Making the progression from sport to trad can be daunting. It’s a hell of a steep learning curve. Traditional climbing is no mere gymnastic feat—it’s a psychological test and a battle of wits as much as it is a physical challenge. Newcomers can easily find themselves overwhelmed by a host of new variables and risks, but pushing through these barriers can find open a whole new world of opportunity and reward.
If you cast your mind back to the giddy days that formed your introduction to sport leading, you might recall being the perplexed recipient of unsolicited advice. It was quick and it was questionable, and it came from someone who loudly proclaimed that they’d been there and done that. You know who I’m talking about. It came from that guy.
Maybe he told you that fixed hangers make great mono pockets. Perhaps he informed you that climbing shoes don’t work unless they literally cripple you with pain. Or maybe he encouraged your crux attempt with an uninvited beta spray and the soothing whir of drone blades.
Just for fun, I’ve decided to be that guy for the day. Saddle up, folks! If you’re an aspiring trad leader, this document will provide you with more shitty advice than you can shake a rack of hexes at.
1. Always set nuts with extreme force
Every now and again, you’ll come across a perfect nut constriction—a beautiful, tapered crack which not only provides ample surface contact, but is formed in such a manner that the merest tug will set the wire effectively. You’ll be tempted to apply only the necessary amount of force, but don’t be fooled!
Yard the hell out of it. Seriously. Pull as hard as you possibly can. Ideally, this will jam that sucker in deep and necessitate the use of a nut tool for extraction. Your second will appreciate the thoughtfulness and effort that goes into this. Who wouldn’t enjoy a little extra practice in wire retrieval?
Bonus points if you place the nut sideways, as this tends to lodge them in even harder. Extra bonus points if you find a really strange crack, one where the angle makes it awkward (or, ideally, nigh on impossible) to tap the nut out from below.
2. Never carry enough gear
When an aspiring trad leader considers supplementing their rack with a few additional Hail Mary pieces, they often hear a faint but insistent voice. This is the ego, which mental training expert Arno Ilgner calls the “1,000 Headed Dragon.” Common wisdom states that two heads are better than one, so it follows that a thousand heads must be phenomenal.
Listen carefully to your ego when it tells you that you’ll be fine on a 50-meter pitch with a handful of nuts and a pink tricam. You’ll be glad you did when you’ve run out of gear and you’re pumping out above a shallow RP. Character building, they call that!
3. Always return an anchor intact
Not all these tips are for aspiring trad leaders; some will improve your seconding.
As a leader, nothing fills you with greater joy than being handed anchor material which is still tied in a knot. Ideally, this knot will be welded from the carriage of weight and will necessitate the use of teeth to undo. Even better is to leave all the other accoutrements attached—carabiners, quickdraws, protection… Why remove any of it? Just hand it straight to your partner in an ugly heap without so much as a word.
A pre-tied anchor is like a lottery ticket. You’re gambling that, at some point in the next pitch, you’ll find cracks which exactly mirror every minute variable of the previous anchor location. This, in turn, will mean that your anchor needn’t be altered in the slightest.
Granted, I’ve never seen this happen. But imagine if it did, and you hadn’t prepared your leader for it. Wouldn’t you feel like a right goose?
4. Never extend draws
A trad rack is expensive, but you can save money by cutting corners here and there. One item you don’t need is extendable, alpine-style draws. You’ve got a rack of sport draws, right? They’re pretty much the same thing.
Sport draws, especially the uber-short variants, will perform admirably in almost all scenarios. This is especially true when you are exiting a cave or roof, which forces the rope to contort over severe angles. Remember: If the rope drag isn’t so bad that you need to haul in slack with a 3-1 system, you’re not getting the full value out of your climb.
5. Always place link cams in desperation
Once you’ve had a few “engaging” experiences in which the contents of your rack left a little to be desired, your buddy will hand you a shiny orange link cam.
“Save this as your Jesus piece,” they’ll tell you. “It will go in anywhere.”
Your buddy ain’t wrong, but whether it will ever come out again is a different matter. When the chips are down, stuff this bad boy into any old crack without a moment’s consideration. Ideally, that crack will be far too small, engaging all three of the cam’s various sizes, ensuring a friction coefficient so colossal that you’d have to pull the entire cliff down to shift it.
Sadly, you’ll never see that cam again, nor the $117.95 it costs to replace it.
6. Never forget that trad climbers are better than everyone
There is a rigid caste system within the climbing community which defines the hierarchy of disciplines. Trad climbers occupy a lofty position at the highest echelon of the sport and are legitimately better than everyone else. Sport climbers? Yep. Boulderers? Yep. Gym climbers? I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.
“But what about alpinists, ice/mixed climbers, and highball boulderers?” In that case, it’s not a contest. Remember, folks: It’s only a competition if you’re winning. Those, along with all other climbing disciplines, fall into the “I could do that if I wanted to, I just don’t want to” category.
As a newly minted tradster, it’s totally not a dick move to let everyone know how cool you are. They’ll appreciate your candor, as well as the opportunity to bask in your radness. Be as arrogant and elitist as you can. Most folks really relate to these personality characteristics.
By now, you should be brimming with confidence and ready to show off your new skills at a splitter crack near you. And so you should be. I guarantee that if you follow these six simple tips, it won’t be long until you’re the talk of the town.
Want to learn to be a good trad leader instead? Guides Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin take you through gear-protected climbing in AIM Adventure U’s new course Intro to Trad Climbing, on sale July 3. Visit Intro to Trad to sign up!