Trad Skills: Fall-Line Management

Internationally certified mountain guide Marc Chauvin explains how to protect your follower on a trad route.
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While leading a route, we tend to think mostly of our own safety in choosing where to place protection. But what might be relatively safe gear placements for the leader could unintentionally put the follower in a dangerous position. Here, trad-climbing expert and professional guide Marc Chauvin, the co-instructor for Climbing’s Intro to Trad Climbing online course, explains how to protect your follower through “fall-line” management—in other words, how to consider and mitigate the trajectory of a potential fall. (A fall line, explains Chauvin, is the line between a piece of gear the follower is about to remove while cleaning and the next piece up.)

The problem: swing potential

Here, the follower faces a pendulum if he falls.

Here, the follower faces a pendulum if he falls.

You’ll need to consider the possibility for a pendulum: “Unless the pitch is perfectly straight up and down, the protection creates a diagonal fall line,” says Chauvin. Meaning, any time your next piece of gear is well to the right or left of the current piece, it introduces the potential for your follower to take a swing in the event of a fall. Such a fall can cause the follower to slam into the rock and/or shred the rope if it gets caught on an edge.

Here’s a scenario with a perilous fall line: “Let’s say the leader placed a piece of protection, climbed a difficult move, then got to an easy ledge, walked across that ledge 20 feet … and placed another piece of protection only at the end of the ledge,” says Chauvin. When the second removes the piece at the crux, she now has to make a hard move with the next piece way off to the side, setting her up for a massive swing and possible injuries. Gear before a crux protects the leader, while gear after a crux protects the follower.

The solution: protect traverses or use high pivot points

Protecting a traverse can reduce swing potential in the event of a fall.

Protecting a traverse can reduce swing potential in the event of a fall.

In the case above, the leader could place a piece of gear at the close end of the ledge, thus protecting her second on the difficult move and reducing the potential for an epic swing.

The other option is called the “high pivot point.” Back to the above example: Say the leader traverses the ledge (runs it out after the crux, as in our original scenario) and continues climbing without placing gear at the end of the traverse; the higher she places her next piece, the less sizable the pendulum if the second falls. Chauvin calls it a “strategic use of a runout.” Alternatively, the leader could place an intermediate piece of gear, and then—after placing a high pivot point—come back down and clean the intermediate piece in order to straighten out the fall line.

Whatever approach you take, the key is “seeing that this is going to happen and then developing a plan so that you can keep your second well-protected,” says Chauvin.

Want to learn more about traditional climbing? Take Climbing’s Intro to Trad Climbing online course, and learn from internationally certified guides Marc Chauvin and Rob Coppolillo.