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

 

El Potrero Chico: A Sport Climber’s Paradise

For years, Potrero has been at the top of my list. It’s home to the second longest sport route in North America, Time Wave Zero, and the notorious El Sendero Luminoso that Alex Honnold free soloed in January of 2014. It’s the sport climber’s Yosemite, with more multi-pitch sport routes than a climb-cation could ever have time for.

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Thankfully, if you want to make the most of your climbing time at EPC, it’s easy and doable to climb in the morning and in the evening at different crags. We were there in April, which is not the best time to go, so we were continuously battling the heat of the day. That meant 6am alarms, mid-afternoon naps, and evening climbing sessions. With the pool at La Posada’s Campground, I couldn’t complain about downtime and lounging in the hammock above the pool. It. Was. Glorious.

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Getting to and from EPC is fairly easy. My husband and I flew to San Antonio, and hailed a greyhound from there to Monterrey. Since the ride went through the night, and there weren’t a lot of people on board, we were able to sleep pretty well. Once at the station in Monterrey there were taxis outside, and with a little bit of google translate help, we were soon on our way. Friends of ours flew into Monterrey International Airport, and the drivers there immediately knew where to take them. The ride is about 500 pesos, or $26.

I can’t speak about the other campgrounds, but there are quite a few you can stay at. We chose La Posada because everywhere else was pretty slow due to the off season. The staff were friendly and hard workers, and the pool was amazing. We were there two weekends and it picked up with quite a few locals coming to camp. We found the ideal camping spot for our two tents and three hammocks. Their website is a bit confusing about pricing, we ended up paying 130 pesos/night ($7) which included everything from showers to pool use.

While my eyes were set on climbing Time Wave Zero, I quickly realized it was out of reach for me right now. My husband and I spent a day climbing Space Boyz (5.10d) on the Jungle wall. This eleven-pitch, 1100-foot climb, demanded every ounce of courage and strength I could muster. It didn’t help that my shoes were half a size too small, either. I grunted my way up, and wasn’t able to carry my own weight. Coby ended up leading most of the pitches, and being the best sport about it. The top-out was the most I’ve felt accomplished in a long time.

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A few days later we went up a six pitch 5.10b, Dope Ninja, which included the coolest 5.6 traverse I’ve ever led in my life! I’d highly recommend this route to anyone headed down to Potrero. It’s also a great introduction to the type of climbing in the area.

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In terms of food, the market, La Mexicana, is a 45-minute walk from the campgrounds. The food (and alcohol) is super cheap. We bought a bottle of tequila for five dollars. We also bought 17 avocados for about six dollars. Each time we went down to the market we were either picked up by a passerby without trying, or stuck out our thumbs far enough to hitch a ride. The locals are incredibly friendly, often honking their horns and waving as they drove by. There is a restaurant at La Posada with a variety of Mexican food and dollar beer and tequila shots.

You can also check out (I highly recommend it) the Tuesday market. Someone described it as a “WalMart on wheels,” because there are so many things for sale. From milky fruity drinks, to usb chargers, to shoes, to produce, you can find nearly anything you’re looking for here. We had the opportunity to meet Raul Reyes who had us come behind his tables and take copious amounts of photos holding deep frier spoons, tostadas, and spices. Raul sold some of the best hot sauce I’ve ever tasted.

There’s definitely enough in Potrero to keep you occupied for a lifetime; in our two weeks we barely touched the surface. It left us wanting badly enough that we’re already planning a return trip for next year.

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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Lessons in Lead Climbing (Part 3): A Humbling

In September, the week before I got married, I sent my hardest route to date: a burly, overhung 12b in Deep Creek, Spokane, WA. Describing myself as psyched doesn’t begin cover how I felt after clipping the chains. I cried. I screamed. I laughed. I couldn’t contain myself. I’d just climbed 5.12.

And then there was the wedding, and the honeymoon, and nearly four weeks passed before I touched rock again. When my husband and I hit the gym on our first day back we felt like beginners. Our movement was flimsy, our footwork loud, and our fingers couldn’t stand the routes we wanted to test them on.

I’d always admired the strong women in the gym who were climbing and trying hard on routes with grades I’d never touched. In September, I felt like I’d started to become that woman myself. I started to become my own inspiration.

Along the way, though, my ego sneakily began it’s rise. I felt proud and badass to be climbing these routes. My head shifted away from the route I was doing to wondering what people were thinking of me. Did they think I was strong? Could they see my muscles? What would they think if I fell?

