The leader standing at the base of a long free climb without a bolt in sight is facing one of the most exhilarating challenges in climbing. Making moves, keeping a cool head, searching for protection placements, route-finding, deciding when to stop, building a great belay anchor, and belaying up the rest of the party all take tremendous energy, ingenuity, and good judgment. The rewards are a great sense of accomplishment and hopefully a beautiful view. The three keys to safely leading a traditional pitch are:
Protect the moves Place protection as frequently as necessary to protect you while you make difficult moves. Whether at an obvious crux move or just a place where you are not sure what is coming next, place good protection before you continue.
On a traverse, protect the moves for your partner by placing protection frequently and especially just after any difficult move; if you make the move protected from behind you and then run it out on easy ground, imagine what your partner will be faced with. He or she will have to remove the protection that protected you, and then make the hard move with the potential of a very dangerous swing.
Protect the pitch Be sure to keep your rope running in as straight a line as possible; unlike a sport route, where the bolts are usually lined up, a trad route may have protection spaced widely apart laterally. Put only a short quickdraw on each piece, and a fall may “zipper” your pieces.
Place long slings when you go around corners or through overhangs, to minimize rope drag and the possibility of the rope running over a sharp edge. Quickdraws are not that useful on trad routes; carry lots of 24-inch slings and use them liberally. Make it your goal to lead the pitch quickly and efficiently; do not over- or under protect it, and keep it safe for your second.
Protect the party Build absolutely bombproof belay anchors and choose the best belay method for each situation. Belay in the right place-be timely; shorter pitches that maximize communication are often better than long ones on which it is difficult for the climbers to hear and see each other. If you get to a comfortable ledge with good anchor potential, stop and belay-running it out to the end of the rope, and then fishing around for an anchor often wastes time and puts the party in awkward places to belay.
If you always place good protection for yourself and your partner, arrange the string of protection to minimize drag and the risk of pieces pulling out or doing damage to the rope, and build and properly use a great belay, then you will always climb as safely as possible. Do this over and over again on a multi-pitch climb, and you have succeeded in “bringing the ground up with you,” and you can climb confidently and boldly.
The start of a traditional lead begins with organizing the equipment. The rope should be stacked, helmets and harnesses put on (check those buckles!), and the rack selected and organized. Each climber ties into one end of the rope, the leader always climbs off the top end-a bottom anchor is built, and the belayer and climber go through the CATCH checklist to be sure the belay is ready.
The belayer should be sure he or she has enough equipment to escape the belay (in case of an emergency, the belayer should have extra carabiners and slings). Both climbers should agree on the signals that will be used to communicate, and then it is time to get going.
As soon as the leader leaves the ground he or she should be thinking about placing protection. The most dangerous point in a traditional lead is often the first few feet. If you do not place protection quickly, you risk falling and hitting the ground. It is also important that the first piece placed be multidirectional – able to hold a load in more than one direction.
The first piece anchors the pitch. It provides the belayer with the correct point of alignment and keeps each subsequent piece of protection from pulling out. The first piece of protection is thus often required to hold an outward, not just a downward, force. It must be bombproof. Many climbers set their first piece of protection before they leave the ground to ensure that the pitch will be anchored.
How often the leader places protection depends on many things, including how comfortable he or she is at the difficulty rating (a 5.12 climber on a 5.4 route will probably run a pitch out more than a 5.4 climber at his or her limit), the availability of good protection (remember those R and X ratings of seriousness), and how strenuous the climbing is (it may he easier to spread the pieces out a bit than to try to hang on every few feet on an overhanging wall). There is no rule: The leader should place as much protection as he or she feels is necessary to provide an adequate level of safety.
When the leader stops to place protection, the first thing he or she should do is get as stable as possible, the leader is going to have to let go with at least one hand, after all. By working on body position, it is often possible to get stable in a spot that at first feels like it would be impossible to drop either hand. Once stable, examine the available cracks and pick the best spot for either a nut or a cam. If the choice is to be a nut, the leader can often get the right piece right away if he or she keeps a small range of nuts on one carabiner (a set of stoppers can be split into three or four mini-sets, each stored on one carabiner).
By picking the carabiner with the right set of nuts on it, it is usually possible to find the right nut without going back to the rack for another try. Cams have a wider range than nuts, so they can usually be grabbed on the first try, even if racked singly. Efficiency is key-nothing is a bigger strength drain than fiddling endlessly trying to get the right nut by hanging from one hand on tiny holds.
Practicing on the ground will help your efficiency on the cliff. At each protection point, the leader must decide in what direction the piece is likely to be pulled in a fall; that helps determine the piece’s correct orientation. It is sometimes necessary to set a second piece in opposition to the first to help ensure the primary piece will stay in its strongest alignment.
A word of caution regarding cams: It is common for novices to place cams in a vertical crack with the shaft out of alignment with the fall line. The cam’s shaft must be tipped down the crack-not sticking straight out. If a cam is placed with the shaft sticking straight out, it will likely rotate downward in a fall and may be dislodged.
With rare exceptions, every piece of protection will get some kind of sling extension. If the climb is straight up, quickdraws may be appropriate, but be aware that quickdraws can easily be levered upward as the leader passes and may dislodge the protection. Use longer slings to minimize rope drag and protect the rope from running over sharp edges.
It has been mentioned before but bears repeating: Protect traverses. Even if the climbing is easy, place protection frequently on traverses; your second will appreciate it.
