Leading On Fixed Anchors

The next logical step after you have mastered the systems for setting up safe top-ropes outdoors is to begin leading bolted (sport) routes. Sport climbing has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, and there are many climbing areas that consist almost exclusively of climbs with fixed protection and anchors. Leading sport climbs outside is a lot like leading them inside, with a few major differences:

  • Real rock is not as friendly as plastic. It can be sharp, loose, wet, or dirty.
  • Handholds are not always obvious and the moves can be hard to read.
  • Not all falls outdoors are clean. There are ledges to bounce off, slabs to skid down, and other assorted hazards to avoid.
  • On some routes, the rope may run over a sharp edge and the leader may need to use longer slings on the protection bolts to minimize the danger.
  • There is no guarantee on the condition of the bolts, hangers, and top belay. There is no staff to monitor the placement or condition of any of the fixed equipment, and each bolt and anchor should be evaluated by the climber.
  • The protection bolts may not be as close together as on lead routes in the gym, and they may not be positioned for easy clipping. Some routes may require supplemental protection; consult the guidebook or ask a local.
  • You must clip the quickdraws to the protection bolts and then clip the rope in. That is twice as much clipping as indoors.
  • When you reach the anchor, you must connect the slings to it-unlike the valet climbing at the gym, where all you do is clip the rope in and lower off.
  • You must clean your own anchor and quickdraws when you are done.

Leading bolted routes outdoors requires judgment and diligence not usually needed indoors. Climbing outside should be challenging and fun; take care to do the following and you can concentrate on improving your skills and having a great time.

1. Be sure you are on your intended route. A lot of bolted routes look similar; be certain of your choice before you leave the ground.

2. Climb within your limits. Pushing your limits is fine, but trying a route three grades above your hardest is an invitation to frustration and injury.

3. Both the climber and the belayer should wear a helmet. The leader will be better protected and the belayer will be less likely to lose control of the belay if he or she is struck in the head by a rock.

4. Seriously consider having the belayer clipped to an anchor on the ground and use the CATCH principles described earlier in this chapter. This helps maximize the stability of the belayer and his or her ability to maintain control in the event of a hard leader fall.

5. Be sure that the belayer has the minimum amount of self-rescue equipment and knows how to escape the belay and assist the climber if necessary.

6. Make certain that the rope is stacked properly, with the climber’s end coming off the top of the pile.

7. Be sure that both the climber’s and the belayer’s harnesses are on properly and the buckles are secure. Use the buddy check system.

8. Make sure the leader has enough quickdraws to complete the route-a good rule of thumb is one for each protection bolt, one for each anchor bolt, and one extra (in case one is dropped).

9. If the opening moves to the first bolt are difficult, have the belayer feed slack through the belay device and spot the leader until he or she makes the first clip. The belay will not be effective until then anyway, and you can save a sprained ankle, or worse; if spotting will not provide enough security, stick-clip the first bolt (clip the rope to a bolt by attaching a carabiner or quickdraw to a long stick).

10. While the leader is climbing, have the belayer watch out for any back clips (when the rope is clipped in such a way that during a fall it could cross over the carabiner’s gate and accidentally open it) and warn the leader in time to correct the problem.

11. While belaying, be certain to keep the proper amount of slack in the system – just enough for the climber to move freely but not so much that he or she will fall farther than he or she should.

12. Be very careful when giving slack as the leader clips a protection bolt. Too much slack or slack too early means a longer fall if the leader misses the clip and falls; not enough slack or giving it too late means the climber will have to fight the rope to reach high enough for the clip, wasting energy and risking a fall during the clip. Always be ready to take the slack back in quickly if the leader misses the clip.

13. Stay alert while belaying. Do not get distracted watching other climbers or talking; a good belay is vital to a safe and successful lead.

14. When the leader reaches the anchor, do not let your guard down. Stay alert, keep the communication going, and get confirmation before you act-“Are you sure I can take you off belay?”

15. Lower the climber slowly and smoothly, and pause at each bolt if the route is to be cleaned; if the climber is rappelling without an autoblock backup, give him or her a fireman’s belay (see page 142) and hold the climber at each bolt if he or she is cleaning the route.

16. If the route is going to be top-roped after the lead, leave the necessary bolts clipped to minimize the swing potential.