Learn to Climb Trad: Leading and Following
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
This is part two of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner’s Guide.
Tying in to the sharp end is what it’s all about. You need to thoroughly understand gear placements, rope systems, and how to keep your second safe, among many other things.
Tie in and begin to climb as you normally would on a sport climb. As you travel up, place protection into cracks, slots, and fissures in the rock. When you get to the top of the pitch, build an anchor. Tie in to the anchor, then yell down to your belayer, “[Partner’s name], off belay!”. When he responds and takes you off belay, pull up the slack in the rope and coil it at your feet if the belay ledge is big enough, or drape it over the rope or sling connecting you to the anchor. When you have pulled up all the slack, the second climber, or follower, will yell, “That’s me!” Put him on belay on your harness or directly on the anchor. Yell to your partner, “[Partner’s name], you’re on belay!” As he climbs, pull up the additional slack and keep coiling or draping the rope as you did before. When he gets to your stance, tie him in to the anchor, make sure he is in a comfortable position, and take him off belay. If your partner is leading the next pitch, give him the rest of your gear; if you are leading the next pitch, begin gathering the gear and flip the rope so your end is on top. After the leader has the gear, he will stay tied into the anchor until the belayer puts him on belay, saying directly to the climber, “You’re on belay.” The climber can then untie from the anchor and begin climbing upward.
- Want more in-depth training? Internationally certified mountain guides Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin will teach you the fundamentals of trad climbing in our Intro to Trad 8-week online course. From placing/removing gear and proper belay techniques, to how to make an anchor and manage a stuck rope, Intro to Trad Climbing takes the guesswork out of exploring traditionally protected climbs. Learn More.
- Always check and double-check your own harness, knot, and your belayer’s setup before you begin to climb.
- Placing gear is a real art form and takes a lot of practice. Begin by placing gear on toprope or at the base of a crag.
- It’s always best to begin practicing leading on climbs that are well within your ability—a route you know you can finish with no struggle and little danger of falling. For example, if you’re a 5.10 sport climber, try leading a 5.7 trad climb first.
- There are infinite possibilities when it comes to building anchors. See the following pages for the basics, and get solid instruction from a mentor, certified instructor, or experienced partner so you know your anchors are trustworthy.
- It’s important to use names because when there is distance between you and your partner and there are multiple parties at a crag, you can end up mistaking someone else’s yell for your partner’s and bad things can happen. Using names prevents this problem.
- Coil or drape the rope in big loops first, then smaller and smaller loops as the follower gets closer. This will help prevent the rope from tangling and thus save time.
- Belaying directly from the anchor with an auto-blocking belay device is useful because you can organize gear or grab a snack while safely belaying.
- “Comfortable” is a relative word in regard to belay ledges. The crucial thing is that the belayer can maintain a proper belay.
- To avoid dropping gear during an exchange, hold it out until the other climber puts a hand on it and confirms out loud: “Got it.”
It’s crucial to discuss the basics of communication with your partner before you leave the ground. There’s a good chance you won’t be able to hear your partner when he is 150 feet above you at a belay station, especially when you’ve got howling winds, a rushing river, or a nearby road adding to the noise pollution. There are several different ways to do this, but what’s most important is to develop a system (even if it’s developed on the spot) and stick with it. A good example would be something like this: When the leader builds an anchor and goes off belay, he pulls sharply on the rope three times. The follower responds with three sharp pulls when he has taken the leader off belay. When the leader puts the follower on belay, he pulls sharply four times, and the climber responds that he is climbing by also pulling four times.
“My best advice is to make sure you are efficient at all sizes and all techniques of cracks. Thin cracks, stemming, layback, offwidth, etc.—there’s always a little bit of everything on long routes! Use trad shoes, meaning comfy shoes that are made for crack climbing; it will make a huge difference. Also try to keep your rack as lightweight as possible; don’t bring anything extra that you don’t need!” —Jean-Pierre Ouellet
For longer routes (four pitches or more), you will probably want to carry along food, water, layers, descent shoes, and other sundries. In that case, take a small bullet pack that’s light, just big enough for the essentials for the two of you (16 to 20 liters is a good size), and comfortable enough to wear while climbing. Have the follower carry the pack since the leader has the weight of the rack (both climbers might want a pack for all-day routes). For shorter routes (two to three pitches), you can either leave water and the rest on the ground, or you can clip essentials to your harness. It adds some bulk, but you might be really thankful you brought those luxuries along.
Tie in with a figure-eight follow-through on the opposite end of the rope from the leader. Clip in to belay as you would on any other roped climb. As you belay, the climber will move up and place gear. When she gets to the top of the first pitch, she will build an anchor. After she clips in to the anchor, she will yell, “[Your name], off belay!”Take her off belay and yell back, “[Her name], you’re off belay!” She will then begin pulling rope up. Put your climbing shoes on and gather whatever gear you’re bringing along. Double-check your knot, and wait for the leader to yell, “[Your name], you’re on belay!” Before you start climbing, yell back, “Climbing!” She should respond with, “Climb on!” or something similar, and then you can begin climbing. As you move upward, you will clean the route by removing the pieces of pro, sometimes with a nut tool. Organize the gear on your harness or sling as you clean. When you get to the top of the pitch, you will clip directly into the anchor, and the leader will take you off belay.
- This can be done later, after the leader has finished the first pitch, but doing it before the leader leaves the ground will help prevent mistakes because you can double-check each other’s knots. Make sure the rope at your feet is properly flaked and tangle-free so it will feed smoothly to the leader.
- Don’t forget to double-check your belay setup and the climber’s knot and harness.
- You can leave your approach shoes on while you belay; there will be time later to change into climbing shoes.
- Remember to use names to avoid confusion.
- Help the leader by making sure the rope doesn’t get caught and feeds smoothly.
- It is good to remove the pro from the rock before unclipping it from the rope. If the piece slips out of your hand, it will still be hanging from the rope.
- Try to visualize how the leader put the piece in because that’s how it will come out. Sometimes a piece has to be pushed down or sideways before it can be lifted out, but be careful not to shove cams in too deep or they can get stuck.
- Try to rack the gear in order as you clean to save time at each belay. Put cams in order from smallest to largest, with nuts in front.
To learn more trad climbing skills, see the rest of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner’s Guide.
Want more in-depth training? Internationally certified mountain guides Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin will teach you the fundamentals of trad climbing in our Intro to Trad 8-week online course. From placing/removing gear and proper belay techniques, to how to make an anchor and manage a stuck rope, Intro to Trad Climbing takes the guesswork out of exploring traditionally protected climbs. Learn More.