Most climbers begin climbing by following or toproping and then progress to leading. Many climbers who aspire to lead stay in this mode too long. The follow/lead progression can give a skewed sense of climbing’s safety. Safety is secured in the short term by dramatically diminishing the fall consequences. When the climber starts leading, the increase in consequences is so dramatic that many climbers don’t realize how much the risk has changed. Or, realizing the increased risk, they freeze because they are inexperienced with the new risk. When they do take their first lead fall, the harsh reality comes rushing in. The experience has too many unknowns to allow learning to occur. This approach compromises safety, which is the very motivation for the follow/lead progression.
Whether you are recreation- or performance-based in your climbing, you need to become familiar with fall consequences. Unless you have no intention of ever leading, I suggest leading immediately, after you’ve learned some basic climbing and belaying skills. By leading first, you are acutely aware of the consequences. They are continually present as you push yourself up through each difficulty grade. With the continual presence of consequences, you will tend not to push yourself past what is appropriate.
The fear of falling will be in your awareness, monitoring your progression. Sometimes you will be able to climb and not fall, and sometimes you will fall. By falling, you’ll learn how to fall and your belayer will learn how to catch a fall. Leading first will allow you to learn the foundational skills—-climbing, falling, and belaying—-at a similar rate and build a broad and stable foundation for your climbing. However, remember, the distinction we made in previous lessons about no-fall and yes-fall zones, and engage each appropriately.

4-f3-w900-h700Most climbers begin climbing by following or toproping and then progress to leading. Many climbers who aspire to lead stay in this mode too long. The follow/lead progression can give a skewed sense of climbing’s safety. Safety is secured in the short term by dramatically diminishing the fall consequences. When the climber starts leading, the increase in consequences is so dramatic that many climbers don’t realize how much the risk has changed. Or, realizing the increased risk, they freeze because they are inexperienced with the new risk. When they do take their first lead fall, the harsh reality comes rushing in. The experience has too many unknowns to allow learning to occur. This approach compromises safety, which is the very motivation for the follow/lead progression.

Whether you are recreation- or performance-based in your climbing, you need to become familiar with fall consequences. Unless you have no intention of ever leading, I suggest leading immediately, after you’ve learned some basic climbing and belaying skills. By leading first, you are acutely aware of the consequences. They are continually present as you push yourself up through each difficulty grade. With the continual presence of consequences, you will tend not to push yourself past what is appropriate.

The fear of falling will be in your awareness, monitoring your progression. Sometimes you will be able to climb and not fall, and sometimes you will fall. By falling, you’ll learn how to fall and your belayer will learn how to catch a fall. Leading first will allow you to learn the foundational skills—-climbing, falling, and belaying—-at a similar rate and build a broad and stable foundation for your climbing. However, remember, the distinction we made in previous lessons about no-fall and yes-fall zones, and engage each appropriately.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Yani

    Interesting. I had this experience first hand. I have been climbing for 3.5 years with 1 year off due to an injury. When I came back to climbing I decided I was not gonna follow anymore, I wanted to lead. I was scared and I’m still scared, but I feel confident with practice. Now, I want to go out climbing with my husband who knows the basics of climbing. Never climbed outdoors and pretty scared to do so. I teach climbing and I’m also a guide, but I’m not quite sure how to handle this. Should I take him out and make him learn? Should I allow for him to go with the flow and learn if he wants to? I know I will need my partner to catch a fall sometime on one of our trips. What to do? Thank you Arno!!!

    1. Arno

      Hi Yani, I think Tom made some helpful suggestions. Beyond that you need to just make sure you are taking small steps. You need to allow your partner to take his learning process at his own pace. You can make some suggestions about small steps he can take. We’ll be getting into the falling process soon, which will give you some ideas on how it fits into learning to lead. Thanks for your comments. Arno

  2. Tom

    Not sure whatever this is too traditional but maybe this is the way to go:
    1) Lead at the gym – falls here are minor and safe – good practice
    2) Lead closely bolted sport routes outside – same as 1) but outside and falls can be a bit longer
    3) Lead more bolted routes but with less bolts
    4) Lead “G” trad few grades easier than best top-rope
    5) Move forward to harder trad as desired

    I myself need more practice falling in some safe place. Also you need to climb a lot outside on top rope to get “confidence”. When on lead you need to be sure that stuff will work or you hesitate… At least I do. So I need to practice a lot of moves on top rope so that when on lead I recognize patterns and know that things will work + do it. One difference between me and an experienced climber is that he/ she knows what to do right away while I waste energy trying things out 😉