Belaying The Second
When the leader reaches the end of the pitch, he or she must build a belay anchor. The belay can take any form, from a tree or boulder to an anchor built entirely with gear or to even a combination of types (for example, a small tree and two nuts). After the belay has been made and the leader is off belay, it is time to decide how to belay the second. There are four basic options:
- belaying off the harness
- belaying directly off the anchor-including from a remote master point
- redirecting the belay off the anchor
- belaying off an extended master point
Off the Harness
This is by far the most common method for the leader to belay the second, though it is rarely the best choice. Belaying off the harness feels natural and it is straightforward, but it has drawbacks.
It places all the weight of the climber on the belayer’s waist, and if he or she is not aligned and tight with the anchor, the belayer can be pulled out of position and lose control. If the second falls a lot and hangs around, shaking out to try the crux move repeatedly, the belayer will find it uncomfortable.
Also, in an emergency, it is harder to escape the belay if the belayer is belaying off the harness. Belaying off the harness is most appropriate when:
- the climb is low-angled or easily within the ability of the climber, and the belayer does not expect to hold the climber for long periods of time
- the anchor is situated so that it is easy for the belayer to be aligned and tight to the anchor
Directly Off the Anchor
This method of the leader belaying the second is becoming increasingly popular, and rightfully so. The belay device is connected directly to the master point of the belay anchor and is not attached to the belayer at all. Belaying off the anchor has been standard practice for professional guides for many years, and is catching on with recreational climbers as well.
It is appropriate in many situations and has several distinct advantages:
- It is easy for the belayer to hold the climber-the anchor does all the work.
- The belay is automatically aligned and tight.
- It works very effectively with a Munter hitch or Petzl Gri Gri (it takes a lot of belaying strain off the belayer’s shoulders). It can be operated remotely with a Munter hitch (for example, the pitch ends on a long, low-angled slab and the climber cannot be seen from the anchor; the belayer ties in long enough to belay from the edge of the slab and runs the rope through a Munter hitch on the anchor-he or she can see the climber and the climber is protected all the way to the belay).
- The force on the anchor is minimal-just the climber’s body weight; with all other methods, the weight on the anchor is at least double body weight.
- In case of an emergency, escaping the belay can be done in a matter of seconds, and it is very easy to rig a raising system off the anchor.
Belaying off the anchor does come with some caveats however:
- Initially, it does not feel as natural as belaying off the harness and takes getting used to.
- It requires a better understanding of belay devices and their limitations (belay plates and tubes are usually not appropriate to use directly off the anchor because they cannot be locked off readily by the belayer).
Redirecting the Belay Off the Anchor
This is another useful technique that can make belaying the second more comfortable. It is a combination of the harness belay and the anchor belay. The belay device is placed on the belayer’s harness, and then the rope is run up through the anchor and back down to the climber. It is really nothing more than a slingshot belay, with the belayer at the anchor instead of on the ground. It has several advantages:
- Operating the belay device is simple and feels natural.
- The belayer holds less weight than if he or she belayed from the harness because of the friction through the anchor.
- The belay is automatically aligned and tight.
- It can be used remotely (as in the situation described in the Directly Off the Anchor section above: the climber cannot be seen from the anchor, so the belayer ties in long enough to belay from the edge, clips the rope through a belay device on his or her harness and runs the rope through a locking carabiner on the anchor-he or she can see the climber and the climber is protected all the way to the belay).
It is easier to escape the belay than if belaying directly off the harness. The following points should also be considered when considering the redirected belay:
- In order to be effective, the belayer must be braced for a pull toward the anchor-if not, he or she can he pulled out of position and lose control.
- At least two times body weight is applied to the anchor in case of a fall.
Off an Extended Master Point
This is a variation of the belay directly off the anchor. It is particularly useful in cases wherein the belayer needs to be well away from the anchor (in other words, to be able to see the climber) but the terrain does not call for protection all the way to the anchor (the anchor is 20 feet from the cliff edge on flat ground).
The belayer ties in with enough slack to belay comfortably from the edge of the cliff. At that same point on the climber’s strand of rope, he or she ties a figure eight on a bight loop as the master point. The climber is belayed through a device attached to this loop. The extended master point has several advantages:
- Any belay device can be used.
- The belay can be operated easily and smoothly because the device is right next to the belayer.
- Escaping the belay in an emergency is a snap.
As with the other systems described in this section, a couple of precautions apply:
- It does not work well if the belayer is standing, the device will be at his or her feet. The method works best if the belayer is sitting, with the master point right next to him or her.
- When the climber falls, rope stretch could pull the extended master point over the edge and it could stretch out of reach of the belayer. The master point should be tied slightly closer to the anchor than the belayer’s tie-in (but not so far behind that the belayer cannot lock off a plate or tube device).
Determining the most appropriate belay method is a matter of judgment and will be different for each belay. Practice the above methods on the ground before experimenting on the cliff, and always choose the method that you feel provides the highest degree of security.
The second removes the bottom belay anchor and all the intermediate protection as he or she climbs the pitch. If the climb is just one pitch, or the first pitch of a multi-pitch route, the second can begin the job of dismantling the belay as soon as the leader is tied into the top anchor and shouts down, “Off belay.” If the second is already up a pitch, then he or she must wait for the leader to pull tip all the slack and put him or her on belay before beginning to break down the anchor.