottom of the carabiner, aka the rope basket. Using your middle finger to hold the draw in place, flick your wrist to push the rope through the gate with your thumb. Remove your hand quickly.