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This same kind of thinking lead me to take time away from climbing early last year. Climbing isn’t about what other people think of you. It’s not about trying to impress a boy or a girl or someone else who climbs hard. It’s about challenging yourself, discovering what you’re capable of, and tapping in to your self-reliance among many, many other things.

What a cruel form of self-sabotage to turn the mind away from the body. As soon as I started expanding my climbing beyond myself the worse my climbing became.

Coming back from four weeks off reaffirmed what I already knew. Although climbing is about the community we create and the friends we share these experiences with—when you’re on the wall, working through a pitch or your project, you’re the only one that matters. Not what you’re belayer thinks, or what the person walking by thinks, or what your mom thinks (sorry mom…). No, what matters is you focusing on you, boo boo.

I’ve pushed myself more both mentally and physically in the process of becoming a lead climber, and I think this is what gave rise to my pride. I have taken a 10-foot whipper when before I’d been deathly afraid of even falling on top rope. I have lead routes seven grades higher than I ever tried on top rope. I have seen muscles on my arms when in the past I hadn’t considered myself athletic.

I am proud of myself. I’m proud of myself for pushing beyond what I thought were my limits. I’m proud of myself for leading routes with 30 foot runouts. I’m proud of myself for getting back on the rock after it’s spit me off on the same move ten or twelve or twenty times.

I guess what keeps my pride in check is the constant falling, the constant failing. It’s tricky territory we climbers face—learning how to keep our egos in check. But I think as long as we’re aware, climbing can help to continually shape and mold us into the humans we want to be.

Keep on climbing, people.

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Lessons in Lead Climbing (Part 2): The Process

I’ve spent the majority of my life en route to the “next thing.” In middle school I wanted to be a teenager. As a teenager I wanted to drive. After my license, I wanted to graduate. Upon graduation, I wanted to be in college, and on and on and on. My goal, until recently, was this: to be there already. Unfortunately, once I got there, and threw myself a micro-victory-party, I quickly moved onto the next thing.

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. Through my job I’ve met many people who are satisfied with this kind of lifestyle. In some ways it correlates to the American dream, which urges people onto whatever’s next, whatever’s better, whatever’s more than what they have now.

At first, I directly transferred this almost cultural lifestyle to my climbing. I climbed to get stronger. I climbed because I wanted to be a badass. I climbed because wouldn’t it be awesome to someday send a 5.12? Except I wasn’t getting strong fast enough, I certainly didn’t feel like a badass flailing all over the wall on top rope, and 5.12 seemed so flippin’ far out of reach that I quickly grew tired and disheartened and quit. I climbed infrequently and only when someone else suggested it.

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Last year I took a three month break from climbing during a particularly challenging time in my life. I needed to figure out what I found valuable, and what characteristics I desired in myself.

I frequently thought about climbing. I missed the sport, but I didn’t miss the way it made me feel. At that point, the challenge put me off. I didn’t want the hard work, the sacrifice of my time, the not being good enough (always with the not being good enough!).

During this time, I also thought about the unsatisfying accomplishments of my previous “goals.” The only goals I’d pursued were the ones that came natural to me. Any activities that built character, perseverance, and dedication were activities I stayed away from. It’s no wonder I stopped climbing. Wanting to be even remotely better than decent requires all those things I’d never given myself the opportunity to learn.

I had no idea what I was capable of.

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When I finally returned to the gym I immediately noticed a difference. The holds felt wonderful beneath my palms. The movement was natural and uninhibited. My footwork was precise and thoughtful.

Of course, this only lasted a few climbs until I was pumped out of my mind and my hands were completely raw. But it was clear to me that something changed in those three months. It wasn’t about getting stronger (which was a bonus), and it wasn’t about being cool, and it definitely wasn’t about climbing 5.12 (although that eventually came…HOORAY!!!!!!); it was simply about climbing. It became the community and the friendships, the movement, the sense of accomplishment, the feel of rock against my gnarly calloused hands. It became the sense of freedom, of courage, of facing fear and failure. It became a journey, one that I will continue for as long as I love it.

For me, climbing, and everything else in life, isn’t about the end goal, it’s about the process to get there. We spend 99% of our lives in process, and we don’t take the time to enjoy it. The first 25 years of my life were spent like this—in discontent, always reaching and aiming and dreaming of the next thing. Now I take the time to think about my goals, about what direction I want my life to take and what I have to accomplish in order to get there, but more importantly, I enjoy the minor day-to-day struggles and victories because collectively they are as important (if not even slightly more) than what lies ahead.

Happy climbing!

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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