Teaching Someone to Lead Climb

If you regularly take people out climbing eventually someone’s going to ask you to teach them to lead. It’s happened to me enough that I’ve put a bit of thought into how best to go about it. There’s two big aspects to learn, the techniques that keep you safe and the confidence to climb ‘above the bolt’. That confidence is going to take some time to develop but the techniques you can easily learn in a short relaxed climbing session.

The concept of leading is simple, climb up placing protection as you go. However there’s a bunch of little details to cover that quickly add up to an information overload. For this reason I like to teach people the techniques progressively and give them a chance to practice at every step along the way.

Typically the person learning would have climbed a fair bit on top rope (preferably outside) and belayed other while they lead. They’d have a rough idea of how the whole shebang works but need to learn the specifics of how to lead safely.

Disclaimer: This page is just my musing about how best to teach people to lead. None of it should be misconstrued as actual advice. Climbing is dangerous, don’t do anything that you haven’t personally verified to be safe.

Leading

I assume you’ve taken the keen climber who’s looking to learn to a nice gentle sport climbing area. You’d need to know all these things and more to lead trad, but that’s a challenge for (much) later on. Introduce the details step by step as you go through the techniques.

Having gone through this you should be good to start leading some routes together and beginning to grow comfortable leading.

Setting Up for Dummy Leading

Dummy leading is an excellent way for a beginner to practice the techniques for lead while removing any danger from their mistakes. The idea is to climb the route on top rope with a second strand of rope hanging down to ‘pretend’ you’re leading with.

I know of three handy ways to set up a dummy lead. Which one you use is up to you.

  1. Use a second piece of rope. If you happen to have a second length of rope handy you can use this for the dummy lead line. Simply tie each rope to your harness as usual. Since we aren’t actually weighing the dummy rope, it’s fine to use a thinner length of accessory cord. You’ll want the dummy line to be at least 4m long.

  2. Tie an eight with a super long tail. If you don’t have a second rope, this is a simple way to create the dummy line. Tie in to the top rope as normal but leave an extra long tail on your figure eight knot. Around 4m or so. This is bulletproof, but it’s a bit of a pain to rethread the knot with such a long tail.

  3. Tie in at a bight. We can make things easier for ourselves by tying the knot further along the rope. Make a bight and tie it into a figure eight. Clip the resulting loop to your harness with a locking carabiner or two and you’re good to go.

Nitty Gritty Details

Anatomy of a Quick Draw

The basic tool of leading is the quickdraw. Quickdraws are made from two carabiners connected by a short section of webbing. There are some variations on the theme, longer webbing, open slings, alpine draws, etc, but most are pretty similar.

Each of the two ends of the quickdraw have a specific purpose. One always attaches to the bolt on the rock and the other to the rope. Most pre-made draws will have an obvious way to tell the ends apart. Maybe the carabiners are different colours, or one is a wire gate and the other a solid gate.

Typically both carabiners will face the same way although some people do prefer them the other way around. It doesn’t matter much in terms of safety, just do what everyone else around you does.

The carabiner that clips to the wall will always be attached loosely to the middle sling. This is to prevent the carabiner from twisting against the rock and levering into a mechanically disadvantaged position. Usually the other carabiner will be held stiffly to the webbing with some sort of rubber clamp. This keeps the entire assembly more stable to help you clip the rope while you’re climbing.

Racking Draws

Before you start lead climbing you’ll need to ‘rack’ a handful of quick draws. That is, hang them from your harness. You always want to attach the loose ‘bolt end’ of the quickdraw to your gear loops. That way you can grab the quickdraw and move it from your harness to the rock face in one movement.

Some people prefer to rack quickdraws with the gates facing their body and some with the gates facing outwards. It’s mostly just personal preference. The draws will sit a little flatter with the gate facing out but most find the arm movement more ergonomic with the gate facing in. For now do whatever your climbing partner does, but later on you may want to experiment.

Hanging Quickdraws on the Wall

As you lead climb you’ll have to attach the quickdraws to bolts on the wall. Make sure that you clip the loose end of the quickdraw to the cliff. This should happen naturally if you rack the draws on your harness correctly.

There is one small detail to think about when you’re hanging the draws. While you climb it’s going to be better if the rope is dragging along the spine of the carabiner instead of the gate. Hang the draws in the right directions to ensure this.

To decide in which direction you want to hang the quickdraw, think about where the route will take you as you continue to climb. If the route veers to the left you’ll want to hang the draw so that the spine of the carabiner is on the left and vice-versa for the right. Both orientations are fine when the route goes straight up.

This is a relatively minor thing that’s worth getting right whenever you can but not a huge deal if not. If you find you’ve clipped a draw in the ‘wrong’ direction, don’t stress about it too much.

Clipping the Rope

After hanging a quickdraw on the wall you’ll need to clip the rope to the draw. Clipping technique is one of those things that will take a bit of practice to get down pat. Watch some videos of pro climbers and you’ll see that they clip quickly and effortlessly. This helps conserve energy as you climb. For now just clip however you can, but later on I’d suggest sitting down with a quickdraw, rope and a few Youtube videos to practice your clipping technique.

There are a couple of gotchas for clipping that are important to avoid. The main ones are back clipping and z-clipping. Both are serious mistakes that can ruin your day.

Back Clipping

Learning to avoid back clipping is one of the most important parts of leading. It’s one of those mistakes that’s easy to spot in a vacuum but a little less clear when you’re actually climbing.

