Why You Should Learn to Lead Climb

As with any sport, climbing follows a natural progression.

First you learn to boulder. Then you try out top-roping. Eventually you muster up the courage to try lead climbing. And once the fear from lead climbing subsides, you test your luck on gear. Generally. I know people who have done this in reverse, or skipped an element all together. It’s all in the eyes of the climber.

For about four years I was content letting someone (usually my boyfriend or another really strong male friend), lead the climb and set up the top rope for me. Then I’d willfully flail around on the thing for however long, maybe make it to the chains, maybe not, be lowered, maybe get grouchy for being such a terrible climber, rinse, repeat.

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Let me say, there is nothing wrong with top-roping. In fact, top-roping is an essential and useful aspect in learning how to climb. The falls are more protected, you can hone in on your technique, and it requires little know-how. Top-roping plays a vital role in climbing.

This is sticky, so bear with me.

Before I learned how to lead climb I was always dependent on someone else. I needed someone with a higher skillset than my own to hang draws and set-up the rope for me. Climbing wasn’t my own. I couldn’t call up just anyone to go climbing, I had to call someone who would be willing to take me out and do the work for me.

The more I went out and lacked the skills to set-up my own climb, the less empowered I felt.

In fact, I started to feel everything but empowered.

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I understand teamwork and collaboration. I value the power of we. And climbing is far from a solo endeavor. You need a partner. You need a catch. You need a spotter.

Like every good partnership, however, it can easily become exhausting when one partner is doing all the work. I noticed this in my relationship with my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time of these revelations). I wanted to be this strong, independent woman, but I was unable to own my climbing. And it was so easy to use him as a sort of crutch. I started thinking, if he hadn’t come into my life, would I be climbing at all?

I needed climbing to be a thing for me. I needed it to be something I did because I could. At that point, I couldn’t just go out and climb because I lacked the skills.

So, I learned to lead climb.

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And yeah, lead climbing is terrifying. While it gets less terrifying over time (and then ups the terrifying levels when you least expect it), learning to lead climb is scary and uncomfortable and if you’re anything like me, can be downright paralyzing at times.

When you’re first starting out, it’s type II fun, for sure.

But once you start hitting that flow on lead, and you realize that every fall won’t be your last, you tap into a part of yourself that believes you can.

For the first time in my climbing career, I’ve been able to go out and project 5.12 with some incredible, crusher, badass ladies. I’ve introduced women to the sport. I’ve been able to setup top-ropes for beginner climbers on routes they wouldn’t have been able to try otherwise.

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I love this circle.

So to all of you out there, who want to try lead climbing, but are maybe scared (or, like I was, downright terrified), I encourage you to try it. Take a class. I know the gyms in Salt Lake offer lead climbing classes on a regular basis. There are also dozens, maybe hundreds of people in climbing communities who are more than willing to mentor and encourage new climbers.

So get out there, and get scared.

 



 

**All pictures courtesy of my dashing, and incredibly talented husband, Coby Walsh. You can follow him on Instagram @icoby24

 

Lessons in Lead Climbing (Part 4): I am Courageous

I’m fifteen feet off the deck and my first bolt glistens five feet above my head. I look down and notice a giant boulder in my fall zone. As I smear and wedge myself up the dihedral I continue to reassure myself that 1) a broken ankle wouldn’t hurt that bad, and 2) I got this, I flippin got this!

After I clip the first bolt and take my time chalking up, my husband sends up some calm words of reassurance. I glance up the bolt line and see the sun glinting off shiny metal another twenty vertical feet. First come the curse words, and the highly anxious thoughts like, why even clip the first bolt if I know I’ll deck from the second?, and other fun things like that. But then come the reassurances, the urges to be brave, the emphasis on delicate footwork and precise movements.

Before I know it I’m at the second bolt with confidence building. I notice the third bolt about the same distance as the two prior and push on. The success of the first two bolts carries over to the third, then the fourth, until I’m on the final stretch to the anchors. Each move I make I expect to see the chains, and each move I’m disappointed. A few more moves and the bolt below me disappears. I move tepidly up the face. The moves aren’t hard, but I can’t distract my brain from the giant whip I’ll take if my foot pops or my hand slips.

Finally, about fifty feet from the last bolt, the chains come into view. I anxiously move towards them, clip in, and breathe a deep, deep sigh of relief.

I clipped those chains with Elvis-leg and sweaty palms.

As I yelled down to my husband to lower, my pulse slowed and my hands stopped trembling. The first thought that came to mind was, hell yeah.

Hell yeah I just finished that super sketchy climb on lead. Hell yeah I stuck with it and didn’t need my husband to bail me out. Hell yeah I faced every fearful move I made. Hell yeah I clipped those chains with shaking limbs and sweaty palms.

Hell yeah.

A few weeks ago Coby asked me why I was writing about lessons from lead climbing instead of climbing in general (specifically TR), and I think this climb sums it up. On top rope, the experience wouldn’t have included the fear and consistent self-reassurance between each bolt. I wouldn’t have felt the surge of accomplishment in clipping the chains. On top-rope, it would have been just another straightforward, fun climb. Instead I experienced the roots of something deeper: courage.

Above all else I’ve learned from lead climbing (so far), my most important lesson centers on courage. When I don’t think I can clip another bolt or make another move, the consequences of inaction push me farther. A year ago I wouldn’t have believed anyone that told me I could lead a 12b. Forget 12b, not even a 10b. I lived in a bubble of safety. I lived believing my limits were extraordinarily lower than my capabilities. When I started lead climbing I wanted to shit my pants with every move. I wanted to lower to safety. A good majority of the time I wanted to give up. But every climb I finished I learned that I’m capable, that fear can’t stop me, and that I’m a brave MF who can do anything she sets her mind too.

I learned that I’m courageous.

Hell yeah, I am courageous.

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