Lessons in Lead Climbing (Part 1): Elvis Leg Isn’t the End

Four years ago I took my first lead fall in a tiny college gym in Cheney, WA. The class had been short and I’d completed it with three of my good friends. We’d spent a few hours learning the basics of lead climbing like how not to z-clip or backclip. We learned how to give and take slack and how to jump at just the right time to ensure a softer fall for your climber. We had gone through all the basics and now it was time to pass the lead climbing test. It was a moderate 5.8 climb with holds for days, but I was still shaking and nervous because I knew the closer I got to the top the sooner I’d have to let go and trust that I wouldn’t deck and end my life.

It took me fifteen minutes to let go of those stupid plastic holds.

At that point I thought to myself, Alright Megan, nice work, you learned how to lead climb, now you can go back to top-roping for the rest of your days. Because NO WAY was I going to put myself in that situation again. No thank you, I will pass.

Unfortunately for me and my fear, my insistent friends had different plans for me.

Not long after the class, the four of us hit the road to northwestern Montana in search of limestone and campfires and wine. We were stoked to be on an all girls climbing trip. We didn’t need men to rope gun for us! We knew how to lead climb, dammit, and lead climb we…might.

On our first pitch we all chickened out before the first bolt. We’d caress the start holds, hoping they’d unlock some secret power within us that would enable us to float up the wall, but nothing happened. We barely even got our feet off the ground.

We regrouped and found another pitch that looked a little more forgiving and I decided I was going to do it. I’d climbed 5.8’s tens, if not hundreds of times. Physically it was possible.

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I roped up, did my buddy check, and was on my way, one tepid move after another. With every vertical movement, my breathing come quicker and my Elvis-leg threatened to shake me right off the wall. But if I bailed, and none of the other girls could make it to the top, then we would lose gear, and I was determined to bring my shiny new quickdraws home with me.

Disbelief washed over me as I clipped into the chains. I’d done it. I’d lead a route outside and I didn’t die! Hallelujah!

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When my introspection came, as it usually does, I gained some perspective about climbing. Like how many people are climbing every single day, and how many of those people return home safely. Or the fact that these routes are bolted with protection in mind, and the purpose of the rope and the quickdraws and the bolts are to work harmoniously together in order to keep climbers off the deck. Now, granted, this doesn’t always happen, but now, in the five and a half years I’ve been climbing, I’ve seen someone (my brother, actually) really deck only once, and he walked away with a bruised ankle.

All these what-if’s and fat-chances are the nemesis of my climbing. Whether I’m on the wall, walking to the wall, standing below the wall, on top of the wall—these are the ideas that invade my mind. Ideas of bolts pulling, of harnesses failing, of choss cascading off the wall. Constantly I remind myself that while these things can happen, chances are that they won’t. Chances are, whatever climb I’m attempting I’ll finish it the way I’ve finished the others: with a little bit of style and some awesome Adam Ondra inspired yells.

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Don’t let the fear of what could happen make nothing happen. -Doe Zantamata

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