  3. Louise

    Hi
    I learnt to climb in the UK – a few sessions indoors top-roping then straight outdoors. Not many people I climbed with in England sport climbed so I learnt to lead on trad routes – firstly practising placing gear whilst on the ground, learning from taking gear out on second, then leading really really easy routes and building. I had friends that were uncomfortable leading at the indoor gym that were trad leaders and not used to bolts and steepness!
    Now I am in Australia and sport climb much more and always lead in the gym – both have hugely improved my confidence and technique on steeper walls. Here I know many people that have never trad climbed, can lead very hard sport routes but steer clear of easy trad, even on second! I guess it depends on how you learn and what works for you but start leading early on easy stuff would be my advice supplemented with improving technique on harder topropes that you don’t want to lead fall on. And climbing as much as you can… I too still need to improve my ability to take falls…

  4. Scott

    When I started climbing at the gym and watching climbing videos, I knew that I wanted to climb outside and eventually lead, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that all entailed. In order to get outside and get some good instruction, I joined a local climbing club. The club encourages folks to learn to sport lead on their own through programs at the local gyms, which is what I did. When it comes to traditional leading, they require sport leading experience before allowing someone to take the intermediate class which has the climber following an experienced leader. We then encourage that climber to both lead with an experienced climber following them as well as following an experienced leader.

    I really like this approach because, like Tom said, it allows the novice climber to get a feel for falling, leading, and dealing with the head game that comes along with being on the sharp end.

    I sport lead first, followed an experienced leader numerous times, took a class, and then began trad leading. But honestly, I feel far more comfortable leading trad than sport.

  5. Joe

    I really don’t think there’s a timeline that has to be factored in to leading. Some people just know they want to be on the sharp end of the rope. If they understand and can demonstrate safe technique on lead, all the power to them.
    Self education and determination can carry you through the beginning. The true education begins after that. Gain experience through the climb!

  6. Arno

    How does becoming familiar with falling play into this progression? Any takers? Arno

  7. Scott

    The sport lead classes that to get certified at gyms have always involved falling. It’s only been a single fall, never repeated falls. The single fall is helpful, but I don’t think it teaches the climber how to be comfortable or safe with falling. becoming familiar with falling, being comfortable with it, and being able to safely assess the risks of a fall allow a climber to push themselves harder because those consequences aren’t clouding their judgement. Familiarity with danger makes it more manageable and less panic inducing.

    I know lots of trad leaders that follow the axiom that a leader doesn’t fall and refuse to do harder routes because they might fall. They’re also uncomfortable with the idea of falling on gear which I think over all limits their climbing.

  8. Matt

    I might be a little off topic since I’ve made the transition already but I do have a number of friends and fellow climbers at this point in their development so here’s my two cents:

    One thing I see that seems to be difficult with this transition is accurately assessing the level of risk involved in particular routes, esp when getting started. Some folks will never lead, some a reluctant and other seem to be fearless – to the point of reckless. In NC, my home State, I don’t think there are a huge number of what many folks would consider easy+safely bolted sport climbs. I find this a bit frustrating as I see some new leaders climbing low grade but sparsely bolted routes perhaps without the proper respect for the risk – eg: easy 3 bolt pitches where a fall near a bolt would be unpleasant. This especially bothers me with the bolder new leaders. The regional guidebook doesn’t often indicate whether something should be regarded as mixed/supplemented with gear, so I think there can be a bit of a “when it doubt, run it out” culture underlying the climbing. I guess it’s the area ethic, but I end up with mixed feelings when I hear about someone’s new “success” climbing one of these lines as a first lead.

    I’ve been leading trad for a little over 3 years now and I started out overprotecting everything and am slowly finding what I feel is the right amount of gear to feel like I’m climbing with a reasonable level of safety. Given that background, I am a bit nervous around folks who “sport” up the sparely bolted lines and then carry that approach to gear climbing and so, I try to politely suggest they sew it up a bit more, if the opportunity arises but I feel like the dominant area culture is a bit against me. Oh well, I guess everyone just has to make these decisions on their own, as I’ve done, and try to do so with an awareness of what they are doing.

    1. Arno

      Hi Matt, Thanks for your comments and perspective. NC is a tough area to find appropriate routes for beginning leaders. They must be selective so they don’t just fall into a “run it out” situation. Perhaps selecting trad routes, like on Table Rock, that tend to pro up more and are easier than most areas is a great start.

      One point I think you’re leading us to is shifting from a sense of success by having made it up a route (that could have had disastrous consequences) to finding success by taking appropriate risks.
      Arno

  9. Eman

    Arno,

    Great post. It’s interesting living in Asia where people seem to learn to climb and lead at the same time. When I was learning, I too learned to lead and climb at the same time. (Before sport routes) I say this because I see much less top-topping in the Asian climbing community. Just an observation, nothing more.

    How does becoming familiar with falling play into this progression? Any takers? Arno

    Falling and understanding when falling is safe and not safe free the climber to focus more on movement related to the climb. When i am afraid of falling, my climbing becomes sloppy, force, and contrived. When I am confident that falling is safe, I forget about the fall that might happen and concentrate on the moves instead of the possible fall.

    The hard part is to accurately assess the risk of the fall while climbing. Sometimes, I perceive a fall as dangerous when in reality it’s not.
    I do admit, some fall are dangerous, but not all.

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