There are two directions in which you can clip the rope through the quickdraw. One of these is really really bad. A back clipped draw can twist as you continue climbing and sometimes even cause the rope to unclip itself. Yikes!

What is the correct way to clip the rope to the draw? I’ll offer you two ways to visualise it.

First off, imagine you’ve continued climbing past a bolt and the rope is pulling the quickdraw away from the wall. A correctly clipped rope will come up from your belayer, through the draw and then continue up to your harness. If you back clip the rope will either twist the quickdraw or go over the draw and then back down though the carabiner. This twisting is what can cause the rope to unclip.

If the draws are being pulled out from the wall it’s clear how the rope should be directed through the draw. When you’re actually climbing the draw will be hanging down from the bolt. We still need to know the correct way to clip. Facing the draw, you want the rope to emerge out from the carabiner, away from the wall and towards your harness.

Imagine that there are arrows along your rope emerging from your harness and heading down to the belayer. When the rope is correctly clipped, these arrows will be pointing through the carabiner towards the cliff. If the arrows go the other way then your rope is back clipped. As you clip, visualise the rope leaving your harness, going through the quickdraw and then towards the cliff.

Z-Clipping

Less common than back clipping, z-clipping is another dangerous mistake that can trip people up.

When you’re lead climbing correctly the rope will stretch up from the belayer, through each quickdraw in succession, and up to the climber. If the bolts are clipped out of order we call it a z-clip.

Z-clipping causes a few problems. If you fall above a z-clipped bolt, there will be much more slack in the rope than you’d otherwise expect. This means you’re in for a violent fall. Even if you don’t fall and continue climbing, the z configuration is going to put extra friction on your rope, making it drag harder against you as you climb. If you fall later on in the route, the bottom bolt in the z-clip will be pulled upwards. Typically they aren’t ‘designed’ for this and if you’re using some sort of natural protection there’s a good chance it might pull out.

Z-clipping seems like a silly thing. Of course you clip the bolts in order, that’s obvious. How it typically happens is not that the climber clips the bolts out of order, but that he or she clips the wrong piece of rope. If you reach down to clip and by mistake grab the rope behind the previous bolt then you will end up with a z-clip. This is only really an issue when the bolts are close together.

There’s a very simple technique that will eliminate the chance of z-clipping. It also helps clipping smoothly and is a worthwhile habit to build. Whenever you go to clip the rope, start your hand from your tie-in knot and slide it out along the rope. This ensures you’re clipping the correct strand of rope.

Watch your Feet

The big difference between top rope and lead is that when leading you are often climbing ‘above the bolt’. That is, you’re anchored to a point below you on the cliff. Typically lead falls are much further than those on top rope, but this isn’t the only concern. When you fall, you’ll fall from above the bolt to below the bolt. If part of your body gets tangled in the rope as you fall there’s a good chance you’ll be flipped upside down by the pendulum swing of the rope.

The common advice for leading is “don’t step behind the rope”. (Or always step behind the rope, depending on which way your think forward is!) Perhaps a better way to think about it is that you never want your legs (or any part of your body) between the rope and the cliff. Avoid this and you’ll be fine. It takes practice and vigilance to avoid stepping behind the rope, but you’ll thank yourself for it when you fall!

When to Clip

This isn’t a technique exactly, but something worth thinking about. At what point should you clip the bolt? When you first start leading the tendency is to clip the bolt as soon as you can reach it. To feel safe as soon as you can. It’s a surprising result, but this doesn’t help anywhere near as much as you’d think.

Let’s do the maths. Imagine two bolts, a distance d apart. The lower bolt is clipped and you’re continuing on to clip the upper bolt. We’ll consider two situations. In the first situation you climb up just past the upper bolt, go to clip it at waist height, fumble and fall. For the second, you stand a distance x below the upper bolt and reach up to clip, get pumped and fall.

In the first situation you fall a distance of d from the upper to the lower bolt, then a further distance d below the first bolt until the rope goes taught. There will be some rope stretch, but we’ll ignore that. The total fall distance is 2d and you end up d below the lower bolt.

In the second situation you have d+x rope stretched out above the lower bolt as the rope goes from your harness to the upper bolt then back down to the lower bolt. When you fall, you’re going to fall d-x to the lower bolt and then a further d+x until the rope goes taught. Again ignoring rope stretch, this gives a total fall distance of 2d and you end up a distance of d+a below the lower bolt.

In both scenarios you fall exactly the same distance, however when you were clipping high you actually end up closer to the ground!

What should the takeaway be here?

The big one is that it doesn’t really matter when you clip, you’ll fall the same amount either way. What’s most important is to find a comfortable position to clip from so you conserve energy. It’s a waste to reach up from a precarious hold to clip high when you could climb up a few more moves and clip from a jug. Similarly there’s no point refusing to clip high from a bomber position out of some misguided attempt to do things the ‘right way’.

There is one point where you should think a little bit about what you’re doing. Clipping the second bolt of a route is one of the most dangerous parts of the climb, depending on the spacing of the bolt there’s the potential for a ground fall! Given this, clipping high is preferable in this situation as in the event of a fall you’d end up further from the ground. Many routes outside will have a high first bolt which helps alleviate this concern.

One thing that tends to get missed in discussion about clipping high is that the math only applies for when you fall while attempting to clip the bolt. This is the worst case scenario, when the most slack is in the rope. If you aren’t yet pulling out extra slack, then the intuitive result hold, the higher you are above the bolt, the further you will fall.